Cover Story

Donkey Desperation

by Jeremy Alford

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Behind the precipitous fall of the Louisiana Democratic Party - and how it might climb back to relevance. By Jeremy Alford

"I just know, before this is over, I,m gonna need a whole lot of serious therapy. Look at my eye twitching." - Donkey (from Shrek, 2001)

[Editor's Note: Caldwell announced his switch to the Republican Party Wednesday, Feb. 2, the day this story published.]

Let's begin with a tale of two Buddys: Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Buddy Leach and state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. Both are white, Southern Democrats with piney-woods accents. Yet, they couldn't be more different.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Behind the precipitous fall of the Louisiana Democratic Party - and how it might climb back to relevance. By Jeremy Alford

"I just know, before this is over, I,m gonna need a whole lot of serious therapy. Look at my eye twitching." - Donkey (from Shrek, 2001)

[Editor's Note: Caldwell announced his switch to the Republican Party Wednesday, Feb. 2, the day this story published.]

Let's begin with a tale of two Buddys: Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Buddy Leach and state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. Both are white, Southern Democrats with piney-woods accents. Yet, they couldn't be more different.

Leach is an unapologetic liberal, the last of the red-hot populists. He oversees the party's operations and is one of its most generous - and prolific - donors. Caldwell is trending conservative (he joined a slew of Republican attorneys general in suing to overturn the federal health care bill) and enjoys a budding alliance with GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal. He's also the only statewide Democratic official in the Capitol.

There's also something about Mary - as in Mary Landrieu, Louisiana's senior U.S. senator. She makes up the final part of the Bayou State's Democratic troika; she fits right in between Leach and Caldwell as a carefully crafted centrist.

"I think those three people represent what's left of the Democratic Party here," says political consultant Roy Fletcher, whose lance is for hire by all comers - Ds and Rs alike. "They represent the different components of the old coalition. But that has broken down. And since none of them speaks the same vernacular, the Democratic Party is trying [to redefine] itself. What do they say? How do they say it? They are their own main challenge."

It's not as if this dilemma snuck up on the Dems. Watching the Donkey Party lose control in Louisiana has been like watching a cheetah stalk and take down a gazelle. In slow motion. In high-definition. It was only a matter of time.

On the Hill, Landrieu and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond - both of New Orleans, where Democrats can still win handily - are the lone Democratic voices for Louisiana. In the state Legislature, Republicans recently wrested control of the House for the first time since Reconstruction. Democrats still control the state Senate, but the fall elections could well change that, too.

The last statewide Democratic official in the Capitol, AG Buddy Caldwell (left) appears
poised to join the GOP. That defection would leave Dems like state party
Chairman Buddy Leach and senior U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu scrambling to figure out
how to restore stability to the part

For now, the juiciest intrigue is on the state level.

"The rumors are getting hot and heavy that Caldwell is getting ready to switch parties," says one longtime Democratic operative who asked not to be identified. "Then again, there has also been talk about him running for governor if no one qualifies against Jindal. He's paranoid right now that there's someone out there, some opposition. Caldwell is perfectly representative of what Democrats are going through right now."

Adding fuel to the speculation is the lawsuit Caldwell filed on Jindal's behalf last year challenging Democrat-backed health care law, derisively known as Obamacare. When contacted last week by The Independent Weekly on the possibility of switching parties, Caldwell said "no comment."

Kevin Franck, communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party, offered up a sobering statement upon hearing Caldwell's silence. "In his heart, Buddy Caldwell is a Democrat," Franck says, adding he doesn't believe the rumors, "and whichever way the political winds blow he'll always be a Democrat."

"Things are dicey right now," the unidentified operative adds. "What happens if Caldwell does switch and Mary decides not to run for re-election? Where are we at then? There will be no strong elected [statewide] personality. It's all dying on the vine."

Sen. Landrieu, however, says she's enjoying her time on the Hill and insists her possible exit has been greatly exaggerated. "I have served happily for 14 years and intend to serve another term or two, should that be the people's wish," she says. "I am very comfortable with my centrist record of accomplishment and look forward to continuing to serve Louisiana and working on issues important to the state, like our coastal recovery, championing small businesses and advocating for education reform."

State Sen. John Alario of Westwego and Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle recently switched from Democrat to Republican. Democratic former Congressman Charlie Melancon was routed by the otherwise tainted Sen. David Vitter in November, and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco is staying on the sidelines. The only A-lister left seems to be Mitch Landrieu, who is still in his first year as New Orleans mayor.

"Of course he can run statewide," says Joshua Stockley, political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. "He was recently lieutenant governor, and we know he has a record of winning statewide. But does he really want to do that? However, running for governor is different. It's a higher profile. Can Louisiana stand to have him as governor and Mary Landrieu as a U.S. senator simultaneously? That's a tough sale."

That's another reason why there has never been a worse time - in recent history, at least - to be a Democrat in Louisiana.

WHEN STATE DEMOCRATIC LAWMAKERS CONVENED a meeting prior to Christmas to brainstorm ways to get the party out of the muck, they gathered at an unlikely place as the guest of party Chair Leach.

