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And They're Off! 

Forget about Congress. The 2007 gubernatorial race is already gearing up.

A 60-second radio spot plays over a loudspeaker on the steps of the State Capitol. Reporters, party flacks, lobbyists and other politicos stare at nothing in particular as they listen to state Sen. Walter Boasso describe Louisiana government as "third world" and "pathetic." A few people laugh knowingly, and a narrator describes Boasso as a "success story."

The background music fades out and a reporter asks if it's a swipe at current Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Squinting from the sun and smiling at a question he probably knew would be asked, Boasso, a Republican businessman from Chalmette, rejects the assertion and contends his GetItDoneLa.org is the real reason for this dog-and-pony show. He just wants to provide a forum for people to get involved in Louisiana's recovery.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you all, but I'm not announcing that I'm running for governor today," Boasso said last week. The final word of the sentence -- "today" is enough to keep the political game moving. With qualifying less than 10 months away, Boasso refuses to say he is not running for governor, and this new nonprofit group could serve as a barometer.

Julie Vezinot, spokesperson for the Louisiana Democratic Party, walks back to her car somewhat flustered. "How can he honestly say this is not a precursor to him running for governor?" she asks. "This is ridiculous."

Three days earlier, another Republican, Congressman Bobby Jindal of Kenner, gave a speech to the Lafayette Rotary Club. Even though the city isn't in his district, Jindal doesn't mind stumping there, or in Houma or Gonzales or Thibodaux. According to a newspaper account, an eager Rotarian places a "Jindal for governor" placard on the podium before the speech starts, but it does little to coax an announcement.

"We get that all the time and we are flattered by it," Jindal says during a phone interview a few days later. "People ask quite a bit, and I know some people are doing polling. I think it's natural. People know I'm interested in that office."

Jindal and Boasso aren't the only Republicans interested in the race. New Orleans businessman John Georges has expressed interest in running as well and says he will make a final decision by early next summer. Georges says he almost ran against Blanco the last go round, but his children were too young -- a concern he says no longer is holding him back. He hasn't formed an exploratory committee yet, although it likely will come in January, Georges says, and there's no rush to create a campaign account. Besides, Georges will probably be his own best financial backer, as he's willing to dump millions of personal wealth into his bid.

Georges is the longtime owner of Imperial Trading Company in Harahan, the state's largest food distributor, handling everything from chips and drinks to cigarettes and motor oil -- pretty much anything you could find in a Cracker Barrel convenience store. Last year, the company did $500 million in sales. He also owns an interest in a company that distributes video poker machines, which Georges would have to disclose as a gubernatorial candidate, but he doesn't like talking about it. "What does that have to do with anything?" he asks. "That's only one side of me." Indeed it is. He likewise has his hands in construction, real estate and oil.

As for public service, Georges served seven years on the Louisiana Board of Regents and spent thousands of his own money to personally appear in television ads supporting the consolidated levee board initiative voters approved in September. All of that experience has been building towards a major run, he says, and his sights seem set on the governor's office.

"There is a true void in leadership right now and people are hungry for a real change," Georges says. "I can offer an alternative. I'm the only one considering a run right now that has never held office."

Meanwhile, Blanco, a Democrat, is the only major candidate who has announced for governor thus far. (T. Lee Horn has announced on the Libertarian ticket.) The governor has been criticized for her handling of the hurricanes last year and demonized by members of her own party. The governor's poll numbers have slowly ticked upwards since the storms -- they had no place else to go -- and she is determined to run for re-election next year.

Cynthia Dupree, a Lafayette-based fundraising consultant working exclusively for the governor, indicates that Blanco has roughly $3 million and change in her campaign war chest. About $2.4 million is detailed in the campaign financial forms on record with the state, while the rest has been raised in the "five or six" events held since Aug. 1, she says.

Each event had a goal of $100,000, Dupree says, and even if the target isn't reached during one function, it's usually picked up in another. The grand total would have been significantly higher if not for Katrina and Rita because, she says, Blanco shut down all fundraising in the face of the storms.

"It had been a year and four months since we did any active fundraising," Dupree says. "We left about $1 million on the table last year. At this point, we're just trying to play catch-up."

From within her own party, Blanco's most significant challenge appears to be coming from Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Shreveport native and former member of the state Senate. "I have not officially announced I'm running yet, but I have every intention to run," Campbell says. "I even have a plan already. Blanco doesn't have a plan. Jindal doesn't have a plan."

