Donald Cravins Jr. was born with high name recognition but developed his own pit bull rep in the Legislature. Now he’s setting his sights on Congress.
photo by Terri Fensel
When Don Cravins Jr. stepped into the state Senate two years ago, he brought with him more than campaign promises and political aspirations. He also carried the name of his father, who had previously represented the Lafayette/St. Landry Senate district for 14 years before moving on to become mayor of Opelousas. As such, the younger Cravins was known simply as “Junior” around the chamber, which suited him fine. Two years before, he was serving in the House while his father was still in the Senate (the only father-son duo in the Legislature’s history). But now things were different; there was a sense of history as Cravins took over for his dad. “It was a proud moment,” he recalls.
Upon receiving his committee assignment, Cravins learned that his father’s gold nameplate was left behind. The plates are used in every committee room, placed in front of the appropriate senator. “When I saw his nameplate and realized I was going to be able to use it, that really excited me,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘That’s my Dad’s.’ And all it said was ‘Donald Cravins.’ That’s his name and my name. But a few days later I took a look at the plate and saw someone had used a black permanent marker to add ‘Jr.’ to the end of it.”
That’s when pride quickly turned to anger. But rather than making a scene, Cravins turned to the Senate staff to order an exact replica, since the permanent marker had ruined an important keepsake. When the nameplate arrived and he unwrapped it, it read “Donald Cravins Jr.” Cravins just smiled and accepted how juvenile the Legislature can be. But it’s also a sign of how the 37-year-old Cravins has become his own man.
Like most young people who grow up in or around Louisiana politics, Cravins was bit by the bug. As a student at Teurlings Catholic High School he gravitated to programs like Louisiana Youth Seminar, a training ground for the overly ambitious. He became involved in student government at LSU and eventually went on to serve as president of the Southern University Law Center. During most of this time, his father wasn’t an elected official, but rather a vocal activist and organizer in Acadiana’s African-American communities. The fact that his father had similar ambitions, however, created not only a sense of competition, but also a dire need to be independent.
Crowley native Jim Nickel, a well-respected lobbyist in Baton Rouge, remembers hiring Cravins to work for the Louisiana Democratic Party. Nickel was executive director and chairman of the party at the time, and Cravins was fresh out of LSU. His father, meanwhile, was a new face in the Senate. Nickel says Cravins pursued the job without name-dropping and shied away from any sort of influence peddling. “Unlike most young persons from political families coming up in politics, he didn’t have a sense of entitlement,” Nickel says. “He was willing to work hard to prove himself.”
Once Cravins was in the House of Representatives, with his father across the rotunda in the Senate, he didn’t have to work as hard to differentiate himself. Although they were both Democrats, the two Cravins had differing styles — even facing off on a number of issues and voting against each others’ bills. The elder Cravins was a wild card of sorts who often rebelled against the administration, regardless of party, just for the hell of it. He lashed out at industry and Big Business from the floor, serving as a voice for the Little Man. Junior, meanwhile, was decidedly calculated, relishing being a compromiser who kept an open mind when the business lobby came knocking.
Regardless of how far Cravins has come, in many respects he’s about to begin anew. He’s already convinced a local state Senate district that he’s more than just “Junior,” able to carry his own load, but he’ll have to prove himself further as he leans toward facing off against Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany this fall for Lafayette’s congressional seat. Cravins says he is “99.9 percent sure” he is jumping into the fray and is taking meetings with national Democratic interests. In a region that leans increasingly to the right, it appears to be a difficult task on paper, although the political history of the 7th Congressional District and Cravins’ own ideology reveal some cracks in that preconception.
When former U.S. Sen. John Breaux speaks, most people listen. Despite his ill-advised flirtation with last year’s gubernatorial race, he represents the gold standard for the proverbial Southern Democrat, or the Blue Dog Democrat, or the Conservative Democrat. And these days, that seems to be the only kind of Democrat winning races below the Mason-Dixon Line. So Cravins dutifully listened when Breaux advised Cravins to be “pro-hunter’s rights,” rather than “pro-gun.” Cravins, however, isn’t taking the advice. “I am [pro-hunter] and I’m a big fishermen and I believe in those rights,” he says. “But I’m simply pro-gun. I am what I am.”
Before his dad became mayor of Opelousas, Don Cravins Jr. and his father were the only father-son duo in the Louisiana Legislature.
photo by Terri Fensel
If Cravins decides to run and rolls out his campaign commercials for the 7th Congressional District, voters will learn they’re not dealing with the usual African-American Democrat. Cravins is a blue-collar philosopher, a former altar boy who’s conservative on social issues. As for guns, he can sit around talking arms and ammo all day — he is, after all, the commander of the reserve unit in Opelousas, recently promoted to the rank of captain. “Some people play golf,” he says. “I strap on a vest and a gun for fun. That’s what I do. It takes my mind off of things and puts me in the community. I’ve already worked 19 hours this month and can’t wait to get back out.”