They huddled at Grosse Savanne Waterfowl and Wildlife Lodge in Cameron Parish, which is owned by Leach. It's an impressive spread, plush even by private hunting club standards, located on 5,000 acres of marsh brimming with 40 duck blinds. It was the site of a fundraiser for Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal shortly before Leach became chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party in January 2010. Leach, for whatever it's worth, also contributed $1,000 to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican, in 2005. Leach told reporters last year he was merely thanking Vitter for his support of Fort Polk.

The lodge was an appropriately odd setting for these strange times. Some lawmakers moaned about the wheels falling off, while others questioned whether their Republican counterparts had the winning message after all.

State Rep. Reed Henderson of Chalmette, a firebrand even in the best of times, says many different topics were discussed, but the gathering also saw some raw emotions in the wake of the disastrous fall elections. There, as in recent elections, the party's greatest historical strength - its diversity - served as a temporary hindrance.

It's only temporary, Henderson insists. Republicans probably thought they had a mandate under President George W. Bush - until Barack Obama swept into office. Politics is cyclical. Still, Democrats are nonetheless finding it difficult to brand themselves.

"Organizing Democrats is like trying to herd cats. We don't stand for anything," Henderson says. "The problem is this wide spectrum of issues and you can't concentrate a beam on any one thing. I think the voters know what they want. The parties don't. The people who are really controlling the votes are the conservative middle. This country is middle-to-right, and so is Louisiana. I think we, as Democrats, need to make some changes, because I was born a Democrat and I plan to die a Democrat. That's just the way it is."

Oddly enough, one "tangible" idea to come from the Grosse Savanne meeting was a call for fresh faces - including those of some lawmakers - running for positions on the Democratic State Central Committee. The committee runs the state party machinery, such as it is, and it also serves as Leach's boss.

"I'll probably not only run for state representative, but also for the state central committee," Henderson says. As for the current party administration, Henderson adds, "I don't see any leadership there now."

The tricky part, according to another lawmaker, will be finding a way to appeal to white voters without isolating the African-American base that has historically stood with Democrats. In recent years, the party's treatment of African-American candidates has drawn strong criticism. Former state Sen. Don Cravins Jr. of Opelousas and current Sen. Lydia Jackson of Shreveport - both of whom are black - threatened to run for Congress as non-party candidates in 2010. Two years earlier, Rep. Michael Jackson of Baton Rouge did just that - and helped unseat then-new Democratic U.S. Rep. Don Cazayoux of New Roads. Cazayoux is now the U.S. Attorney in Baton Rouge, appointed by Obama.

"This isn't going to be an easy fix, and I haven't heard a good idea on how to do it from anyone," the lawmaker says. "It's going to take a lot of leadership. Good leadership. And a lot of people concerned are looking to Cedric [Richmond] to be that leader."

Richmond, a former member of the state House, managed to reclaim the New Orleans-based congressional district for Democrats last year, with Obama's help. He ousted one-term Republican U.S. Rep. Joseph Cao. Richmond is now seen as a rising star - and a potential powerbroker - in the Louisiana Democratic Party and in the African-American community.

Meanwhile, in the state House, a passel of lawmakers has made the big switch, including Reps. Noble Ellington of Winnsboro, Simone Champagne of Jeanerette, Walker Hines of New Orleans and Fred Mills of Parks, whom voters promoted to the state Senate on Jan. 19. The surge in GOP legislative strength, however, may eventually give the GOP the same headaches that diversity has given Dems. Clearly, not all recent Republican converts are like-minded. Alario and Ellington, for instance, were old guard Democratic lawmakers frequently associated with the politics of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, whom Republican stalwarts view as the essence of what's been wrong with Louisiana for decades.

"A lot of these new Republicans aren't going to fit into the hard right," says Fletcher, a veteran of the presidential and gubernatorial campaign circuits. "They all tend to be more moderate conservatives, not ideological conservatives."

Dr. Kirby Goidel, director of LSU's Public Policy Research Lab, says recent developments and trends put the Louisiana Democratic Party in an uncomfortable position. The Republican converts aren't likely to come back, he says, nor will independents (who tilted strongly toward the GOP in the recent elections). And no one expects any Republicans to switch to the Democratic Party any time soon.

"That means Democrats need to figure out how to recruit better. They need a farm team," Goidel says, referring to the minor league teams owned by major league franchises, usually as a training grounds for the big show. "If you're a moderate right now, you're looking at the electoral landscape and realizing that it's better to run as a Republican than as a Democrat. So, it's better for Democrats to focus on the long view right now rather than the short view.

There's no magical candidate out there that's going to make all of this better."

LEACH, AN EXCITABLE FELLOW even at 76 years old, was reportedly put into the chairmanship because he can cut a check, which is something he reportedly has done many times for the party in recent years. Although in years past he has contributed to Republicans as well, Leach is on Team Donkey and he contends he has a plan.

"We have several potentials for next year's statewide elections and, remember, Democrats did very well on the local level last year. We have the mayors of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Monroe. That's not bad," Leach says. "And I think recruitment results from what we're embarking on now, educating people and letting them know that Louisiana Democrats are about working people, middle income families. I think from that, we'll recruit men and women who hold these beliefs."

