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Pin the Fail on the Donkey 

Jeremy Alford on the collapse of the Louisiana Democratic Party — and what lies ahead for the Dems

click to enlarge Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco (center), once the state's most powerful Democrat, is staying on the sidelines — at least for now. U.S. Sen. David Vitter soundly won re-election as a Republican, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is stressing her bipartisanship more than ever.
  • Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco (center), once the state's most powerful Democrat, is staying on the sidelines — at least for now. U.S. Sen. David Vitter soundly won re-election as a Republican, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is stressing her bipartisanship more than ever.

"I just know, before this is over, I'm gonna need a whole lot of serious therapy. Look at my eye twitching." — Donkey (from Shrek, 2001)

Let's begin with a tale of two Buddys: Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Buddy Leach and state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. Both are white, Southern Democrats with piney-woods accents. Yet, they couldn't be more different.

  Leach is an unapologetic liberal, the last of the red-hot populists. He oversees the party's operations and is one of its most generous — and prolific — donors. Caldwell is trending conservative (he joined a slew of Republican attorneys general in suing to overturn Obamacare) and enjoys a budding alliance with GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal. He's also the only statewide Democratic official in the Capitol.

  There's also something about Mary — as in Mary Landrieu, Louisiana's senior U.S. senator. She makes up the final part of the Bayou State's Democratic troika; she fits right in between Leach and Caldwell as a carefully crafted centrist.

  "I think those three people represent what's left of the Democratic Party here," says political consultant Roy Fletcher, whose lance is for hire by all comers, D's and R's alike. "They represent the different components of the old coalition. But that has broken down. And since none of them speak the same vernacular, the Democratic Party is trying [to redefine] itself. What do they say? How do they say it? They are their own main challenge."

  It's not as if this dilemma snuck up on the Dems. Watching the Donkey Party lose control in Louisiana has been like watching a cheetah stalk and take down a gazelle. In slow motion. In high-definition. It was only a matter of time.

On the Hill, Landrieu and Congressman Cedric Richmond — both of New Orleans, where Democrats can still win handily — are the lone Democratic voices for Louisiana. In the state Legislature, Republicans recently wrested control of the House for the first time since Reconstruction. Democrats still control the state Senate, but the fall elections could change that, too.

  For now, the juiciest intrigue is on the state level.

  "The rumors are getting hot and heavy that Caldwell is getting ready to switch parties," says one longtime Democratic operative. "Then again, there has also been talk about Caldwell running for governor if no one qualifies against Jindal. He's paranoid right now that there's someone out there, some opposition. Caldwell is perfectly representative of what Democrats are going through right now."

  Adding fuel to the speculation is the lawsuit Caldwell filed on Jindal's behalf last year challenging President Barack Obama's Democratic-backed health care law. When contacted by Gambit about the possibility of switching parties, Caldwell offered "no comment."

  Kevin Franck, communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party, said, "In his heart, Buddy Caldwell is a Democrat, and whichever way the political winds blow, he'll always be a Democrat."

  "Things are dicey right now," the operative adds. "What happens if Caldwell does switch and Mary (Landrieu) decides not to run for re-election? Where are we at then? There will be no strong elected (statewide) personality. It's all dying on the vine."

  Sen. Landrieu says she's enjoying her time on the Hill and her possible exit has been greatly exaggerated. "I have served happily for 14 years and intend to serve another term or two, should that be the people's wish," she says. "I am very comfortable with my centrist record of accomplishment and look forward to continuing to serve Louisiana and working on issues important to the state, like our coastal recovery, championing small businesses and advocating for education reform."

  State Sen. John Alario of Westwego and Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle recently switched from Democrat to Republican. Former Congressman Charlie Melancon, a Democrat, was put to rout by the otherwise tainted Republican David Vitter of Metairie in November, and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco is staying on the sidelines. The only A-lister left seems to be New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is still in his first year as mayor.

click to enlarge There are rumors that Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, the only statewide Democrat in the capitol, could run for governor — or that he may defect to the Republican Party.
  • There are rumors that Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, the only statewide Democrat in the capitol, could run for governor — or that he may defect to the Republican Party.

