Cover Story

Elbert vs. The Machine

by Nathan Stubbs

In a heated campaign between bitter rivals, State Rep. Elbert Guillory aims to take down a family dynasty that has held the District 24 state Senate seat for the last 15 years.
It’s just after 7 p.m. at The Hall on Gloria Switch Road. Elbert Guillory is running late, and the crowd is getting anxious. The candidate already missed a forum at Acadiana Open Channel earlier, and all day rumors have been flying that Guillory may be dropping out of the District 24 state Senate race.

State Rep. Rickey Hardy takes the stage first with his testimonial. “Elbert Guillory has been a mentor to me in the state House of Representatives.” Next Guillory’s ex-wife and campaign manager, Yvonne Guillory, further testifies to his character. “Elbert is a good father and a fine man.” The room is rampant with gossip nonetheless. For weeks the Guillory camp has been riding high and leading the field in fundraising and high profile endorsements, but the whisper of the day is that, less than three weeks away from the April 4 election, the Guillory campaign is in trouble. Guillory is rumored to be ducking appearances due to a couple of bombshells from his past that are about to surface and embarrass the candidate and his supporters.

Wearing a collarless button-up shirt and sport coat, walking into the room with his typical nonchalant amble, Guillory exudes calm as he tells the crowd what he’s been answering to all day — claims from his opponents that he has been guilty of ethics complaints and fathering illegitimate children.

Guillory says his opponents have raised the issue of his son, “who has never been a secret and is living with me now.” Guillory had his son with a woman, Beverly Simien, who filed a paternity suit against him in 1992. (Simien committed suicide four years later). Guillory says his son was reared by his son’s maternal aunt but has moved in with him since getting out of the army. “I always stepped up to the plate and took care of my responsibilities [as a father],” Guillory says.

“Desperate politicians,” he adds, “when they see themselves losing, start to lie and to throw mud.”

While Guillory never mentions the “desperate politicians” by name, it’s clear who he’s referring to.

In the dog-eat-dog world of St. Landry Parish politics, Guillory is the new flag-bearer of the anti-Cravins political faction, a group that is now counting on Guillory to be the candidate who will break the Cravins family’s 15-year hold on the District 24 state Senate seat. Guillory’s rivalry with the Cravinses began as purely political, but personal attacks and public run-ins have deepened the animosity over the years.

Elbert Guillory flanked by supporters at The Hall.

Photo by Robin May

Several political observers see the race as a showdown between the pro- and anti-Cravins factions in the district, which covers north Lafayette Parish and most of St. Landry Parish. It also has the potential to get very contentious. “I think [Guillory] is going to win,” says one local official who asked not to be named because of the tension in the race. “But you never, ever can underestimate the Cravinses because when it comes to street, gutter fighting, and I have been involved on the side with them and opposed, and you don’t want the Cravinses against you. They are cutthroat.”

The other recent allegations against Guillory that the Cravins camp helped disseminate involve Guillory’s brief tenure as director of the Human Rights Department for the city of Seattle in the early 1980s. The Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that a little more than a year into the job, Guillory was suspended without pay and then resigned after he was charged with five counts of violating the city’s ethics code. An ethics probe found that Guillory had awarded a $9,999 contract (just below the $10,000 threshold requiring a contract be publicly bid) to his soon-to-be wife, signed off on payment for work on the contract that was never done, billed the city for two weeks of work while he was honeymooning in Tahiti (although he had no vacation time), and allowed an employee to bill the city for time spent driving Guillory’s car cross-country from his former residence in Baltimore, Md. The complaints were all filed with the ethics board, but a settlement was reached before an official hearing was held.

Guillory explains away the allegations, saying that he made the mayor’s office aware of the potential conflict that existed in awarding the contract to his girlfriend, that he had compensatory time that was used for his honeymoon, and that the employee who drove in from Baltimore on work time was attending a conference.

