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Down-Ballot Contests 

From lieutenant governor down to insurance commissioner, voters get a shot on Oct. 20 to alter or maintain Louisiana's second tier of political power.

They're not running for governor " easily the most high-profile race on the ballot this fall " but most of the statewide candidates at least hope to be in the line of succession when the votes are counted this Saturday (Oct. 20).

Of Louisiana's seven statewide elective offices, the only one not up for grabs is that of treasurer. Incumbent Treasurer John Kennedy, just days after kicking Democrats to the curb by switching to the GOP, drew no opponents during qualifying and is thus re-elected already to another four-year term.

All other statewide incumbents face opposition (except for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who is not seeking re-election). Those in the line of succession to the governor's office are the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general, respectively, and each faces at least one opponent. The commissioners of insurance and agriculture, who are not in the line of succession, likewise face challengers.

Three of the 'other" statewide contests appear to be foregone conclusions for the incumbents " lieutenant governor, secretary of state and insurance commissioner " but two of the down-ballot contests have turned into slug fests. In the races for attorney general and commissioner of agriculture, allegations of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence are being tossed around like Mardi Gras beads.

Here's an overview of the non-gubernatorial statewide races:

Lieutenant Governor " Democrat Mitch Landrieu has made major changes in the state's second-highest office during the past four years, literally and figuratively. For example, he moved his main office from Baton Rouge to his hometown of New Orleans, the Mecca of state tourism, which is one of Landrieu's chief responsibilities as overlord of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. In addition, Landrieu's multi-million-dollar television and print campaign to help restore the hospitality industry after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may have been his most aggressive initiative.

Internally, Landrieu has been a shrewd decision-maker, a fact that has been largely overlooked by the mainstream press. After being elected, he brought in a private consultant to streamline operations and cut duplicative functions. He instituted closures and cutbacks throughout the department, which angered parts of the office's constituency but made for good business.

On the other hand, Landrieu has strengthened a popular Main Street program, was personally part of an ad hoc search-and-rescue team in New Orleans following Katrina, has an extremely popular name and has raised more than $760,000 for his re-election bid. Landrieu could easily escape a runoff, despite facing four other opponents. Two are also-rans: independents Norris 'Spanky" Gros Jr., of Pierre Part and Thomas D. Kates of Bogalusa.

Country music star Sammy Kershaw, an Acadiana Republican, surprised even himself by entering the race. It's impossible to predict his impact on the final vote tally because one never knows how much celebrity status might morph into political support. He has lofty ideas, among them making Louisiana the next Nashville. A personal bankruptcy, however, and his own seriousness as a candidate have loomed large over his inconsistent campaign efforts.

Another Republican, state Rep. Gary Beard of Baton Rouge, is challenging Landrieu, but Beard's candidacy likewise has been overshadowed by personal and possibly ethical problems. He has been sued by a Lafayette company in connection with his business dealings under state-sponsored movie tax credits, and several news stories have portrayed him as an insider who reaped huge " and questionable " profits from a program that he helped enact as a legislator. His campaign has stalled since the stories first appeared more than a month ago.

Secretary of State " This one is pretty much a no-brainer. Facing off against incumbent Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, a Republican, are two upstarts with very little name recognition: independent Scott Lewis of Baton Rouge, who has run for state office before, and 'R." Wooley, a Democrat who also hails from Red Stick. Without even trying, Dardenne, who is still recovering from a serious car accident that occurred over the summer, has picked up endorsements from the Louisiana Republican Party and the Alliance for Good Government.

From his sick bed, Dardenne launched a $300,000 radio and TV campaign that in part play up his successes on the cultural side of the office, which includes, but isn't limited to, free admission to many state museums. In this contest, the old joke about winning without even having to get out of bed may apply literally.

Attorney General " The attorney general's race has quickly become one of the statewide barnburners. More than anything else, it's a referendum on incumbent Charles Foti Jr., a Democrat from New Orleans.

Where to begin? Most recently, Foti's office lost a high-profile criminal case against the owners of St. Rita's nursing home in St. Bernard Parish, where 35 patients died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Foti's fortunes took a nosedive when he accused a doctor and two nurses in New Orleans of murder after alleging that they euthanized patients during the early, desperate hours of the 2005 storm.