That’s the kind of talk that has the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee licking its lips. Blue Dog Democrats in the conservative, Breaux mold have been on a notable winning streak in south Louisiana. Most recently, it was Don Cazayoux of New Roads, promising to be a “Breaux Democrat,” who captured Baton Rouge’s 6th Congressional Districts after decades of Republican control. With a similar pitch in 2004, Congressman Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville took the 3rd Congressional District, which stretches into Acadiana, following a long run of GOP representation.
By all accounts, it’ll be the same line delivered by Cravins in coming months. He’s the only game in town in the 7th District, as far as Democrats. Former state Rep. Gil Pinac of Crowley has decided against running, as has Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach. Kyra Jennings, the Southern regional press secretary for the DCCC, confirms that the national party is courting Cravins and willing to pump resources into his bid. “We have reached out to him, and we think he would be a strong candidate,” she says. “Voters want someone who is connected to their communities, and I think Congressman Boustany has shown time and time again that he is out of step with the district.”
If a diehard Democrat wanted to question Cravins’ loyalty, they could. In recent months he has threatened to run against Boustany as a non-party candidate. And he wasn’t alone; state Sen. Lydia Jackson of Shreveport and state Rep. Michael Jackson of Baton Rouge have floated the idea of dropping the Dem from their names to run for Congress as well. For now, Cravins says his own ponderings are done, and he will run as a Democrat. He rejects the notion that it all might have been just a game to get the attention of the DCCC. “When a black candidate runs in a majority-white district, it seems that the state party always backs away,” Cravins says. “They say they don’t want to waste their resources. That’s the perception, and it was all about strategy for me. I wasn’t going to get beat up.”
Dr. Pearson Cross, an assistant professor of political science at UL Lafayette, believes Cravins has a chance of unseating the incumbent Boustany. Despite Boustany’s recent stronghold, the 7th Congressional District was a Democratic seat for years, held by Chris John, Jimmy Hayes (who was a Democrat before switching parties), Breaux and former Gov. Edwin Edwards. “I think there is a possibility that the right kind of Democrat can jump into this race and shake things up,” Cross says. “It depends on where the Democrat is on the conservative-liberal continuum, though. The district has a history of Democratic representation, but it’s more indicative of the new strength that state (Republican) Party has shown in recent years in capturing seats around the state.”
The Republican wave, however, may have crested, as evidenced by the recent Melancon and Cazayoux wins in Louisiana and the victory of Mississippi Democrat Travis W. Childers earlier this month. The Mississippi Republican Party sought to link Childers to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who sit atop the liberal totem pole. The Louisiana GOP attempted to do the same to Cazayoux. But Childers ran as a conservative Democrat willing to compromise, which is the same message Cravins is likely to carry. As for black voters, they comprise 25 percent of Childers’ Mississippi district — roughly the same breakdown seen in Louisiana’s 7th Congressional District.
The parallels aren’t being missed on Bayou State politicos, which is among the reasons why Cravins’ stock is rising by the hour. Black voters in Louisiana’s 7th Congressional District haven’t been as active or vocal as those in Cazayoux’s Baton Rouge district, but they haven’t had someone like Cravins to truly test the base — nor a candidate of color like Obama atop a national ticket to energize supporters.
Despite the favorable set-up, Republican consultants aren’t taking Cravins seriously — yet. Some even believe another Democratic candidate will eventually emerge. They contend his name recognition, while enviable, drops off in areas south and to the west of St. Landry Parish. More importantly, Cravins hasn’t started raising money yet and only has a few months to get his operation in gear. Boustany, meanwhile, has more than $460,000 in the bank. But that’s a smaller number than other incumbents in the delegation, and he’s never had to tap his Beltway sources in a real way.
As far as what you might hear from Republicans, what Cravins has going for him in momentum, he lacks in experience. He was first elected to the state House in 2004 and after only two years — half of a full term — he ran for his father’s seat in the Senate. All together, he has only four years of elected experience. Yet Boustany can’t claim much more, having been elected four years ago to Congress, after holding no other elected office.
A matchup between the two candidates would be a heated race. “People are not happy with the economy,” Cravins says. “Who would be when you’re paying $4 or more for gas? But in this district, I think people know there’s a bit of Rita Amnesia going on around the country. While southeast Louisiana has started to rebound, having been on the nation’s radar due to Katrina, it’s been just the opposite over here. There should have been someone fighting for us, but, thank God, we’re the kind of people who can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. How can Congressman Boustany not believe in earmarks for a district that has been devastated by a hurricane? We need the money, and that’s a lack of leadership.”
