Opelousas, La. — To kill a bear in single combat, you’ve just got to avoid its claws and teeth. That’s the first lesson Republican state senator Elbert Guillory, famous for urging black voters to join him in leaving the Democratic party, imparted over lunch at the kind of Louisiana restaurant that has crawfish enchiladas on the menu.
“Get in close,” inside of the paws and under its chin, he advises anyone confronted with such a challenge. The 70-year-old Guillory, wearing a three-piece suit and working on a cup of gumbo, doesn’t look like a bear-killer, but he offers this tactical advice without a hint of self-consciousness.
This particular story is less surprising coming from someone looking, this election season, to wrestle a different kind of animal. Guillory wants to drive a wedge between African Americans and Louisiana’s vulnerable incumbent, Senator Mary Landrieu. Guillory has endorsed Representative Bill Cassidy (R., La.) for senator, and, though Democrats have had a lock on the African-American vote for decades, he hopes to help Cassidy receive 15 percent of it in November.
“Unfortunately, the black community over the last few decades, as a community, we have put all our eggs in one basket,” Guillory tells National Review Online. “For me, it’s not so much about helping Cassidy as it is helping my community. If I can get a United States senator who understands the issues and will address those issues, then I will have been successful for Louisiana.”
So Guillory denounced her, in a two-minute, 20-second video that might be the best political ad of the cycle, for ignoring the black community.
“While you dig through the couch looking for gas money, she flies around in private jets funded by taxpayer dollars,” Guillory says in the video, which has been viewed more than 350,000 times in the last two weeks. “Mary hasn’t helped us at all. So on November 4, let’s send her back home to her father’s house, or to her mansion in Washington, D.C., or to wherever the heck she lives, because one thing is for sure: She does not live here, on Academy Street, on the Hill.”
Guillory doesn’t think President Obama is any better, accusing him of having a “malevolent” indifference to the plight of the black community.
That charge goes far beyond a complaint made by Representative Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) in 2011, but the substance is much the same. “We’re supportive of the president, but we’re getting tired, ya’ll,” Waters said at a Congressional Black Caucus rally in Detroit. “We want to give the president every opportunity to show what he can do and what he’s prepared to lead on. We want to give him every opportunity, but our people are hurting. The unemployment is unconscionable. We don’t know what the strategy is.”
Obama responded by telling the CBC to “stop complaining, stop grumbling,” adding that his proposed American Jobs Act contained provisions that would help Detroit and similar cities. The bill, regarded at the time as a campaign document in the run-up to the 2012 election, never passed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black unemployment sits at 11 percent, more than double the rate for whites.
“I am not aware of any serious initiative that Obama has come forward with that would address the problem of high unemployment in the black community,” Guillory says. “When he did the car-industry bailouts, he did it on the front pages, and he explained to everybody what he was doing and why he was doing it. If he did something about black unemployment, he needed to do the same thing.”
The state senator has higher hopes for Cassidy, who made a surprise visit to Opelousas following the release of Guillory’s anti-Landrieu video. “Mr. Cassidy understands about black unemployment,” Guillory says.
Former governor Edwin Edwards (D., La.) describes Guillory as “a maverick kind of person.” About somebody who’s out of step with the 93 percent of black voters who cast their ballots for Democrats in 2012, that’s surely true. Guillory regards himself as a man whose conservative political voice began to develop through his experiences in the segregated South.
Born in 1944, Guillory spent his childhood under Jim Crow laws. When Hurricane Audrey struck in 1957, Opelousas residents evacuated to the local courthouse. White people could go to the top floors, but black people had to huddle in the basement. That was just the first indignity of the night. “With four perfectly good bathrooms, we could only use two,” he recalls.
That same year, it was not lost on Guillory that Republican president Dwight Eisenhower supported a Civil Rights Act, which Vice President Richard Nixon had discussed with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Guillory also favored Eisenhower for sending federal troops to protect black students from white people who opposed integrating schools.
When he was 15 years old, Guillory was arrested for the first time. His offense: sitting in a public library after the librarian refused to let him check out a book. “From that moment until this moment has been one single line of combat against injustice and inequality and unfair treatment — that’s been the driving force of my life,” he says.
Guillory went to college at Southern University but had to leave because of the editorials that he wrote against segregation. So he joined the Navy and graduated from Norfolk State University, before attending Rutgers University Law School. He taught there and participated in the law school’s Affirmative Enforcement Clinic, an experience that prepared him to work in Richard Nixon’s administration.
