The only name that may have been more unpopular than Barack Obama at the Rally for Economic Survival in the Cajundome in Lafayette on July 21 was that of Ken Salazar. When Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph mentioned meeting with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, boos cascaded down from the nearly 11,000 Louisiana residents in the arena.
But the 44th president was the persona non grata during the 90-minute rally. The clarion call from the stage was consistent and persistent: The federal moratorium will wreck the Bayou State's economy, Obama doesn't get it, and it must be lifted. The president was invoked repeatedly in rhetorical flourishes that were juicy red meat for a largely conservative crowd stippled by Tea Party members and "Drill, Baby, Drill" T-shirts.
Several southwestern Louisiana oil and oil-service companies allowed their employees — rumor had it some were required — to attend the event while on the clock, and dozens of rough-hewn, whiskered attendees donned coveralls embroidered with the logos of prominent players in the energy industry, Halliburton and Baker Hughes among them. But not everyone had direct ties to the industry. Gary Ostroske, executive director of United Way for the Greater New Orleans area, drove west from the Crescent City to attend the rally. The UW is nonpolitical, but as the head of an agency that serves the needy, especially in a metro area still climbing out of the morass of Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, Ostroske can't help but view the moratorium as a threat. "Obviously what we need to do now is get people back on the rigs," he said.
Ostroske's agency has experienced a precipitous drop in donations since Katrina, and the prospect of thousands thrown out of work in the New Orleans metro area — not just from the rigs but laid off from restaurants and other businesses that benefit when the energy sector is booming — is a worst-case scenario. "We provide services," Ostroske said, "and as a result of the hurricane, the spill and now the moratorium, it becomes incredibly difficult for people to maintain a quality of life. This makes it even harder."
In a red parish in a red state where oil is big king, the moratorium is a fat, stationary target, and the speakers — Gov. Bobby Jindal, Lt. Gov. Scott Angelle, Louisiana Oil & Gas Association President Don Briggs and a host of other politicos and trade group leaders — took easy aim.
Billy Nungesser, the Plaquemines Parish president who has spun quite a bit in the news cycle since May, told the crowd: "Mr. President, this moratorium will turn Louisiana into a state of bankrupt businesses. It will increase the nation's dependency on foreign oil by 30 percent. It will raise the price of gasoline in all places across the country. It will cripple the economy of a state that has come back after Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, and we can't afford to be crippled again because of you!" The grateful audience roared its endorsement.
Gov. Bobby Jindal was the ranking elected official to speak. He was greeted warmly by the partisan crowd, and he returned the favor with pithy bromides: "Let our people work, that is what we're telling Washington, D.C.," he said to a round of applause. "We're in a war to defend our way of life. We will win this war," he added later to more vigorous ovation.
But it was Angelle, a St. Martin Parish Democrat flirting with a switch to the GOP, who stole the show. Serving as master of ceremonies, Angelle repeatedly whipped the crowd into a froth as he took the podium between speakers.
"Mr. President, Mr. President," he intoned in sing-song oration that recalled both populist Louisiana politicians of yore and black preachers of today, "I'll forget the fact that you don't like oil and gas companies. But this moratorium is not hurting the stockholders of BP or Exxon or Chevron. This moratorium is hurting the Cheramies and Callaises and the Dupuises and the Robins and the Boudreauxs and the Thibodeauxs!"
Outside the arena, in the swelter and traffic exhaust, a small gaggle of about 20 protesters gathered with signs that read "Moratorium Today Means Safe Jobs Tomorrow" and "We Support Environmental Safety," among others.
"We're standing up to these big oil interests that are killing our world and killing us," said Nell, a Lafayette woman who declined to give her last name. "It's important for people to know that you can stand up and say it's not acceptable. These people are putting profit before our life."
But inside the Cajundome, it was all Kumbayah for oil.
As the crowd shuffled out into the stifling Louisiana summer after the rally, members of the Southwest Louisiana Tea Party from Lake Charles passed out tan business cards inspired by Wild West iconography: "Wanted for Apathy: American Citizens."
"I'm worried about everything that's going on in this country," said a sympathetic Richard Mouton of Lafayette, owner of a car repair shop, as he queued up for a shuttle bus. "I never thought I'd see this day."
Walter Pierce is the managing editor of The Independent in Lafayette.