Campbell's plan involves a concept he has been pushing for years with no success. He wants to tax all the foreign oil that moves through Louisiana, which would generate billions for the state's coffers. As for his own war chest, Campbell says he has raised about $400,000 to date and that tally will top $1 million by the end of the year when campaign finance reports are due. But it likely won't be enough to sway Democratic loyalists.

Other Democratic names that have cropped up include state Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Crescent City Democrat and leader of the Legislative Black Caucus. Additionally, former Congressman Chris John, a Lafayette Democrat now a high-powered lobbyist on the Hill, says he's in the race if Blanco should drop out. Messages seeking comments from both men went unreturned last week.

Vezinot says the state party is putting all its resources behind Blanco, and the fact that Louisiana is holding one of the nation's three gubernatorial elections in 2007 may force national interests to get involved as well. As for the status of Blanco's traditional base that pushed her over the edge during the first election -- African-American voters in New Orleans -- that's still to be determined. Richmond's flirtations may be a signal to Blanco that she had better not take black votes for granted -- either on the election trail or in the Legislature. Meanwhile, many are wondering just how numerous, and where, black voters are these days.

"That's the piece of the puzzle that everyone is focused on -- the turnout in New Orleans," says Wayne Parent, author and chair of the political science department at Louisiana State University. "That's where everyone suspects the difference will be. If it's a high turnout, where it was pre-Katrina, then things haven't changed much. But if it's off, Democrats are going to have a hard time."

Although we've already seen a round of statewide elections, and municipal races in the city itself, Parent says the Nov. 7 ballot will be the ultimate litmus test because the storied political machine of Congressman William Jefferson, a Democrat, will force voters out of every nook and cranny, the way Blanco's gubernatorial bid would.

"We're about to learn a whole lot," Parent says. "I think the gubernatorial election will be full steam ahead after these elections and we'll begin to see the lay of the land and donors and major players will start making their moves."

Although Parent says a Blanco-Jindal rematch (they battled during the 2003 runoff) "isn't a sure thing," he admits it's the safest money in the game right now. Jindal doesn't dispute the assertion and, when pushed, says his decision will be officially announced early next year. Even the Louisiana Republican Party thinks it's a sure bet, as it continues branding everything from bumper stickers to Web sites with what is sure to be the elephant mantra of 2007: "Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Jindal." In fact, it seems everyone is ready for the race except Jindal.

"Yeah, despite what they say, I keep telling my family not to put those stickers on their cars," Jindal says.

At last count, Jindal, had roughly $2.1 million in his congressional bank account, but such as it is with death, he can't take it with him when he runs for governor due to campaign finance laws. That may explain his recent spending habit. Even though he has no real competition, Jindal says his campaign would spend $700,000 during the final weeks of his congressional race -- and that's on top of the $1 million Jindal already spent during the second quarter, largely on a massive media buy.

As for Boasso, he formed an official election committee in February and had only $19,000 in cash on hand, according to the latest report at the turn of the year. Boasso, however, is independently wealthy. He has tapped Jeff Crouere, a conservative political commentator from New Orleans and former executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, as a point man for GetItDoneLa.org. When asked if he'll be doing consulting work for Boasso, Crouere gave what might be a slight tip of the hat.

"We'll be doing some things together really soon," he says.

James Quinn, who presently serves as executive director of the state GOP, admits Boasso and Jindal would be chasing after the same base if they both ran for the post, but there's an effort underway behind the scenes to have all Republican interests coalesce behind one candidate. That goal, though, may be elusive.

"When push comes to shove and all these people have to form a committee and select a treasurer and hire a manager and start looking at polls, it'll thin out," Quinn says. "But I think we'll be seeing a lot more people floating a run over the next few months."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

click to enlarge Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Democrat - and former state senator, hasn't officially announced he will - challenge Blanco, but he's made his intentions clear.
  • Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Democrat and former state senator, hasn't officially announced he will challenge Blanco, but he's made his intentions clear.
click to enlarge Although Kathleen Blanco is the only candidate so far to - announce she'll run for governor in the next election, - analysts and pundits believe Bobby Jindal will be her - main opponent. He says he'll announce his intentions - early next year.
  • Although Kathleen Blanco is the only candidate so far to announce she'll run for governor in the next election, analysts and pundits believe Bobby Jindal will be her main opponent. He says he'll announce his intentions early next year.
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