The Louisiana governor’s race and taking the long view in the Deep South
Then Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards speaks at the Louisiana Federation of Teachers convention in Lake Charles, La., Nov. 23, 2014. | Rick Hickman / American Press via AP

The eyes of a hawk act like a telescope, so the bird sees prey at two or three times the distance that humans can. In two weeks, voters in Louisiana will elect their state senators, representatives, and governor. Clarity is needed to prevent Republican domination.

The GOP holds 25 of 39 Senate seats and 61 of 105 in the House. Fortunately, it lacks the governorship, held by John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

The benefit of preventing a Republican trifecta—control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature—is commonsensical. Otherwise, extreme right legislation marches through both houses and takes the governor’s signature, without resistance. This election, however, has special consequences.

Republican domination, Republican gerrymandering

Louisiana is one of 37 states in which primarily the legislators redraw congressional and state districts. Lawmakers elected this fall will use the 2020 census data to outline the new boundaries. Only a veto by a Democratic governor can stop the highly likely Republican gerrymandering that will result.

By squeezing New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the state’s two largest cities, into one congressional seat, Louisiana made a top ten list of most gerrymandered districts. Moreover, given Louisiana’s large African-American population—33%, compared to less than 14% nationally—and given Black voters’ overwhelming support for Democrats, it won’t be surprising if Louisiana Republicans racially manipulate the new lines.

Leaders and organizations are working to prevent this. Actors include Fair Districts Louisiana, the Louisiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (New Orleans), chair of the state Democratic Party. Also involved is former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is targeting this and 11 other states.

Historically, Republicans only recently took control of the capital. From 1877 to 1980, only Democrats held the governor’s seat. Since then, the office has switched back and forth with each election (if we count Gov. Buddy Roemer as a Republican, which he became after being elected as a Democrat in 1987). In the Senate, for the first time since Reconstruction, the GOP took the majority in the 2010 elections. The same change took place in the House.

Gov. Edwards, a conservative Democrat, won a stunning upset in 2015. (The last Democrat to win the gubernatorial election was Kathleen Blanco in 2003.) Then Republican Governor Bobby Jindal was term-limited, so it was an open seat.

As a state representative, Edwards was a star among Democrats and chair of his party caucus in the House. On the 2015 campaign trail, he vowed to use “common sense and compassion for ordinary people.” On the other hand, he emphasized his pro-gun and anti-abortion views throughout the campaign.

Then Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter was the other major candidate. Though he publicly claimed to be “pro-family,” he privately bought sex through D.C. Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey. I suppose as penance Vitter promised Tea Party followers that he would direct his personal and professional conduct “in a moral and socially appropriate manner.”

Two Republicans, two Democrats, and three independents also ran. In Louisiana’s open (or top-two) primary, all candidates regardless of party are on the same ballot. If anyone wins more than 50%, that candidate wins the office. Otherwise, the top two, regardless of party, meet in a run-off election. Since Edwards won only 40%, he faced second place finisher Vitter (23%) a month later, with Edwards winning the general election, 56 to 44 percent.

That victory was made possible by his garnering 97% of the Black vote (along with 37% of the white vote). Support for Vitter was nearly solely based on white voters. This pattern describes all of the state’s elected officials.

On victory night, Edwards reclaimed his bluer Democratic self, saying the people chose a breeze of hope that he didn’t create but did catch. He described the roots of the breeze in “the songs of the Louisiana Hayride, the food of our Cajun ancestors, the spirituals of our African-American churches, and the faith of our Italian … strawberry farmers, and the energy of Native Americans and our Hispanic immigrants.”

Administration and ratings

Gov. Edwards expanded Medicaid, enabling many more Louisianans to see doctors and receive medical prescriptions on a regular basis. He also passed historic bipartisan criminal justice reform to help rid the state’s reputation as “the world’s incarceration capital.” The new laws reduced mandatory minimums, shortened sentences, and expanded parole eligibility and prison alternatives. Drug sentences were revised, and new programs helped ex-convicts returning to their communities. He has also vowed to sue oil and gas companies for damaging the wetlands over decades if the parishes (counties) do not.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry opposes Gov. Edwards, for several reasons. He has ties to teachers’ unions—100% favorable ratings—and reservations about vouchers and charter schools. He has improved hiring practices and pay regulation, and he expanded the franchise tax on limited liability companies.

As a legislator, business lobbyists usually rated him below 50%. The American Conservative Union agreed with only 30% of his votes in the House one year. On environmental issues, he was commended and named to the Green Team by a coalition of environmental organizations.

On the other hand, the National Rifle Associations rated him in the 90s, but in many Southern and Midwestern states, that simply doesn’t rattle liberals and progressives. Consistent with his state House record, Gov. Edwards is “100 percent” pro-life and eagerly signed a bill outlawing abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for pregnancies from rape or incest. Harsh as it sounds, since the GOP is equally anti-choice, holding this issue as a litmus test is a dead end.

October 12 primary, November 16 general

Besides Edwards, the Oct. 12 primary has Oscar Dantzler (D) and Gary Landrieu (independent) as well as three Republicans: Ralph Abraham, Patrick Landry, and Eddie Rispone. Media outlets and opinion polls show Edwards, Abraham, and Rispone as the top three.

Abraham has represented the 5th District in the U.S. House since 2015 and calls himself “a leading conservative Christian voice” in Congress. He vows to lower taxes, decrease government, and stay true to his “pro-life” policies. Rispone, a construction industry tycoon, is one of the state’s wealthiest capitalists. He has never held public office and “stands with our president.” The two have been combatting each other, to the delight of Edwards.

The Democratic Governors Association and its Republican counterpart are paying close attention to the race. The RGA launched a million-dollar ad campaign linking Edwards to President Barack Obama. Risponse is running ads attacking Edwards on the criminal justice reforms, but critics charge these with expressing racial bias and being full of lies. The RGA ran misleading ads complaining about the Medicaid expansion, too.

As of this writing, Abraham will probably finish second to Edwards. The predicted run-off will be tougher for Edwards than it was in 2015 because Vitter was morally damaged by his sexual indiscretions and politically damaged by intra-Republican fighting. Regardless, it is tough for Democrats to win statewide. Trump won Louisiana, 58 to 38%, President Bill Clinton (in 1992 and 1996) was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state, and Mary Landrieu was the last party member to win the U.S. Senate (back in 2008).

In 2015, African-American voters were not blind to Edward’s shortcomings but saw beyond them and realized that significant progress was in reach. So did nearly 40% of all white voters. Hopefully, this will be repeated. Nearsighted voting will result in only backward motion.


Michael Arney
Michael Arney

Michael Arney is active in the Working Families Party. Before that, he helped lead the Bronx Progressives, a local affiliate of the New York Political Action Network (Our Revolution). For twenty years he volunteered at his children’s schools, and he is a regular platelet donor.