Tara who?" you ask.
Tara Hollis. She's running for governor. Of Louisiana.
Her new series of 30-second commercials concludes with a refrain — "Where's the guy I voted for?" — a reference to Gov. Bobby Jindal, whom she supported in 2007 and, three-and-a-half years into his first term and a near lock for a second, now wants to replace in the Governor's Mansion starting next January. When she announced her run last month, one newspaper prefixed its headline with the phrase "This week in quixotic."
But Tara Hollis is no Don Quixote. She's a smart, articulate, camera-friendly north Louisiana public school teacher. A first-time office seeker and self-styled "conservative Democrat," Hollis says she was so fed up with state cuts to education and with Jindal's infamous accumulation of frequent-flyer miles, often for personal gain yet at taxpayer expense, that she decided to run against him.
"I've been kind of laying back waiting for something to happen — someone to stand up, and that just hasn't been happening," Hollis said recently. "But in talking with my husband and with some of the other teachers and people in my community, we decided to start a movement and bring this out to the state, and I hope to catch fire with it."
The 39-year-old Haynesville educator has four months to do it. Impossible? Almost certainly.
"Tara Hollis?" replied Ed Chervenak, a UNO political science professor, when asked about Hollis' chances. That a New Orleans political science professor drew a blank in response to Hollis' name isn't surprising; she has only begun traveling the state, and reliably Democratic New Orleans isn't high on her list of places to campaign at the outset. She figures she needs to press the flesh in Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes first.
"She's operating in a very difficult environment," Chervenak adds. "Even though people are unhappy with Gov. Jindal at this point, they're very unhappy with the Democratic Party, and a lot of that, I think, has to do with the association with President Obama."
Hollis says she is raising money — in small dabs and dollops — yet her chance of building a war chest resembling Jindal's roughly $10 million is virtually nonexistent. Nonetheless, Hollis says she's getting supportive signals from the state Democratic Party. She recently rubbed shoulders with party elite at the Donkey Romp, an annual fundraiser in Baton Rouge that serves as a party rally and, no doubt, a salve for a political apparatus rubbed raw by defeat and defection over the last few years.
"The Democratic Party has gone through a very rough spot these last couple of years," Hollis acknowledges. "They are glad to have a face out there that's trying to invigorate the party and get out the vote."
Hollis says she and state party Chairman Buddy Leach had a nice, long chat. But whether the Dems will throw money her way remains to be seen. (Gambit reached out to the Louisiana Democratic Party for comment on this story, but neither Leach nor Executive Director Renee Lapeyrolerie returned our call or email by press time.)
"It'll be difficult for a Democrat to raise money in the state; she would probably have to do like Jindal and go out of state to raise money," notes Chervenak, who pointed to Mike Foster as the only gubernatorial candidate in recent history who essentially came out of nowhere to win the seat. But Foster had a political pedigree — his grandfather, Murphy Foster, was also governor — and, more important, he had his own personal wealth. Lots of it. He also served in the state Senate for eight years before running for governor in 1995, so he knew how to campaign — and he had friends across the state as a result of his days in the Senate.
"We have found support in pockets throughout the state that are lending not only money but time," Hollis counters. "We're doing mailings, flyers, getting the word out, and this will be an ongoing process throughout the summer." She hasn't yet cast a net through broadcast media — a must as the campaign drags on. For now, her commercials can be viewed on YouTube.
The state Democratic Party hasn't shown signs it is prepared to field a well-known candidate against Jindal. Mayor Mitch Landrieu almost certainly won't run; it's too early in his tenure as mayor of New Orleans. Lieutenant governor also-ran Caroline Fayard has the cachet and the cash, but she's still oiling the public relations machine after her ill-timed candor at a Washington Parish Democratic Party meeting several months ago in Bogalusa. At that gathering, she ranted, "I hate Republicans. I hate Republicans. They are cruel and destructive. They eat their young. They don't think. They don't allow people to think. They are bullies." Fayard had been considered a possible opponent against Jindal until that misstep; now she's running for secretary of state instead.
Which leaves ... who? A state rep or senator? None is champing at the bit to oppose Jindal.
"She's going to need help from the Democratic party, she's going to need endorsements, but the thing she's going to need the most is money," Chervenak says. "The best thing the Democrats can do is find someone who is willing to spend $10 million of their own money for this office, and that's about their only shot."
And that's not even factoring in the "D" that will follow Hollis' name on the ballot. Foster, like several recent high-profile state politicos, switched from Democrat to Republican on the eve of qualifying for governor after stumping for months as a conservative Democrat. Louisiana politics, like its budget, is deep in the red these days. That fact alone favors Jindal's re-election, no matter how disingenuous his critics say he can be at times. Overall, Louisiana voters may not be as enthusiastic about Jindal today as they were in 2007, but the same polls indicate they're likely to pull a lever for him over a Democrat.
But Hollis says she has something on her side, too: numbers. When Jindal took office in 2008, unemployment in Louisiana was a shade below 4 percent. Now it's over 8 percent. The $1 billion budget surplus Jindal inherited from Kathleen Blanco is now a $1.6 billion deficit. Jindal will of course make the relativity argument, as he frequently does — that Louisiana has fared well compared to the rest of the nation — which is true.
Maybe Hollis can tap into the lingering frustration and disillusionment felt by many over the fact that no matter who occupies the Governor's Mansion, our state forever languishes near the bottom on virtually every meaningful national ranking of health, education and income. She also may get some traction with the metastasized perception that the jet-setting Jindal has been a part-time governor whose national aspirations trump everything else, or his hypocrisy on the issue of ethics reform (he has "reformed" everyone but himself).
Hollis acknowledges that her campaign for governor is a long shot.
"I'm not naive about the position or the undertaking. I'm not naive about the amount of work. I'm not going to pretend that I have all the answers," she says. "But I do know that in talking to the people of this state, this is not just a movement of my parish or the people around me; this is across the board. People are looking for a voice, and no one has stood up to be that voice. And if that's something that I need to do, then that's what I'm going to do."
Walter Pierce is managing editor of The Independent in Lafayette.