Donkey Doldrums

by Jeremy Alford

Louisiana Democrats have seen happier days, and the party’s future is just as shaky. If you consider yourself a hardcore Democrat, then the past few years in Louisiana politics have not been kind. You have only one like-minded soul left in the state’s seven-member U.S. House delegation, Rep. Charlie Melancon, and he’s vacating his seat to take on U.S. Sen. David Vitter next year. That race alone could prove to be among the party’s most challenging to date.

The congressional district in New Orleans, once known as the Holy Grail — nationally, even — of Democratic votes, flipped Republican last year. Louisiana’s electorate has become so red, in fact, that presidential players no longer look this way when campaigning. The trend is troubling for true bayou donkeys, and it becomes more problematic when you consider that only two of Louisiana’s seven statewide elected officials are Dems.

Then there’s the flagging leadership of the Louisiana Democratic Party, which by default is run by fall guys. It’s just part of the gig; sometimes you have to fall on the sword. That said, the number of red flags being waved and fingers being pointed these days is hard to ignore. On the hot seat is Chris Whittington, who came about his source of political power in 2006 thanks to the support of former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom and former Baton Rouge state Sen. Cleo Fields — two men with considerably less clout than they had just three years ago.

Recently, Whittington’s opponents circulated a survey — dubbed as “bogus” by Whittington — to members of the Democratic State Central Committee asking whether new leadership was needed. The committee, the party’s guiding body, elects the state chairman. The recent uprising, orchestrated by a small faction of party loyalists, wanted nothing more than to overthrow the current chair.

For Whittington, it’s nothing new. He was elected to a full, four-year term last year, despite opposition from Melancon, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and her brother, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who together backed Vacherie attorney Paul Aucoin against him. The election was forced into a runoff, with Whittington coming out on top with 36 votes to spare, out of 164.

Now resentment and frustration are growing once again, as evidenced by the survey mailed to DSCC members. Sources intimately close to the party predict that Whittington won’t be able to hold on much longer, whether it’s by his own doing or by someone else’s. “There is a change coming,” says one Democratic operative. “That’s for sure.”

As for Whittington, he’s been written off before, more than once, but he has always managed to maintain control. Yet when asked recently about his future, Whittington seemed to leave all options on the table rather than rush to defend himself. “I have a lot of pull with my law firm now, and it’s exploding with opportunities,” he says. “I re-evaluate where I’m at all the time. But I have no interest in going anywhere really, really soon.”

Former staffers describe Whittington as a “true believer who means well,” but few would call him a down-and-dirty political creature, which the position sometimes requires. That’s not to say such an archetype cannot efficiently steer the party, as long as there’s a strong supporting structure in place. In Louisiana, that supporting structure is nowhere to be found — and it’s among the more glaring hiccups the party has experienced lately.

Turnover at the Louisiana Democratic Party has been the norm. For instance, the party has gone through two executive directors in as many years. Britton Loftin, who most recently resigned earlier this year, left behind a sexual harassment suit. Two communications directors also hitched themselves onto other wagons during the same time frame.

A staffer who formerly worked under Whittington says the situation would have been dramatically different had Whittington put in place an experienced, hard-nosed staff. “If you have a weak chair or nonpolitical chair, then you’ve got to make sure you have an executive director that is strong in those areas. Chris is the whipping boy for these problems and others, and, unfortunately, perception is reality.”

Another staffer says that some central committee members have come to resent Whittington because he has directed staffers in the past to work on his own political problems instead of focusing on the politics of the party. “There were a lot of times when the staff was running around, corralling votes on the DSCC and seeing to his personal politics,” the staffer says.

Jim Nickel, a Baton Rouge lobbyist who formerly served as both the party chair and executive director, says elected party leaders must serve two masters to succeed, which is far more complex than it sounds. “It’s very difficult to be a party chairman or executive director because you’re always juggling two different things — overall party politics and your party’s elected officials — and sometimes there are cross-purposes.”

Congressional races in recent years have been particularly painful for Louisiana Democrats. Many candidates have lost confidence in the party — and in Whittington — because they were ignored or not given campaign financial aid.

State Rep. Michael Jackson of Baton Rouge, for example, went as far as dropping his party affiliation, becoming a no-party candidate in the recent 6th District Congressional election. Jackson says he would consider switching back if Whittington leaves, “depending on who’s in the leadership.” Jackson’s “independent” candidacy flat-out cost freshman Democratic Congressman Don Cazayoux his seat just five months after he won it last year.

State Rep. Sam Jones of Franklin, who sits on the DSCC, has also called for Whittington’s resignation. “It has gotten to the point now that when the national party comes into Louisiana, they avoid the state party and work around it to do what they need to do,” Jones says.

If Whittington needs a resurgence to stay on firm ground, help may be just around the corner. Fundraising, which has been dismal in the face of an ill economy and lack of strong candidates, will pick up a bit as the national party takes interest in Louisiana.

The party’s building, located on Government Street in Baton Rouge, is closer to being paid off, and there’s a nationwide search for a new executive director, which is badly needed. In the meantime, a two-person communications team has been hired, and the New Orleans congressional district is ripe for another turnaround.

It sounds like a fresh start, at least to the man behind the helm right now, the man who needs it the most. “We stand a great chance of picking up seats and making progress,” says Whittington. “It’s what you might call rejuvenation.”

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected]