Cover Story

Dems In Distress

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is the party over for Louisiana Democrats, who in the past decade have been losing their grip on voters and politicos, leaving U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu as the only one currently elected to a statewide office? By Penny Font

In Caroline Fayard, Louisiana Democrats thought they finally had the breath of fresh air they so desperately needed.
Someone to counter their waning influence in statewide politics. Someone to ignite the party base and stop the decades-long bleeding of membership from the voter rolls. Someone to make headlines besides a steady stream of longtime Democrats in office defecting to the Republican Party. Someone to inject a little more blue into a state that grows redder by the election.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is the party over for Louisiana Democrats, who in the past decade have been losing their grip on voters and politicos, leaving U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu as the only one currently elected to a statewide office? By Penny Font

In Caroline Fayard, Louisiana Democrats thought they finally had the breath of fresh air they so desperately needed.
Someone to counter their waning influence in statewide politics. Someone to ignite the party base and stop the decades-long bleeding of membership from the voter rolls. Someone to make headlines besides a steady stream of longtime Democrats in office defecting to the Republican Party. Someone to inject a little more blue into a state that grows redder by the election.

And maybe - just maybe - someone to give Gov. Bobby Jindal a run for his money this fall.

Fayard, a 32-year-old New Orleans attorney and Denham Springs native, forced longtime conservative politico Jay Dardenne into a runoff for lieutenant governor in November. And while she lost the election, she still garnered 43 percent of the vote - not bad for a first-timer who climbed over six candidates, all of them more seasoned, to make it that far. Perhaps even more telling was that she received 64,077 more votes than a fellow Democrat, Congressman Charlie Melancon, who spent $4 million on a failed bid for the U.S. Senate.

Then came the complaints to the Ethics Board, alleging that her father - big-time contributor Calvin Fayard - his longtime law partner Blaine Honeycutt and a cadre of other family and friends and their businesses funneled $770,000 to her campaign through the Democratic Party PAC in violation of state law.

And then in late March, at an otherwise sleepy meeting of the Washington Parish Democratic Party, the newcomer who insisted she was not a party to the partisan politics of the past reportedly had this to say: "I hate Republicans. I hate Republicans. They are cruel and destructive. They eat their young. They don't think. They don't allow people to think. They are bullies." Republicans immortalized the message, ridiculing her on bumper stickers that reads: "Caroline Fayard hates me."

The apparent missteps were only the latest setback for the party that once ruled the political roost in Louisiana with little effort and even less opposition.

Though much of the Deep South joined the GOP decades ago, Louisiana hung back, sticking out a century without a Republican as governor and 120 years without one in the U.S. Senate. Those were the heydays of Huey Long, John Breaux, J. Bennett Johnston, Edwin Edwards - before he went to prison - and Cleo Fields getting out the vote on buses and Mardi Gras floats.

Times are clearly changing. In the past decade, Democrats have gone from holding a comfortable 60 percent majority of registered voters in Louisiana to just barely half. In the capital region, Republicans and independents combined now constitute the voting majority.

Even the remaining registered Democrats are increasingly voting Republican. Louisiana now has just two Democrats representing it in Washington, D.C.: U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and newly elected Congressman Cedric Richmond, both of New Orleans. At home, the Louisiana House and Senate are both now majority Republican.

In recent months, several high-profile and longstanding Democrats have defected to the other side, most notably Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle and six state legislators, including Sen. John Alario of Westwego, the longest-serving member of the Legislature.

The party's waning influence is even evident on Facebook: As of April 26, 6,538 people "like" the Republican Party of Louisiana, and just 1,055 "like" Louisiana Democrats.
"The Democratic Party is in deep trouble," says Albert Samuels, an associate professor of political science at Southern University.

Ironically, the state party's troubles come at a time when many say it is better staffed and better funded than ever before. So what, exactly, is the problem?

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu

No message, no leader

One of the Louisiana Democratic Party's biggest challenges is perhaps best summarized by a comment that one of its members, state Rep. Reed Henderson of Chalmette, recently made to Gambit Weekly.

"Organizing Democrats is like trying to herd cats," he told the New Orleans publication. "We don't stand for anything."

Indeed, political analysts say Democrats in Louisiana don't have a distinct message, nor do they have a strong messenger in office to deliver it.

