The Lone Wolves Roar

by Jeremy Alford

There's nothing the Democrats can do to quiet Foster Campbell, and the GOP may lose Walter Boasso altogether.

They're not U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, the Kenner Republican dominating the race for governor ' and both would jump through flaming hoops to prove it. Foster Campbell, with his country wit and liberal tax ideas, is the Democratic frontrunner by default who's keeping the political establishment fearful that his numbers might actually take off. Meanwhile, Sen. Walter Boasso, a self-made millionaire and former Democrat running as a Republican, is thumbing his nose at GOP favorite Jindal and openly discussing a party switch back to his Democratic roots.

A few of the polls released to the public on the governor's race have both men recording only a few percentage points, with Campbell leading slightly. It's a far cry from the 40-or-so points Jindal is pulling, but the number of undecided voters remains high in all surveys ' as it should roughly six months out from the primary. Campbell and Boasso are also far below the $5 million fund raising mark that Jindal surpassed this month. Campbell has about $1 million in the bank, while Boasso has put up $2 million of his own cash and is promising to spend twice that.

But what they both lack in green, they more than make up for in their convictions. Campbell, a member of the Public Service Commission and former state senator from Oak Grove, has a silver tongue that he uses to demonize corporate giants like ExxonMobil and Entergy; he's a Louisiana populist if there ever were one. That may be attractive to an electorate fatigued over recovery issues, as was the case with former folksy Gov. Huey P. Long following the momentous 1927 floods.

The Louisiana Democratic Party, however, isn't jumping to back Campbell. It'll probably take a vote of the party's state central committee or a runoff berth for that to happen, says Democratic spokeswoman Julie Vezinot. "Right now we're helping all Democrats," she says. "The field could become more packed if a Walter Boasso or someone else comes over into our fold, though."

For now, Campbell is more than willing to carry his own water. He is about to be unleashed on the voting public, as he recently ordered up a large radio buy to promote his trademark issues: eliminating state income taxes and replacing them with an updated version of the 1921 severance tax on oil and gas, only this time on foreign oil processed in Louisiana. It's a straightforward spot with a dramatic score, and Campbell's camp says it will run statewide.

On his most recent campaign finance report, however, only two advertising expenditures are listed: $125 for KWCL in Oak Grove and $7,000 to WWL in New Orleans. More bills could come, however, as the report also reveals Campbell loaned the campaign $300,000 from his own pocket the day before the first-quarter reporting period ended April 13.

The media buy was timed to coincide with the federal tax deadline, but it will also introduce Campbell to Louisiana's voters, some of whom already know about the man and his message. He has been pushing his populist tax agenda for more than a decade, this time promising that $3.1 billion in taxes will be returned to residents if he's elected. But it's the "small fee" he proposes on foreign oil that will garner Campbell the most attention.

Louisiana will gain $1.7 billion in new revenue each year, he says, and more than half of the cash will go to coastal restoration. That could help Campbell shore up support in south Louisiana, supplementing his northerly base, but he'll have to fight the oil industry to gain any real ground. Larry Wall, a spokesman for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, says he has been fielding interviews almost daily to counter Campbell's claim. "The issue will never have the votes to pass, but just the talking about the issue is threatening to people who want to move businesses here," Wall says.

The oil industry will enjoy a run of free media in coming weeks as Campbell's ideas are questioned by reporters, but there isn't much brewing in the way of organized opposition ' yet. "If he starts polling higher or is close to a runoff, we'll be pulling out all the stops," says one industry lobbyist.

Having first been elected to the state Senate in 2003, Boasso hasn't had much time to incur any real political enemies. When it comes to fund raising, he has one benefit Campbell doesn't: personal wealth. He has amassed a fortune raising cattle and farming pine, but the bulk of his income is derived from Boasso America Corporation, a national network of tank-container facilities for rail, road and marine. (The company also dabbles in everything from bulk-liquid transportation to emergency-response tank-trucks.) Boasso can be extravagant; he has a ranch housing zebras and other exotic animals. He's passionate and compassionate, too, spending countless dollars to help his neighbors recover. In fact, he hotwired a school bus in the desperate days following Hurricane Katrina to personally evacuate people from St. Bernard Parish.

More than any other candidate running, or thinking of running, Boasso has the most intriguing story to tell. The Louisiana Republican Party, however, has already endorsed Jindal, despite the fact that qualifying is months away. The decision infuriated Boasso, but it ultimately probably didn't matter much. From the starting gate, Boasso has kept a sense of autonomy in his camp, and there were even rumors early on he would run as an independent. "Let's demand we check party labels at the front door and do what's right for the people," Boasso says.

Roger F. Villere Jr., state GOP chairman, contends Boasso wasn't overlooked but says the party wanted to be prepared to take over the mansion. "We took this action because we believe that we must send an immediate and unmistakable message to the voters," he says. By making that call, Villere and Louisiana's Republicans may lose a vibrant spokesman, as well as someone with deep pockets, because Boasso is openly flirting with every other party but the GOP.

The strategy might work well for Boasso, who has only released vague parts of his agenda thus far. It certainly worked for former Gov. Mike Foster, who switched from Democrat to Republican in the 1995 contest before taking the whole enchilada.

Whatever Boasso does, he better do it fast. The news of his potential jump might be exciting fodder for political junkies, but if it persists for too long, it could overshadow his entire message and hamper any chance he has of boosting his fall numbers, says Joshua Stockley, former president of Louisiana Political Science Association and professor of government at Nicholls State University.

"This may be a shrewd move to up his name recognition statewide, but if he keeps shopping around like this there is a real danger people will talk more about the switch than his agenda," Stockley says. "Both he and Campbell are second-tier candidates, and they're both looking for ways to increase their stock."