I say it every year: It's going to be impossible to top the year we just had for political zaniness, surprises and scandals. And yet, here I am once again amazed at the year we just had.
This year I add two caveats to my annual list of the area's top 10 political stories — first, I have deliberately omitted Barack Obama's historic election to the presidency because it's a national story, and this is a local paper; and second, I left out any mention of Mayor Ray Nagin, because when it comes to zaniness, he's in a league of his own. He therefore merits a separate story all about him — because, as we all should know by now, it really is all about C. Ray, all the time. (See, "The Year of Living Angrily," p. 21.)
So, without further ado, here's one last look back at the year in local politics.
1. Bill Jefferson's Political Demise — Who would have thought that the mighty Jefferson Machine would be brought to its knees by a humble, soft-spoken, Vietnamese-American, political unknown who finished fifth in a local legislative race a year earlier? Truly, Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao's victory over Dollar Bill was a David-versus-Goliath tale. Jefferson speculated during his election-night remarks (he arrogantly refused to call his speech a concession) that his supporters "ran out of juice" after helping him survive a Democratic primary and then a party runoff. Truth be told, Jefferson is the one who ran out of juice. His once-dominant Progressive Democrats organization had virtually no presence on the street on Election Day, Dec. 6. Cao, meanwhile, ran a near-perfect campaign orchestrated by former New Orleans Councilman Bryan Wagner, helping Cao become the unlikeliest Republican congressman in the country — beating a nine-term (but badly damaged) Democratic incumbent in a district that is only 11 percent Republican and 62 percent African-American. Now that he has lost his congressional seat, Dollar Bill has nothing to offer in trade to prosecutors. 2009 is not going to be a good year for him.
2. Mary Landrieu's Re-election — Louisiana's senior U.S. senator won by her biggest margin yet — nearly 120,000 votes — proving once again that her opponents underestimate her at their own peril. A year ago, she was roundly called the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate, but Landrieu ran a tightly messaged, highly disciplined campaign. She also caught her Republican opponent, state Treasurer John Kennedy, totally off guard with her decision to attack him early and often. Kennedy never recovered — and never fully defined himself after switching parties only a year ago.
3. GOP Sweeps Louisiana Congressional Elections — That's right, Republicans won all seven contested Louisiana congressional elections this year — the year that Democrats thought they could stage a comeback. In the end, the only Democratic congressman re-elected in 2008 was Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville, ran unopposed. Once again, Louisiana swam against the national tide, which drowned the GOP on Nov. 4. Looking ahead, at least five of those seats are likely to be "safe" for Republican incumbents in 2010 — but all bets are off for 2012, the year Louisiana probably will drop from seven to six congressional districts.
4. Cannizzaro Wins DA's Race — Former Judge Leon Cannizzaro survived a barrage of attacks to win a bitterly contested Orleans Parish DA's race. He did it by putting together a bi-racial coalition that should serve as a template for the next mayor — and that's not saying that the next mayor will or should be white. It wasn't the color of the candidate that mattered; rather, it was the multi-racial coalition he led that carried the day.
5. Ethics Reform — It seems so long ago now, particularly after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's messy fall from grace. Yet, less than 11 months ago, the nation showered praise on Louisiana (and its new governor) for enacting a much tougher set of ethics laws. Of course, the new laws don't apply even-handedly — the governor's office and top staff are immune from transparency requirements. For now.
6. Federal Investigations — Jim Letten may or may not stay on as U.S. attorney, but he already has left his mark on local politics. In 2008, his office indicted the siblings of Dollar Bill Jefferson in multiple cases, sent restaurateur Stan "Pampy" Barre to prison (after getting him to wear a wire), indicted and convicted state Sen. Derrick Shepherd of Marrero and launched a new investigation into the local NOAH scandal — which was triggered by blogger Karen Gadbois. By any measure, that's one helluva year.
7. The Legislative Pay Raise Debacle — We now know how it all went down: new Gov. Bobby Jindal promised leges he would not veto their pay raise bill if they voted for his voucher bill. Nobody anticipated the public backlash — and lawmakers certainly never anticipated Jindal's ensuing vetoes of pet projects (which seemed remarkably tied to how leges voted on the voucher bill). Voter disdain for the pay raise was so intense that even Jindal's stratospheric popularity plunged — until he broke his promise to lawmakers and vetoed it. That left a lot of leges with a bad vote, no raise, a new voucher law that few of them really supported — and a notion to pay the governor back in 2009. Watch for the state budget to pass more than 11 days before the end of the next legislative session — and for several of Jindal's key bills to be held up until after the deadline for line-item vetoes. They say revenge is a dish best served cold. Button up, Governor.
8. Louisiana's Fiscal Roller Coaster — State officials began the year with a binge, spending a surplus of more than $1 billion. Now, less than a year later, they're singing the blues about a projected deficit of almost $2 billion. Blame Louisiana's overdependence on high oil prices. Add to that lawmakers' shortsighted repeal of the Stelly Plan in May (rolling back income tax brackets), and they deserve the trouble they're in. It's not like nobody warned them.
9. The New Orleans School Board — Perhaps the most underreported political story of the year is the political and policy sea change that is coming to the Orleans Parish School Board as a result of this year's elections. The new board will be decidedly more conservative, anti-union and whiter than any board in the last two decades. If you think school board meetings produced fireworks before Katrina, stay tuned.
10. Louisiana's New Supreme Court Majority — Once again, this bucks a national trend, as Barack Obama's election as president will no doubt give us a more moderate U.S. Supreme Court. Here in Louisiana, retiring Chief Justice Pascal Calogero was replaced by Republican Judge Greg Guidry of Jefferson Parish, whose election gives the court's "conservative" faction a 4-3 edge.