“No action was taken against me,” he says. “I did not resign as a result; I would not resign under a cloud at all. What made me resign was the mayor kind of hung me out to dry. He did not step up to the plate and say, ‘Yes, I knew about this and yes, I authorized this,’ He stood back and let me weather the flames. And that’s OK, I’m a big boy, but when it was all over, there was a press conference I held and it’s when I resigned, and I said I’m resigning because I’ve lost confidence in the mayor’s ability to take care of my interests.”

Guillory contends that all the allegations are being dredged up by his political opponents in an effort to discredit him, and that the Seattle incidents date back 35 years. Guillory also has had ethical issues since returning home to Louisiana. In 2002, he was reprimanded by the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board for notarizing a succession document for his client, former Opelousas Police Chief Larry Caillier, in which some of the signatures had apparently been forged and not witnessed by Guillory. Guillory then admitted to mistakenly relying on the word of his client that the signatures were valid.

“When one goes into this business of politics, one expects the doors to be opened to whatever skeletons there are in the closet to be aired,” Guillory says, down-playing the issues in his past. “My closet is open for airing. There are many allegations in many careers. Over a 40-year period, I would have expected to have some allegations.” It isn’t your typical political speech, but Elbert Guillory isn’t your typical candidate.

While his Native American ancestry is evident in his bone structure, Guillory leans toward an East Coast sartorial style reminiscent of Denzell Washington. Guillory is short and dapper, wears stylish black-rimmed eyeglasses and has a penchant for three-piece suits and silk ties. He has an impressive resume: educated at Norfolk State College in Virginia, then New York Theological Seminary, then Rutgers Law School (Guillory chose Rutgers over Harvard, he says, because of its reputation as having the best constitutional and civil rights law programs). Guillory started his career in government as director of the Maryland Commission on Human Relations and subsequently as director of the Seattle Human Rights Department. He has traveled the world, including trips to Scotland, Egypt and China. An avid outdoorsman, he hiked to the summit of the three largest mountains in the U.S. outside of Alaska. Now 64, he has been married and divorced three times.

Pat Cravins hopes to keep the family's 15-year
Senate dynasty alive.

Photo by Robin May

In the Legislature, Guillory’s known for working well with both sides of the aisle and not being afraid to stand his ground. He was the only member of the state House to vote against a ban on cockfighting. He’s also kept a high legislative rating with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

“He’s very even keeled,” says Lafayette state Rep. Joel Robideaux, an independent who is supporting Guillory in the senate race. “He doesn’t legislate based on his emotions. He’s very deliberate, very thorough; he does a good job of getting all the facts and understanding the issues, and he doesn’t rub people the wrong way at all. He works very well with everybody. He flies under the radar a lot, because that’s just the way he operates, but he’s very well respected over in Baton Rouge.”

Guillory was a registered Republican and was even serving on the Republican state central committee three years ago when he switched his party to Democrat and ran for office. Guillory says fundamental differences with the Bush administration drove him to switch, but it was also politically expedient for anyone running in the heavily Democratic district.

Guillory sees an opportunity in District 24, where he is aiming to become the first state senator not named Cravins in the past 15 years. To win, Guillory will have to finally overcome the political machine he has been battling for years. His main opponent in the District 24 race is Pat Cravins, who is seeking to become the third successive Cravins to hold the District 24 seat. Her husband, Don Cravins Sr., was the District 24 state senator for 12 years starting in 1994. In 2006, Don Cravins Jr. succeeded his father in the seat but recently stepped down to take a job in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Guillory plays it coy when asked about his rivalry with the politically entrenched family. “I have no hostility toward, certainly no personal dislike for any of the Cravins family. I don’t believe that the Cravins senators have served this community as well as they could have. Beyond that, you know, St. Landry Parish is a poor place, so we don’t have a whole lot of recreational opportunities. Politics is one of our big recreational pursuits. And so we just find ourselves on different sides.”