"As of now, no candidate has emerged to challenge Bobby Jindal," Samuels says. "Not only do the Democrats not have a candidate, they don't have a message. It's not really clear how the Democrats would govern the state differently."

Bob Mann, who holds the Manship Chair of Mass Communication at LSU's Manship School and served Louisiana's last Democratic governor and three of its Democratic U.S. senators, says the only Democrat who has "even remotely claimed that role" is Landrieu.

"Nobody has any real name recognition who is providing any kind of alternative narrative to what Gov. Jindal is doing," he says. "The closest Jindal has to any kind of opposition is John Kennedy, and he's a Republican."

The problem, says Jas Sullivan, an assistant professor of American politics at LSU, is that because Louisiana Democrats for so long haven't been forced to compete, they now lack what he calls a "cohesive mind-set."

When Democrats had a majority of 30 to 40 seats in the House, many of them could vote the way they wanted and the party could still win the issue. That's no longer the case.

"If they want to win subsequent elections, they're going to have to work together to stake out a position and show voters they can win on the issues," he says. "They're going to have to create an organizational structure that makes members think twice about voting the way they want instead of thinking about the party. And the organization is going to have to initiate this effort."

Elliott Stonecipher, an analyst of Louisiana politics and demographics, says the fall election cycle will be critical for Democrats to prove they're still a political force.

Given Louisiana's budget crisis and other issues that have arisen in Jindal's term, support for him isn't as strong as it used to be. His approval ratings were down 28 percent from their highest mark in 2008, when almost three-fourths of Louisianans supported him.

Stonecipher says the party essentially has a "free shot" to raise money and, at the very least, force Jindal to spend some of the $10 million he's raised for his re-election campaign.
Stonecipher likens current political conditions in Louisiana to those that propelled former President Bill Clinton into office over George H.W. Bush, noting that the Democrats even have James Carville, the architect of that winning campaign, back in the state.

"Those circumstances all exist here in Louisiana," Stonecipher says. "They don't even have to win. But if they can't get a strong, smart, articulate candidate in the governor's race, the attorney general's race or the secretary of state's race, then all of us need to take a time out and think about what this means. That's one more sign that something more fundamental is happening here - that the problem is now turning to critical."

The race issue

Another challenge for the Democrats is the issue few are willing to broach: race. Voter registration rolls indicate the Louisiana Democratic Party is nearly evenly split between blacks and whites.

Stonecipher says that white Democrats, who constitute a little more than one-fourth of all registered voters in the state, have emerged as Louisiana's true swing voters, having proven themselves willing to vote for either party. Black Democrats, he says, almost exclusively vote for Democratic candidates.

Thus, the Democratic Party in Louisiana continuously finds itself in the position of trying to court white Democrats without alienating black party members, a difficult road to travel. When it comes to economic policy in particular, Samuels says, blacks tend to favor a more activist government, while whites tend to be more skeptical about the role of government.

"The challenge for the Democratic Party is trying to figure out how to straddle that," he says. "The Democratic Party has to figure out how to thread that needle: how to hang on to blacks, who are necessary but not sufficient in numbers to win elections, and still get the white Democratic vote."

Mann says Landrieu and Breaux were able to accomplish that feat, but Melancon, who spent much of his 2010 campaign for a Senate seat trying to distance himself from President Barack Obama, failed, in the end alienating too many black voters.

Samuels says Louisiana political parties are starting to look a lot like those in Mississippi, where the Democratic Party is almost all black and the Republican party is almost all white. The seeds for this, he says, were sewn by the redistricting process a decade ago, when Louisiana began creating super-majority black districts all over the state.

"It's one thing to have a district that is 65 percent black, but when you start having districts that are 75 percent and 80 percent black, it means the remaining districts are going to be very, very white," Samuels says. "Over time, as our state leans more and more Republican, those districts are going to be out of reach of white Democrats to win."

Right now, the state party appears to be pleasing neither race.

Stonecipher says that with blacks "spotting" the Democratic Party more than one-fourth of the total vote, a Democratic candidate needs just one out of every three white votes to win in a runoff with a Republican. The reason they haven't been able to do it, he says, is that they are perceived by white voters to be the party of blacks.

"If the party is going to make race the be-all and end-all of everything," Stonecipher says, "then how is it ever going to get the white Democrat swing vote?"