Richard Nixon is famous for Watergate and the so-called southern strategy, but Guillory loves him. “Nixon breathed life into that bridge over troubled waters that was called affirmative action,” he explains. “He created more women and black millionaires than any other person at any other time in American history.”
Guillory participated in that effort from his post at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, training state civil-rights agencies from 1972 to 1974. He left the federal government but continued advising state governments on the issue.
Through that work, he earned several awards from local NAACP organizations. They hang on the wall at his house, where we stopped so that he could change into another three-piece suit before an event that evening.
Despite his past affinity for affirmative action, Guillory thinks the policies are outliving their good use. “It needed to exist until we leveled the playing field,” he says. “I don’t believe that my community has taken advantage of what affirmative action gave to us.” Instead, his community “sat back,” he suggests, a phenomenon he attributes partly to the rise in single motherhood.
To black voters inclined to support such policies, and the poverty programs touted by Democratic politicians, Guillory says: “Look around. We’ve been driving through the black community. See the number of — look right back there — closed businesses, shut down here.” He points at a broken-down building once known as the Fried Chicken Amusement Center. Guillory’s driving tour of Opelousas simply elaborates on his case against Landrieu: “If you look at the number of private homes that are now shuttered and boarded, if you look at the number of men who are out of work, you have to be dissatisfied with government policy.”
Since releasing the anti-Landrieu video, Guillory’s Free At Last PAC has raised enough money in unsolicited donations to put an abridged version of the video on television; a Guillory associate said that Republican donors might finance a broader airing of the 60-second spot.
Guillory’s gift for political theater comes as no surprise. He announced his departure from the Democratic party in a video, entitled “Why I Am a Republican,” that went viral on YouTube. In the spot, he recited a history of the Republican party from its founding as an abolitionist faction, and he tarred the Democrats as “the party of Jim Crow,” suggesting that the modern welfare state is a natural continuation of that racist legacy.
“Our self-initiative and our self-reliance have been sacrificed in exchange for allegiance to our overseers who control us by making us dependent on them,” Guillory said in the video.
Guillory’s defense of the GOP’s civil-rights record is similar to the one that got Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) in trouble at Howard University in 2013. “It would be easier for an African-American Republican maybe to talk about it,” Paul suggested at the time.
Paul was right. Guillory’s video made him a star among Republicans, who, as members of a party largely composed of whites, face charges of racism when they oppose government programs.
Guillory denies having any desire to monetize that popularity by getting into the radio or TV business. “Law, government, and politics — that’s my thing,” he says. “I don’t think I’d be very comfortable doing much of anything other than that.”
Guillory’s rhetoric plays well with people who agree with him, but can he really convince significant numbers of black Democrats to start voting Republican?
Edwards, the former governor who spent eight years in jail on corruption charges but emerged as a Democratic front-runner in the race to replace Cassidy in the House, has his doubts. The majority of Guillory’s constituents in the state senate, Edwards says, feel that Guillory “has abandoned them” and would vote against him if he ran for reelection.
Guillory, who says he could hold that seat as a Republican, points out that he has secured $44 million for local municipalities and schools since he joined the GOP. More fundamentally, he remains a fixture in the community. People honk or wave at him as he drives around town. Constituents approach him during lunch or at the coffee shop to say hello, tell him of a pregnancy, or thank him for being so courteous to an employee last week.
Guillory’s personal investment in the area derives from his belief that his story is the story of his family and his town emerging from the Civil War and gradually overcoming the racism and segregation of the 20th century. “I am the gumbo of Louisiana,” he says, referring to his African, Cherokee, and French heritage. And he takes pride in how his family helped shape Opelousas. His grandfather helped found two churches, including the Black Academy at Mt. Olive Baptist Church. Later, his father started a small school where black men in town could learn a trade.
Guillory still lives on the property that his grandparents purchased from their former masters after the Civil War — next door to the Big House, where the descendants of those former slave owners also live. “We still serve this family,” Guillory says. “We do their law stuff, now, we don’t do their horses.”
Guillory describes his grandmother and great-uncle as having, in the 1940s, “warm, cordial relations with the people who had formerly been their slavemasters.” One gets the sense that any anger he harbored about the outrages of slavery and segregation has burned off.
Such calmness could help him succeed where other black conservatives have failed in advocating for the GOP, Guillory believes, although he admits that his goal of persuading 15 percent of black voters to back Cassidy is a very optimistic one.
“I could be a bomb-thrower very easily,” he says, recalling his clashes with police. “I’m a gentle statesman now.”
Next year, Guillory plans to run for lieutenant governor. “We have not begun to finish hammering the message home,” he says.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.