The bad blood between Guillory and the Cravins family dates back to 1993, when Guillory made his first run for public office, vying for an open 27th judicial district judge’s seat. Guillory lead the field of five candidates in the primary election with 42 percent of the vote, more than twice the vote total of second place finisher Alonzo Harris, whom he would then face in the runoff. Harris, a 31-year-old attorney, pulled the upset and became the youngest district judge in the state. His victory was attributed in no small part to Don Cravins Sr. and his brother Charles, both of whom campaigned heavily for Harris in the runoff.

“As far as that was concerned, it was another political race,” says Cravins Sr., who’s now the mayor of Opelousas. “There’s nothing personal from my perspective. I’m just a guy who if I like a candidate and I think they’re going to be good for the district, I’m going to support them. I believe in loyalty. People who have helped me over the years, and I know them to be of good character, if I like them, I’m not going to make it a secret. I’m not one of those politicians who say, ‘I’m with you but I can’t say nothing,’ If I’m with you, I’m with you.”

Cravins Sr. adds that, based on feedback from the community and his own observations, he does not find Guillory to be trustworthy.

“What it boils down to with [Guillory], particularly, is that I served for 15 years, and I think I did it with dignity and honor and honesty. I like honest people. Frankly, I don’t think he’s an honest person. That’s all. That is the bottom line. I don’t have any confidence in his honesty.” The mayor contends Guillory routinely plays politics by misrepresenting his family’s position on issues. “And I think the people deserve someone who can look them in the eye and be truthful to them.”

For him, that candidate is his wife, Pat Cravins, who recently retired as the speech and theater director at the Magnet Academy for the Cultural Arts in Opelousas. She also taught at Paul Breaux Middle School in Lafayette for 25 years, is a playwright, and briefly ran Pat’s Café Creole restaurant on North University Avenue. When her son decided to resign from the District 24 seat to go work in Washington, Pat says she became concerned with the field of candidates that emerged to replace him.

“It was like, I’m looking around, somebody do something, help,” she says, “because I just don’t feel that the options that were left were either experienced enough or were honest enough to serve with that same kind of vigor and eagerness to help.”

Pat says her husband was always there, even answering the phone many times in the middle of the night to help out constituents, and she wants to carry on that tradition of service.

“You know when people are able to call and you’re able to do something to help them. That’s a great feeling, it really is,” she says. “And I want to be the one when there’s no other Cravins there. I’m wondering, ‘Is everybody else going to have that same compassion, that same feeling of reaching out to do something, that we’re in this together?’ So that’s one of the reasons. I wanted to be a positive option for the district. If they want me, I’m available. If they don’t, I gave them the option.”

Over the years, the Cravins family and Guillory continued to square off on opposing sides in elections. Guillory backed unsuccessful opponents of Don Cravins Jr. in 2004 and 2006.

In the 2006 state Senate race, Guillory went so far as to put the campaign signs of both Cravins Jr.’s opponents in his front yard.

In 2007, Guillory began to have some success against the Cravins machine. He won his own election over 28-year-old Ledrika Johnson — backed by the Cravinses — by a sizeable margin. He also successfully backed the white candidate, Bobby Guidroz, over African-American Laura Balthazar, in one of the most racially polarizing political races St. Landry Parish has ever seen. Guidroz is now working hard on behalf of Guillory.

“We have not found a candidate to ever beat [Guillory],” acknowledges Don Cravins Jr. “I’ll be honest about that. I’ve looked. But by no means has he ever come close with his candidates to beating us. So it has been a butting of the heads; I’ll be the first one to admit it. And this does sell, it does sound good, that he’s the Cravins’ slayer.”

The feud has at times gotten personal. Guillory’s ex-wife and current campaign manager, Yvonne, used to work for the city of Opelousas before Don Cravins Sr. fired her for what he alleges was mismanagement of public funds.