At the same time, Samuels says, there is growing resentment among middle-class black voters that despite their overwhelming support for the party, the party is not evenhanded in supporting black candidates for office. And they're expressing their dissatisfaction by not turning out to vote, as evidenced in recent elections. Consider, for example, the party money spent on losing candidates Melancon and Fayard, compared to that which was spent on winning candidate Richmond.

"There's a view that the party organization is an old white men's club," Samuels says. "The perception is that the party is concentrating most of its efforts on trying to woo the moderate white voter in Louisiana, when in actuality those voters are increasingly shrinking. The complaint that many black Democrats have is that the party is increasingly chasing after people who aren't going to vote for them anyway."

**It's no party
Other issues have contributed as well to the Democratic Party's seemingly waning influence in the Bayou State.

Louisiana voters' disdain for the national Democratic leadership can't be overlooked. Obama received 40 percent of the state vote, and that was before the widely unpopular national health care plan and moratorium on deepwater drilling; and leaders such as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are routinely vilified by state voters.

After the 2010 midterm elections, when Democrats lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives, state Democrats started bailing from the sinking party ship.

Besides Caldwell, Angelle and Alario, state lawmakers Noble Ellington, Simone Champagne, Walker Hines, Fred Mills and Norby Chabert all switched to the Republican Party.

"The reason the Louisiana Democratic Party has fallen on hard times has absolutely nothing to do with what people in the party are doing or not doing," Mann says. "The fact is that greater national forces are at play. The perception is that the party has gone too far to the left, and the election of President Obama, who is very unpopular in Louisiana, has only hastened that decline. It's been quite a drag on Democrats across the state."

Officially, at least, the Louisiana Democratic Party doesn't seem to miss the defectors. Recently departed Communications Director Kevin Franck says they can be divided into two categories: Those who were Democrats in name only and rarely voted along party lines, and those who split purely for personal gain.

"We've certainly been challenged by the politicians who have decided it is in their best personal interest to leave the Democratic Party," Franck said before he left the state organization. "But it does have its rewards. The ship has become a little more difficult to steer, but when the rats jump off the ship, the ship is that much easier to manage."

Louisiana Democrats also are emerging from nearly a decade of leadership turmoil within the party apparatus itself.

Former party Chairman Chris Whittington took over the post when Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard left in 2005 to focus on his business. Whittington was a perpetual target for ousting - most notably in 2008 when the Landrieu family and Melancon unsuccessfully pushed another candidate - until he resigned in 2009. In recent years, the party headquarters on Government Street has been a revolving door for executive directors and communications directors.

**Turning the tide
Current Chairman Buddy Leach says it's not all doom and gloom for the Louisiana Democratic Party.

He notes the mayors of most of Louisiana's major cities - Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans, Kip Holden in Baton Rouge, Randy Roach in Lake Charles, Cedric Glover in Shreveport and Jamie Mayo in Monroe - are Democrats.

"The Democratic Party is far from lethargic," he says. "It has great leaders in office throughout the state."

But he admits that the party's first priority must be to develop a party platform - a "picture of what we owe the working men and women of Louisiana in representing them." The other challenge, he says, is assimilating young Democrats.

He insists the party is working with potential candidates throughout the state for the entire slate of offices. But just who that slate will include remains to be seen. Although Mitch Landrieu is widely viewed to be a viable statewide candidate at any time, he was just elected mayor of New Orleans. Other rising stars in the party aren't such sure bets [see related sidebar].

"To be completely honest with you, I can't pinpoint a rising star in the Democratic Party," LSU's Sullivan says. "Rising stars in the Democratic Party have said, I can't win as a Democrat in this state, so I'm not going to stay Democrat.' Let's be honest. Look at the governor's election coming up. Can we really pick a Democrat who can beat Bobby Jindal?"
Stonecipher thinks what the Louisiana Democratic Party needs most is to rebrand itself with a newcomer to politics.

A moderate-to-conservative, highly successful professional female in her late 40s - such as a doctor or a CEO - with a pristine background, who has made her money and is ready for public service, could "absolutely sideline every dirty trick that Timmy Teepell knows," Stonecipher says of Jindal's chief of staff.

"Give her Jindal's money, and it would take five minutes for everybody on the fourth floor [the governor's office in the Louisiana State Capitol] to have that sinking feeling."

