Faced with the choice of a flamboyant populist with lifetime membership or a streetwise businessman new to the fray, Democratic regulars are quietly coalescing behind the name they know in the governor's race.
The political ghosts in Baton Rouge's Hilton Capitol Center were already stirring when Foster Campbell took the microphone in his hand. The newly restored hotel, benefitting from more than $70 million in renovations, was once the place to stay in Baton Rouge for late President John F. Kennedy and, was also the legendary haunt of former Gov. Huey P. Long, who often used its notorious underground tunnel. Campbell, a rural politician and lifelong Democrat from Bossier Parish, isn't likely to evoke JFK, but comparisons of Campbell to Long have been made for decades ' and his campaign has done little to squelch the association. Campbell is even jockeying for the governor's chair from his seat on the Public Service Commission, just as Long did.
In a six-minute speech at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner ' where the Democratic elite meet, eat and greet, for tickets ranging upwards to $5,000 '' Campbell manages to touch on education, corruption, consumer rights and environmental concerns while being interrupted by laughter and clapping 15 times. Maybe he stacked the crowd, or it could have been the pre-event cocktails, but Campbell brings the house down. He even addresses parts of his speech directly to former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the presidential hopeful seated among an assortment of Louisiana's political superstars. "It's okay to be a trial lawyer here tonight," Campbell assuredly advises his fellow Democrat. "You got a lot of friends."
Mostly, Campbell puts on a show reminiscent of vintage Louisiana populism. "I took on the telephone companies when I passed the 'Do Not Call List,'" a red-faced Campbell says in his country drawl, arms waving wildly. "I took on the railroads when we needed railroad safety in Louisiana."
Even his campaign's central plank smacks of bygone days when state government stared down Standard Oil. The Campbell Plan would eliminate the state income tax on both individuals and businesses; return $3.1 billion back to those same groups; and raise future money through a 6 percent fee on all oil and gas processed in the state. "They owe it to the great state of Louisiana," Campbell tells the crowd. "If anybody is worried about the oil companies leaving the state, don't worry about it, because they are making $12,500 in net profit per minute."
Campbell leaves the stage to an ovation nearing half a minute. Someone from the crowd yelled out: "Now we got a leader!"
State Sen. Walter Boasso, of course, begs to differ, and was given the same amount of time allotted to Campbell at the fundraiser. Clearly sweating, the bulky Chalmette native and recent Republican convert did his best to cheer for the home team, but he was understandably uncomfortable after joining the fold when the state GOP shunned him in favor of the race's frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal of Kenner.
Boasso, a self-made businessman with one of the best stories to tell in the race (one Nightline report dubbed him a "hero" in the wake of Katrina), was once a registered Democrat. Still, he was unable to let his natural charm shine as his words stumbled out tentatively during his speech. "I really want to appreciate the warm welcome that the party has given to me in coming back home, and I appreciate that," Boasso says in his opening remarks.
As for issues, the speech was thin, not unlike his Web site, which features absolutely nothing under "On the Issues." An ill-advised portion of his time was also spent introducing his opponent. "We have two good Democrats in the race," he says. "Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell is a good man."
In return, Campbell pointed to the emperor's clothing. "I ain't never left ya,'" he reminded those gathered. "I'm a Democrat."
The only wild card on the Democratic side of the race is New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who has avoided answering questions about his aspirations. Julie Vezinot, communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party, says there haven't been any formal meetings with party leadership, and it's noteworthy that Nagin is raising money outside of the state. (The congressional seat of William Jefferson, the New Orleans Democrat facing federal corruption charges, might go up for grabs.)
But since the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on July 21, the insider buzz has been growing around Campbell, she says, adding that the party is not favoring either candidate. "Foster got overwhelming support from the [Jefferson-Jackson Dinner]," she says, "It appeared to be a great night for him."
Traditional factions of the party Democrats need to win on a statewide level are also inching over. "I've seen some of those stirrings moving in that direction too in recent months," Vezinot says.
State Rep. Juan A. LaFonta, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and a Democrat from New Orleans, reports that Campbell's grassroots campaign is well underway in the city, although starting off slow with signage only. Boasso's materials, meanwhile, still haven't hit the streets. "This is going to shape up to be an interesting race," says LaFonta, who has not endorsed a candidate.
In an interview following the dinner speech, Campbell embraces the perceived shift ' although surely wondering why it didn't start when he was the lone Democrat ' and predicts key endorsements from labor and teachers will eventually be secured. "I don't think there's any question who the real Democrat is," he says. "I have 32 years of helping people as a Democrat, and I have never thought about switching parties. I'm one of the strongest, white Democrats you'll find in Louisiana."
Boasso shrugs off the assessment, still touting one of his own polls that shows a 10-percentage-point drop for Jindal and a Boasso boost from 6 percent to 21 percent ' this after spending $1.3 million for television ads to increase his name recognition. And therein resides the most noticeable difference between Campbell and Boasso: Money. Boasso spent more on media than Campbell has in his account right now, which is roughly $1.2 million. Presently, Boasso has only $232,000 on hand, but he has already loaned his campaign $1.4 million and can dig deeper if needed. Campbell, meanwhile, is challenged in his fundraising.
In the end, Boasso says his opponent is Jindal, the frontrunner who held at more than 50 percent in Boasso's own poll. He's meeting with black mayors around the state ' Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden introduced him for his announcement speech ' and staffers warn not to underestimate the burgeoning organization. Boasso says he has the time, resources and energy to weather any momentum shifts.
"The Democratic support I am getting comes from those who are ready for someone to take the fight to Bobby Jindal," Boasso says. "They are looking for someone who is willing to challenge Bobby Jindal on his record of following the incompetence of President Bush in Iraq and in New Orleans. And ultimately, they are looking for someone who can beat Bobby Jindal. They know I am that Democrat."