Don Cravins Jr. also recalls a time when he and his family were out celebrating his wife’s birthday at Evangeline Downs. Guillory showed up and crashed the party. “We had some words,” Cravins Jr. says. The next Monday, Guillory wrote a letter to Cravins Jr. detailing how he had been insulted. Guillory faxed the letter to several members of the Opelousas business community. “He didn’t send it to me,” Cravins Jr. says. “He sent it to the business people and then people started calling and saying, ‘Man what happened with you and Elbert?’”

“Very smart,” Cravins adds. “Very vindictive. That’s his style.” (Guillory denies ever writing such a letter.)

Cravins Jr. also says he went to Guillory when he decided to run for Congress to try to bury the hatchet. According to Cravins, Guillory told him he would support him but then never returned his phone calls. The next time Cravins saw Guillory, he was out at a campaign event with incumbent U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany. “He called me after that,” says Cravins. “He said, ‘I can’t be with you ’cause I realize now no matter what I could never be part of the Cravins team.’”

Guillory tells a different story. “I have made several attempts to forge a team with the Cravinses,” he says. “When [Don Jr.] decided to run for Congress, I once again attempted to forge a team with [him]. My offers of assistance were considered unnecessary. I offered to come and help, never heard anything from him.”

Recently, the Cravins-Guillory feud found its way into the Daily World in the form of dueling newspaper ads. The first, paid for by a group of Guillory supporters who call themselves The Tuesday Club, ran under the banner headline “Death of the Machine.” The ad begins with a direct reference to the senior Cravins: “It started almost twenty years ago, an insurance agent became a state Senator … Soon everybody connected to the machine had a fat job.”

The ad goes on to detail all the elections “the machine” had lost in the past two years. It also makes a series of accusations against the Cravinses, claiming they have held up renovation of the Yambilee building and forced Southern University to turn down a land donation for its regional Ag center in order to have it constructed on property adjacent to Evangeline Downs. “I don’t see that as being anti-Cravins,” Guillory says about the ad, “or being anything other than educational. I don’t see it as a negative against anyone. As I read it, it’s a statistical presentation and a historic presentation of the political steps that have taken place through the past years.”

Cravins Sr. and Jr. took out a response ad in the paper, answering all of the allegations levied against them, and labeling The Tuesday Club “a cult.” The ad reads, “This ‘secret’ group, or cult, meets every Tuesday and apparently has nothing better to do in life but find ways to terrorize our family. We can honestly say, we find it odd that a group of men meet every week to discuss two other men, but let the public draw their own conclusions about that!”

Guillory says he has been riding a wave of sentiment that it is time for new leadership in the district. His campaign brought together a unique coalition of south Lafayette conservatives (Herb Schilling, state Sen. Mike Michot, and state Rep. Page Cortez) and up-and-coming north Lafayette Democrats (state Rep. Rickey Hardy and retired state police superintendent Terry Landry) eager to upset the power structure where the Cravinses have long held seniority, along with St. Landry Parish heavyweights like insurance mogul Bobby Dupre and clerk of court Charles Jagneaux.

Jagneaux, who did not return a call for comment for this story, is one person the Cravinses did not expect to see on Guillory’s side. In 2008, Jagneaux served on Don Cravins Jr.’s congressional campaign committee.

On the campaign trail, Guillory often strikes a populist tone, branding himself as a good-government reformer, and implying that the Cravins have been corrupt.

“I think it’s time for us to have a senator whose sole agenda is the people of St. Landry Parish,” he says. “I’m not going [to Baton Rouge] to take care of my relatives. I’m not going there to get jobs for my kids. I’m not going there to make money for myself. I want to represent the people, all the people of District 24.”

Don Cravins Jr. is the first to admit Guillory’s tactics have proven politically effective. “The guy’s unlike anybody else we’ve ever had to deal with,” he says. “It’s one thing to have political disagreements. It’s just that he’s so sly and disingenuous. It’s so hard to deal with that guy.

“[Guillory] became the poster child for the anti-Cravins movement,” Jr. continues. “That faction has always existed. It really was a series of factions that kind of emerged and said, ‘You know, we finally may have found somebody who can go round for round with these guys.’”