Leach says his office is also overseeing seminars to help Democrats run for office and he has staffers looking into the recent voter purges on the state level in hopes of getting folks re-registered. As for his own party position, Leach says he plans on finishing out his current term as chairman and isn't going anywhere.

Through no fault of his own, Leach inherited a train wreck. He took over from Chris Whittington, a former chairman who was re-elected to a four-year term in 2008 despite opposition from Melancon and the Landrieu siblings. State central committee members interviewed for this story say the incident proved there was no longer a central power base. In years past, the party's Washington contingent - including former Sen. John Breaux - wielded considerable influence over the party's central committee. That is no longer the case.

It shows how rapidly the party declined, since Whittington first came to power in 2005 - at the hands of disgraced former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom and former Baton Rouge state Sen. Cleo Fields. Without argument, Whittington would have never survived in the old days without the support of party leaders.

These days, the wheels of the machine appear to have come completely off.

One former DSCC member says it has been a "cult of personalities," a story that can be traced through turnover. The party burns through executive directors - most famously Britton Loftin, who resigned in 2009 amid a sexual harassment suit. Since 2008, there have been four communications directors.

Bob Mann, who holds an endowed chair at the Manship School of Communications at LSU, says there needs to be a distinction between the Louisiana Democratic Party and Louisiana Democrats.

"People need to ask what Louisiana Democrats can do to get out of this funk, because the party itself is not in a funk," says Mann, who served as press secretary to Breaux and later Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "It's probably better funded than ever before. It has the most professional staff it has seen in five or six years. Being able to get elected statewide has less to do with the Louisiana Democratic Party and more with having a strong candidate. When we don't have a strong candidate for Democrats to get behind, the party is what it is now."

Whatever the party's problem area, change is needed - and soon. Louisiana was once a one-party state with Democrats in control, then there was a brief period of parity, and now it's all heading in the opposite direction. Henderson, among others, stops short of proclaiming that the political sky is falling. In fact, he insists there is no crisis; it's just a down side of the political cycle.

"A lot of people were distraught over the fact that we got creamed," Henderson says. "But you know what? The Republicans got creamed two years ago, and they came back. We can come back, too. It may just take a little while."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected]

Brother, can you spare a Dem?

Things haven't always been so dismal for Louisiana Democrats, and party optimists say their current misfortunes won't last forever. Politics change with the tide, constantly rising and falling. A look at the personalities that have kept the Democratic philosophy alive in Louisiana over the past 80 or so years proves that point.

Back in his heyday, Gov. Huey P. Long didn't confine himself to state politics. At the 1932 Democratic National Convention, he spoke in favor of nominating New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt and brokered the votes of several state delegations. With a touch of political foreshadowing, Long became disillusioned with FDR and appeared on his way to mounting a third-party effort when he was assassinated in 1935.

When four-time Gov. Edwin Edwards was at the height of his power in the 1970s and '80s, he more or less was the Louisiana Democratic Party. It wasn't until former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, now a lobbyist, rose to power and got involved in party affairs - particularly in the 1990s - that key personnel began staffing the party, raising substantial money, and giving the party structure and purpose. Federal Judge James J. Brady became a driving force during this period as well, serving as the hands that partly molded the administrative side of the modern state party.

Breaux also created the prototype for the white Southern Democrat - what became known as the Blue Dog Democrat (or, in Louisiana, the John Breaux Democrat). During the tenures of both Edwards and Breaux (who, by the way, got his political start as EWE's driver), former state Sen. Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge emerged as the premier statewide black power broker. Fields garnered quite a reputation in the late 1990s for getting voters to the polls by any means possible, from chartered buses to Mardi Gras floats.

Today, the Democratic Party chairman is former U.S. Rep. Buddy Leach, a wealthy businessman who recently hired Edwards when the ex-governor was released from federal prison. Edwards was doing time for shaking down potential casino license holders. The Associated Press reports that Edwards will be serving as a private business consultant and quoted Leach saying that  Edwards "will have no role in the Louisiana Democratic Party."

Pondering the future of the Louisiana Democratic Party brings to mind Caroline Fayard of New Orleans. Though she lost to Republican Jay Dardenne in the lieutenant governor's contest by 14 points last year, the Democratic newcomer received 64,210 more votes than then-U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville who shelled out $4 million in his bid for the U.S. Senate against incumbent David Vitter. Fayard made an impressive statewide debut at just age 32.

Meanwhile, Ravi Sangisetty, a 36-year-old Houma attorney who lost the 3rd Congressional District race, likewise distinguished himself in his debut.
As the party searches for future leaders, the legislative roster in New Orleans offers a large palette. Reps. Neil Abramson and Walt Leger III have shown great potential, observers say. Also, Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite is making early, noticeable waves as chairman of the legislature's Democratic Caucus.

In the Senate, the same can be said of Sens. J.P. Morrell and Karen Carter Peterson, the latter of whom reportedly has good White House connections. Both senators are youthful Democrats who appear well positioned to craft the party's future image. - JA