  "Of course he can run statewide," says Joshua Stockley, political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. "He was recently lieutenant governor, and we know he has a record of winning statewide. But does he really want to do that? However, running for governor is different. It's a higher profile. Can Louisiana stand to have him as governor and Mary Landrieu as a U.S. senator simultaneously? That's a tough sale."

  That's another reason why there has never been a worse time — in recent history, at least — to be a Democrat in Louisiana.

When state Democratic lawmakers convened a meeting prior to Christmas to brainstorm ways to get the party out of the muck, they gathered as the guest of party chair Leach at an unlikely place. They huddled at Grosse Savanne Waterfowl and Wildlife Lodge in Cameron Parish, which is owned by Leach. It's an impressive spread, plush even by private hunting club standards, located on 5,000 acres of marsh brimming with 40 duck blinds. It was the site of a fundraiser for Jindal shortly before Leach became chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party in January 2010. Leach, for whatever it's worth, also contributed $1,000 to Vitter in 2005. Leach told reporters last year he was merely thanking Vitter for his support of Fort Polk.

  The lodge was an appropriately odd setting for these strange times. Some lawmakers moaned about the wheels falling off, while others questioned whether their Republican counterparts had the winning message after all.

  State Rep. Reed Henderson of Chalmette, a firebrand even in the best of times, says many different topics were discussed, but the gathering also saw some raw emotions in the wake of the disastrous fall elections. There, as in recent elections, the party's greatest historical strength — its diversity — served as a temporary hindrance.

  It's only temporary, Henderson insists. Republicans probably thought they had a mandate under President George W. Bush — until Barack Obama swept into office. Politics is cyclical. Still, Democrats are finding it difficult to brand themselves.

  "Organizing Democrats is like trying to herd cats. We don't stand for anything," Henderson says. "The problem is this wide spectrum of issues and you can't concentrate a beam on any one thing. I think the voters know what they want. The parties don't. The people who are really controlling the votes are the conservative middle. This country is middle-to-right, and so is Louisiana. I think we, as Democrats, need to make some changes. Because I was born a Democrat and I plan to die a Democrat. That's just the way it is."

  Oddly enough, one "tangible" idea to come from the Grosse Savanne meeting was a call for fresh faces — including those of some lawmakers — to run for positions on the Democratic State Central Committee. The committee runs the state party machinery, such as it is, and it also serves as Leach's boss.

  "I'll probably not only run for state representative, but also for the state central committee," Henderson says. As for the current party administration, Henderson adds, "I don't see any leadership there now."

  The tricky part, according to another lawmaker, will be finding a way to appeal to white voters without isolating the African-American base that has historically stood with Democrats. In recent years, the party's treatment of African-American candidates has drawn strong criticism. Former state Sen. Don Cravins Jr. of Opelousas and current Sen. Lydia Jackson of Shreveport — both of whom are black — threatened to run for Congress as nonparty candidates in 2010. Two years earlier, Rep. Michael Jackson of Baton Rouge did just that — and helped unseat then-new Democratic Congressman Don Cazayoux of New Roads. Cazayoux is now the U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, a position to which he was appointed by Obama.

  "This isn't going to be an easy fix, and I haven't heard a good idea on how to do it from anyone," says the same lawmaker, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. "It's going to take a lot of leadership. Good leadership. And a lot of people concerned are looking to Cedric [Richmond] to be that leader."

  Richmond, a former member of the state House, reclaimed the New Orleans-based congressional district for Democrats last year — with Obama's help. He ousted former Republican Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao. Richmond is now seen as a rising star — and a potential powerbroker — in the Louisiana Democratic Party and in the African-American community.

click to enlarge Cedric Richmond, who captured a Republican-held seat in Congress in 2010, was the one bright spot in a disastrous election for Louisiana Democrats.
  • Cedric Richmond, who captured a Republican-held seat in Congress in 2010, was the one bright spot in a disastrous election for Louisiana Democrats.

  Meanwhile, in the state House, a passel of lawmakers has made the big switch, including Reps. Noble Ellington of Winnsboro, Simone Champagne of Jeanerette, Walker Hines of New Orleans and Fred Mills of Parks, who was promoted to the state Senate on Jan. 19. The surge in GOP legislative strength, however, may eventually give the GOP the same headaches that diversity has given Dems.

