Political Regurgitation

by Jeremy Alford

Just when you thought election season was over, the Legislature coughs up a few of its longtime members, and a new series of campaigns emerges for 2009. When coastal restoration was just beginning to catch on as an issue in the Legislature in the late 1990s, Sen. Reggie Dupre strapped a life preserver over his bulky frame, quite clumsily, from the Senate floor to show his colleagues the latest fashion from low-lying communities. As the millennium came to a close, Dupre underwent gastric bypass surgery and shed a few life-preserver sizes, but he continued to be a coastal floor leader for three governors.

According to sources close to the Terrebonne Parish Democrat, he will soon be dropping the Senate like he did all that weight and heading into the non-elected world. And he won’t be alone. At least three other state senators have left vacancies in as many months, and there’s another unfilled seat in the House.

After an unsuccessful bid for Acadiana’s 7th Congressional District, Sen. Don Cravins Jr., announced last week that’s he’s accepted a job with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. Bill Cassidy, meanwhile, has already been sworn into Congress after besting a packed field in Baton Rouge’s 6th Congressional District. Finally, in October, ex-Sen. Derrick Shepherd pled guilty to money laundering and has been replaced by state Rep. J.P Morrell, a fellow Crescent City Democrat whose own House seat is now up for grabs.

For a Legislature that’s barely a year old, it’s a lot of hustle and bustle. While some might want to chalk it up to the generational shift happening in Louisiana politics, or a revolving-door theory where elected power affords access to a stepping stone, each case is different.

As for Dupre, it’s the worst-kept secret in the bayou parishes area that he’s eyeing a regional levee director position that will soon open up. Administrative officials have been notified and a deal struck that will keep Dupre in his Senate seat at least until after the upcoming regular session. For Republicans, it could become a pick-up district, since there are GOP state representatives sure to make a run and the area has sporadic voting patterns.

Dupre is also term limited and will be out of an elected job in a few years. But why is Dupre leaving in the middle of his term? Veteran lobbyists suggest Dupre may be just the beginning as lawmakers weigh their current salaries (minus the hefty pay raise GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed last year) against the promises of private sector work or other opportunities.

Then there’s Cravins, the St. Landry Parish Democrat whose decision to leave public office for work on the Hill is a new one for observers. He told reporters last week that it was a chance to be a part of history, alongside incoming President Barack Obama. But fellow Democrat Landrieu could have ulterior motives. The political animosity between Landrieu and the Cravins clan goes back a generation, to Cravins’ father, who is now the mayor of Opelousas. And Landrieu surely knows that keeping your enemies closer than your friends is smart politics.

But it could also be argued that Junior was on his way out anyway, and his bid for the 7th Congressional District in 2008 was a last-ditch effort. The younger Cravins has been openly critical of the way the Louisiana Democratic Party treats African-American candidates. Moreover, a few senators recall a heated argument Cravins had with a senior member last year over how far an African-American politician can go in Louisiana. “It became pretty heated,” recalls one senator in the legislative leadership.

The departure of Dupre and Cravins leaves behind more than just memories, though. Dupre is chairman of the natural resources committee and Cravins chairs the insurance committee. That alone should spur a bit of musical chairs in the Senate in coming months as legislators grapple for the gavels.

In Baton Rouge, local attorney Dan Claitor is the latest to drop hints about the Senate District 16 seat, left vacant by Cassidy. Political consultant Laurinda Calongne and businessman Lee Domingue are the only two announced candidates in what’s shaping up to be an all-GOP field. Down in the Big Easy, Morrell will soon step into the Senate seat disgraced by Shepherd, leaving House District 97 wide open for a springtime throw-down. At the same time, Rep. Nick Lorusso, a New Orleans Republican, is expected to be called to active duty for one year as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. Due to a constitutional amendment approved by voters last fall, Lorusso will be able to nominate at least three possible temporary replacements to the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. After public hearings by the committee, GOP Speaker Jim Tucker of Terrytown will appoint one of the nominees. It’ll be a proceeding the Legislature has never seen before in its long history and will officially be added to the list of “Ways to Become a Legislator.” Thankfully, there are still more ways for lawmakers to leave than there are for them to assume office