As for “Rita Amnesia,” that’s an ill-advised phrase for Cravins to use, as Boustany coined it. In the weeks and months following Rita’s landfall, Boustany issued a series of press releases warning of “Rita Amnesia” and for some time was seemingly the lone voice in D.C. looking out southwest Louisiana as New Orleans grabbed all the headlines.
Boustany has played a critical role in working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in preparing a proposal for a hurricane-protection levee system that could stretch more than 100 miles from Vermilion Bay to the Texas border. He helped secure local dollars from the federal Water Resources Development Act and was also among the first advocates for an additional Acadiana seat on the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “Congressman Boustany has a proud record following the hurricanes to help rebuild southwest Louisiana,” says Rick Curtsinger, Boustany’s press secretary.
Hurricane protection, though, isn’t the only arrow in Cravins’ quiver. The quasi-candidate adds that he’ll also be pointing out Boustany’s votes on health care, the war in Iraq and the economy in coming weeks, all in hopes that voters will ask themselves a singular question. “Are we better off today than we were four years ago?” he asks. “I think everyone is the district has to agree that the answer is no.”
As a member of the Legislature and chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee, Cravins has his own votes and bills to defend. For instance, his Senate Bill 160, being debated this session, has divided lawmakers along regional lines — and it could come back to haunt him if it turns sour. The legislation would allow insurance companies to set different storm-named deductibles for homeowner policies based on nothing more but location. Coastal lawmakers are concerned that the regional cutoff would be Interstate 10, with those living below the line shouldering the cost for the rest of the state. Cravins says the bill is needed because Louisiana is the only state that requires insurers set a statewide, blanket deductible, meaning properties near the Arkansas state line must have the same deductible as those along the Gulf of Mexico, where catastrophic damage from hurricanes is far more likely.
Rep. Juan LaFonta, a New Orleans Democrat, says Cravins’ bill flies in the face of fairness. Under the measure, you could pay a 4 percent deductible if you live in a low-lying area like Mouton Cove or Houma, or a minimum of 1 percent if you live farther north like Shreveport. “I think this is going in the wrong direction,” says LaFonta. “At the end of the day, the consumer in my district and in south Louisiana is going to be left to burden a cost for minimal damage for minimal storms.”
“It’s not a north-south thing,” counters Cravins. “This loosens the market and allows the consumer to shop around,” Cravins says. “We’re the only state in the nation that allows that (blanket deductible).”
And then there are bills that Cravins is praised for — like Senate Bill 749, another measure from the ongoing session that would shutter Jetson Youth Center in Baker, Louisiana’s largest juvenile prison. The facility has garnered a nefarious reputation in recent years, plagued by accreditation problems and outbreaks of violence. Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, contends Jetson has been plagued with “ongoing problems,” but no one has had the political courage to step up. Inmate escapes, instances of fights and accusations of sexual contact involving guards are among the offenses that have grabbed headlines as of late. Cravins’ bill would close down Jetson by December 2009 and transfer its inmates to smaller facilities better equipped to handle each violator’s special needs. “Our young people who have made mistakes and need to be rehabilitated should be rehabilitated closer to home,” he says.
Closer to home, Cravins is pushing legislation to create the North Lafayette and Downtown Redevelopment Authority, a bill meant to address blighted properties while providing protections for landowners. In other parts of the state, redevelopment authorities are used to tear down or foreclose on properties so a new economy or look can be created. Cravins’ bill was originally meant to cover only north Lafayette, but other interests came to the table — chiefly from downtown and the southern part of the parish, including Republican City-Parish President Joey Durel. Cravins worked out a compromise, including south Lafayette in revised legislation while maintaining a sub-district for northern Lafayette.
Rather than tap dancing around the underlying issues of race that too often plague north side/south side divisions, Cravins addresses them head-on. He originally filed the bill because he didn’t want “people to have the perception that we’re waiting around to see if the south side folks are going to develop us, and then we decide what to do. I was being proactive.”
Several sources, speaking off the record, say the bill is an indication that Cravins is making inroads to become both a uniter and a top-tier leader in Lafayette’s black community — which Cravins doesn’t deny. “Yes, I’m from St. Landry, but Lafayette is my home,” he says. “I went to Teurlings Catholic, my Mom is from Lafayette and my first home was in Lafayette. It’s very much my home, and it feels right to me.”
If anything, Cravins is comfortable in his own skin. He isn’t overly worried about being attacked as a “Daddy’s boy or Donnie, Jr.”; he welcomes that salvo with open arms. “I have my own records and, believe me, I won’t be running from my father’s record,” he says. “If the opposition wants to compare me to my Dad, I would be very honored. I’m not going to run away from that comparison.