When coastal restoration was just beginning to catch on as an issue in the Louisiana Legislature during the late 1990s, state Sen. Reggie Dupre strapped a life preserver over his bulky frame on the Senate floor to show his colleagues the latest fashion in low-lying communities. As the millennium came to a close, Dupre underwent gastric bypass surgery and dropped a few sizes, but he continued to be a coastal floor leader for three governors.
According to sources close to the Terrebonne Parish Democrat, he soon will be shedding the Senate, as he did all that weight, and heading back to non-elected work. He won't be alone. At least three other state senators have resigned in as many months, and there's an unfilled seat in the House as well.
After an unsuccessful bid for southwest Louisiana's Seventh Congressional District seat, Sen. Don Cravins Jr. announced last week that he has accepted a job with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. Bill Cassidy, meanwhile, has already been sworn in as a new congressman from the Baton Rouge-based Sixth district. In October, then-Sen. Derrick Shepherd of Marrero pleaded guilty to federal money-laundering charges. He has been replaced by former state Rep. J.P. Morrell, whose House District 97 seat is now up for grabs.
For a legislature that's barely a year old, that's a lot of change. While some might want to chalk it up to a generational shift or a stepping-stone theory, each case is different.
Dupre's imminent departure is the worst-kept secret in the bayou parishes. He's eying a regional levee director position that will open up soon and has reportedly cut a deal that will keep him in his Senate seat at least until after the upcoming legislative session. The election to succeed him could become a quick Republican pickup; several GOP state representatives could make the race, and the area has divergent voting patterns.
Dupre also is term limited. He will be out of the Senate in three years anyway — but why leave now, in the middle of his term? Veteran lobbyists suggest his departure may be just the beginning, as lawmakers weigh their current salaries (without the hefty pay raise Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed last year) against the private sector or other political opportunities.
Then there's Cravins, a St. Landry Parish Democrat. His decision to leave public office for work on the Hill is unusual. He told reporters last week that it was a chance to be a part of history, alongside incoming President-elect Barack Obama. But Landrieu, a Democrat, could have ulterior motives. Landrieu and the Cravins family have feuded for almost a generation, going back to Cravins' father, Donald Cravins Sr., now the mayor of Opelousas. Landrieu surely knows that keeping your friends close and your enemies closer is smart politics.
It could also be argued that Junior was on his way out anyway, and his bid for Congress last year was a last-ditch effort. He has openly criticized the Louisiana Democratic Party for its treatment of African-American candidates, and several senators recall an argument Cravins had with a senior colleague last year over how far an African-American politician can rise in Louisiana. "It became pretty heated," recalls one senator in the legislative leadership. Attempts to reach Cravins Jr. for comment were unsuccessful.
The departures of Dupre and Cravins leave behind more than just memories. Dupre chairs the Senate's Natural Resources Committee; Cravins, the Insurance Committee. No doubt we'll see some musical chairs in coming months as legislators grapple for the gavels.
In Baton Rouge, local attorney Dan Claitor is the latest to drop hints about the Senate District 16 seat, left vacant by Cassidy. He shared his polling data with the Baton Rouge paper The Advocate last week. The poll, conducted by Southern Media & Opinion Research, showed Claitor in the lead. If nothing else, it places him among the few already dropping cash in the all-GOP field.
Running third and fourth in the poll, respectively, were political consultant Laurinda Calongne and businessman Lee Domingue. They're the only two announced candidates and both have compelling stories: Domingue is a Christian writer, motivational speaker and well-known member of Healing Place Church; Calongne, a health care expert with economic development experience and a previous run for Congress under her belt. Already, the forces coalescing behind both suggest a long-anticipated battle will finally surface from the depths of Baton Rouge Republican politics: business conservatives versus the Religious Right.
In the Big Easy, Morrell will soon step into the Senate seat disgraced by Shepherd, leaving House District 97 wide open for a showdown in April and May. At the same time, state Rep. Nick Lorusso, a Lakeview Republican who serves as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, is expected to be called to active duty next month. Thanks to a constitutional amendment approved by voters last fall, Lorusso will be able to nominate at least three possible temporary replacements to the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.
After public hearings by the committee, House Speaker Jim Tucker of Terrytown will appoint one of the nominees. That will be an unprecedented proceeding and will officially add one more means to the list of "Ways to Become a Legislator." Thankfully, though, there are still many more ways for lawmakers to leave public office than there are to assume it.