  Clearly, not all recent Republican converts are like-minded. Alario and Ellington, for instance, were old guard Democratic lawmakers frequently associated with the politics of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, whom Republican stalwarts view as the essence of what's been wrong with Louisiana for decades.

  "A lot of these new Republicans aren't going to fit into the hard right," says Fletcher, a veteran of the presidential and gubernatorial campaign circuits. "They all tend to be more moderate conservatives, not ideological conservatives."

  Robert Kirby Goidel, director of LSU's Public Policy Research Lab, says recent developments and trends put the Louisiana Democratic Party in an uncomfortable position. The Republican converts aren't likely to come back, he says, nor will independents (who tilted strongly toward the GOP in the recent elections). And no one expects any Republicans to switch to the Democratic Party any time soon.

  "That means Democrats need to figure out how to recruit better. They need a farm team," Goidel says, referring to the minor league teams owned by major league franchises, usually as a training grounds for the big time. "If you're a moderate right now, you're looking at the electoral landscape and realizing that it's better to run as a Republican than as a Democrat. So, it's better for Democrats to focus on the long view right now rather than the short view. There's no magical candidate out there that's going to make all of this better."

Leach, an excitable fellow even at 76 years old, was reportedly put into the chairmanship because he can cut a check, which is something he reportedly has done many times for the party in recent years. Although in years past he has contributed to Republicans as well, Leach is on Team Donkey and he contends he has a plan.

  "We have several potentials for next year's statewide elections and, remember, Democrats did very well on the local level last year. We have the mayors of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Monroe. That's not bad," Leach says. "And I think recruitment results from what we're embarking on now, educating people and letting them know that Louisiana Democrats are about working people, middle-income families. I think from that, we'll recruit men and women who hold these beliefs."

  Leach says his office is also overseeing seminars to help Democrats run for office, and he has staffers looking into the recent voter purges on the state level in hopes of getting folks re-registered. As for his own party position, Leach says he plans to finish his current term as chairman and isn't going anywhere.

  Through no fault of his own, Leach inherited a train wreck. He took over from Chris Whittington, a former chairman who was elected to a four-year term in 2008 despite opposition from Melancon and the Landrieu siblings. State central committee members interviewed for this story say the incident proved there was no longer a central power base. In years past, the party's Washington contingent — including former Sen. John Breaux — wielded considerable influence over the party's central committee. That is no longer the case.

click to enlarge U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is the last strong Louisiana Democrat in Washington and once held sway over the state party's central committee. - PHOTO BY A.J. SISCO
  • Photo by A.J. Sisco
  • U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is the last strong Louisiana Democrat in Washington and once held sway over the state party's central committee.

  In fact, the party's fortunes declined rapidly after Whittington came to power in 2005 — at the hands of now-disgraced former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom and former Baton Rouge state Sen. Cleo Fields. By all accounts, Whittington would not have survived in the days of party control by the D.C. crowd.

  These days, the wheels of the machine appear to have come off completely.

  One former DSCC member says it has been a "cult of personalities," a story that can be traced through turnover. The party burns through executive directors — most famously Britton Loftin, who resigned in 2009 amid a sexual harassment lawsuit. Since 2008, there have been four communications directors.

  Bob Mann, who served as press secretary to Breaux and later to Gov. Kathleen Blanco and now holds an endowed chair in the Manship School of Mass Communications at LSU, says there needs to be a distinction, especially during a building year like this, between the Louisiana Democratic Party and Louisiana Democrats.

  "People need to ask what Louisiana Democrats can do to get out of this funk, because the party itself is not in a funk," Mann says. "It's probably better funded than ever before. It has the most professional staff it has seen in five or six years. Being able to get elected statewide has less to do with the Louisiana Democratic Party and more with having a strong candidate. When we don't have a strong candidate for Democrats to get behind, the party is what it is now."

  Whatever the party's problem area, change is needed — and soon. Louisiana was once a one-party state with Democrats firmly in control. There was a brief period of party parity, but now things are all going the GOP's way. Henderson, among others, stops short of proclaiming the political sky is falling. In fact, he insists there is no crisis; it's just a downside of the political cycle.

  "A lot of people were distraught over the fact that we got creamed," Henderson says. "But you know what? The Republicans got creamed two years ago and they came back. We can come back, too. It may just take a little while."

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

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