Is it possible for this red state ever to return to a shade of blue? Of course, American politics are always cyclical, but few see it happening anytime soon.

Bernie Pinsonat of Southern Media & Opinion Research predicts it will be several election cycles before few - if any - Democrats win statewide offices.

"The Democrats in the South are on life support for sure," Mann says. "Political parties are pretty good at adapting, but sometimes they don't adapt until they're in deep trouble. The Democratic Party in Louisiana is in deep trouble, but it will learn to adapt. It just may take a while. After all, it was only seven years ago the Democrats elected a governor, and only two years ago that Mary Landrieu was re-elected to the U.S. Senate."

Penny Font is a freelance writer. This story first appeared in Baton Rouge's Business Report.

Rising Stars of the Democratic Party

After the virtually unknown Fayard advanced to the runoff with Jay Dardenne in the lieutenant governor's race, she was widely viewed as one of the Democratic party's up-and-comers.
Does that still hold true, given the accusations that family and friends laundered donations through the party and given her scathing comments about Republicans?

Bob Mann of LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication, who served Louisiana's last Democratic governor and three of its Democratic U.S. senators, says that Fayard was beginning to establish herself as a political contender before she "committed political suicide a few weeks ago, and I doubt all but a few Democrats are taking her all that seriously anymore."

But even before the controversy over her funding and her comments in Washington Parish, Bernie Pinsonat of Southern Media & Opinion Research says Fayard had little hope.

Pinsonat says no poll predicted she had a chance to beat Dardenne, given that her strongest base of support came from black Democrats, who lack the numbers to elect anyone to statewide office on their own. Her home parish, Livingston, overwhelmingly supported her opponent by 76 percent.

"That she had money to burn was obviously her main strength," Pinsonat says. "[Barack] Obama is president, and she is a Democrat and a trial lawyer. This is like trying to swim the English Channel with a 50-pound anchor tied to your neck."

But Albert Samuels, associate professor of politics at Southern University, says Fayard perhaps is the brightest star currently in the Democratic Party.

"She came out of nowhere and got 43 percent of the vote against a very seasoned candidate, Jay Dardenne," he says. "She did have that incident in Washington Parish, but quite frankly I don't think that's debilitating. The only people who care about that stuff are those who do nothing but follow politics. The average voter in Ville Platte doesn't care. It's not a fatal mistake; other people have come back from far worse."

On May 5, Fayard announced that she is running for Secretary of State. She faces Republican Secretary of State Tom Schedler of St. Tammany Parish, who was appointed to the office after Dardenne was elected lieutenant governor. Also running for the position is Republican state Rep. Walker Hines of New Orleans.


Sure, he restored Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District to the Democrats, beating Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao. And yes, his election means a second Democrat represents the state in the nation's capital.

But it's too soon to tell whether Richmond will be able to hold onto that district - or be elected to any other office outside of New Orleans.

Redistricting has the new boundaries of the 2nd District incorporating portions of Baton Rouge, which means Cleo Fields, Kip Holden or another Capital City politico could opt to run.
Interestingly, the newly drawn district closely resembles the existing Public Service Commission district of Lambert Boissier III, who has already voiced an interest in ousting Richmond.

"It remains to be seen whether or not he will be re-elected in two years," Samuels says. "This could be worth the price of admission watching how all this plays out."

Edwards had no political experience when he was elected to the Legislature in 2007, but his family has laid claim to the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office for four generations.

He represents one of the poorest and most diverse districts in Louisiana, stretching over four parishes from Tangipahoa through St. Helena to East and West Feliciana. The district is almost entirely rural, and about 55 percent of the population is black.

Edwards, who is white, graduated from West Point and served as an Airborne Ranger. But as the chairman of the Democratic Caucus, he is in a unique position to emerge as a strong opponent to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Mann says Jindal's popularity right now is soft, and there's a potential payoff for anyone who decides to exploit that by standing up and forcefully articulating an opposing view.

"I've been really impressed with the guy," Mann says. "He has an interesting story to tell. He's a former Army Ranger, and that kind of profile could prove to be attractive to a broad audience outside his Florida Parishes district. But I haven't seen him step out much in the last year. We'll see. He may emerge as strong opposition to Jindal. John Bel Edwards is someone who could do that."- PF