Things haven't always been so dismal for Louisiana Democrats. Party optimists say their current misfortunes won't last forever, either. Politics change with the tide, constantly rising and falling. A look at the personalities who have kept the Democratic philosophy alive in Louisiana over the past 80 or so years proves that point.
Back in his heyday, Gov. Huey Long didn't confine himself to state politics. At the 1932 Democratic National Convention, he spoke in favor of nominating New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt for president and brokered the votes of several state delegations. In a touch of political foreshadowing, Long became disillusioned with FDR and appeared to be on his way to mounting a third party effort when he was assassinated in 1935.
When four-time Gov. Edwin Edwards was at the height of his power in the 1970s and '80s, he more or less was the Louisiana Democratic Party. It wasn't until former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, now a lobbyist, rose to power and became involved in party affairs — particularly in the 1990s — that key personnel began staffing the party, raising substantial money and giving the party structure and purpose. Federal Judge James J. Brady became a driving force during this period as well, serving as the hands that partly molded the administrative side of the modern state party. Breaux also created the prototype for the white Southern Democrat — what became known as the Blue Dog Democrat (or, in Louisiana, the John Breaux Democrat). During the tenures of both Edwards and Breaux (who got his political start as EWE's driver), former state Sen. Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge emerged as the premier statewide black power broker. Fields garnered quite a reputation in the late 1990s for getting voters to the polls by any means possible, from chartered buses to Mardi Gras floats.
Today, the Democratic Party chairman is former Congressman Buddy Leach, a wealthy businessman who recently hired Edwards to work at his law firm when the ex-governor was released from federal prison after doing time for shaking down potential casino license holders. The Associated Press reported that Edwards will serve as a private business consultant and quoted Leach as saying Edwards "will have no role in the Louisiana Democratic Party."
Pondering the future of the Louisiana Democratic Party brings to mind Caroline Fayard of New Orleans. Though she lost the lieutenant governor's contest by 14 points to Republican Jay Dardenne last year, the Democratic newcomer received 64,210 more votes than Congressman Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville who shelled out $4 million in his bid for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. David Vitter. Fayard made an impressive statewide debut at age 32.
Ravi Sangisetty, a 36-year-old Houma attorney who lost the 3rd Congressional District race, likewise distinguished himself in his debut.
As the party searches for future leaders, the legislative roster in New Orleans offers a large palette. Reps. Neil Abramson and Walt Leger III have shown great potential, observers say. Also, Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite is said to be making early, yet noticeable waves as chairman of the Legislature's Democratic Caucus. In the Senate, the same can be said of Sens. J.P. Morrell and Karen Carter Peterson, the latter of whom is said to have good White House connections. Both senators are youthful Democrats who appear well-positioned to craft the party's future image. — Jeremy Alford