The medical community is still furious at Foti's arrest of Dr. Anna Pou and nurses Cheri Landry and Lori Budo, all three of whom stayed behind at Memorial Medical Center to tend to elderly patients. Doctors, nurses and others in the medical field have found a place for their support and money against Foti: District Attorney Buddy Caldwell, the DA for East Carroll, Madison and Tensas parishes since 1978. Caldwell boasts that he has achieved a 99 percent conviction rate, and he holds the state's highest per capita collection rate for past-due child support.

Not surprisingly, the Louisiana Republican Party doesn't buy Caldwell's creds, which is why the GOP sponsored a statewide media buy highlighting a 1997 audit of Caldwell's office that details thousands spent on personal expenses " including clothes and golf outings. The ads also accuse Caldwell of making racial remarks in his response. Caldwell alleges that the audit, overseen by former Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle " a Republican " was merely an extension of a political tiff the two have had for years.

Royal Alexander, a 41-year-old Shreveport Republican and attorney, started out playing the part of the idealistic Young Turk in this race, but a report on his 'aggressive" fund-raising style by The Times-Picayune knocked the wind out of his sails. The T-P published an email written by Alexander to a pair of lobbying clients involved in the health-care industry. It offered a scary, behind-the-scenes look at fundraising Louisiana style. Alexander owned up to his own aggressiveness, which read in part: 'So, in return for the precious time I am going to take away from my campaign for Attorney General to assist you, I am going to ask you to make a substantial contribution to my campaign."

Critics of Alexander say that if he had been a Democrat, he would have been indicted " or at least investigated " by the Republican-controlled federal justice system.

Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry " Don Johnson is back! No, not the Miami Vice Don Johnson; we're talking about the Don Johnson from East Carroll Parish's Transylvania (yes, Louisiana, there is a Transylvania). After losing bids for agriculture commissioner in 1987, 1995 and 2003, Johnson's campaign is taking another swing, one that will likely produce a similar result.

But that's only because the three other pols in the contest have been slugging it out for months, and incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom is on the ropes. Political operatives can smell blood in the water, and Johnson can't seem to compete with the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to bring a campaign to the statewide airwaves.

Odom has led the department since 1980. As popular with timber and cattle farmers as he is with urban blacks, he has never faced any real opposition. But all that came to an end last year when Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau filed a litany of public corruption charges against Odom. Never mind that earlier this year a state district judge tossed out the charges. Odom still faces a relentless prosecutor in Moreau, who argues the charges were wrongfully dismissed. Moreau's office is appealing the dismissals.

Both of Odom's major challengers are Republicans, and neither misses an opportunity to knock the legendary Democratic icon. State Rep. Mike Strain of Abita Springs, who is not term limited, has had his campaign up and running since the corruption charges against Odom started sticking in headlines a year ago. He calls his campaign the 'Army of Reform."

Strain, a cattle farmer and Northshore veterinarian, already appears to have won the hearts and minds of the GOP faithful. He enjoys the backing of Lafayette Congressman Charles Boustany and U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Metairie, among others. Whereas Odom articulates no specific campaign strategy, Strain touts a five-tier proposal for reform. He wants to reduce farmers' transportation and fuel costs through tax credits, invest more money in new farming methods and 'be a fiscal hawk when it comes to the use of tax dollars."

Also running against Odom is Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Wayne Carter, another Republican, who is using his own money to finance his campaign. He wants an inspector general at the administrative level to oversee the burgeoning department, believes organic farming could help Louisiana compete nationally and wants to pair Louisiana farmers with local school districts, creating a new market for agriculture professionals while providing healthy alternatives to students at a price schools will love.

Commissioner of Insurance " Voters made Jim Donelon, a Republican former state lawmaker from Metairie, the state commissioner of insurance last year in a special election. Even though he's barely one year into the gig, Donelon is expected to sail easily into re-election during the primary. He has the industry's campaign dollars tied up and can cite a list of challenges his office has taken on in the aftermath of the 2005 storm season, from bringing State Farm back to coastal Louisiana to streamlining the administrative side of the office.

He faces opposition from Democrat James 'Jim" Crowley of Shreveport, Republican Robert Lansden of Covington and Republican Jerilyn Schneider-Kneale of Slidell, but none has laid a glove on Donelon going into the final week of the campaign.

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

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