Electoral process as entertainment may not have begun in Louisiana, but over decades of stringent practice and careful refinement featuring a parade of colorful candidates who were often caught in the revolving door between prison and the statehouse, the Bayou State can lay claim to having refined it to a fine art. At least until 2003.
What happened? Largely overlooked in the hoopla over Arnold and the over 100 other candidates to replace recalled Gov. Gray Davis in the Golden State was a gubernatorial contest down in the bayou last Saturday. Like much of Louisiana, it’s different from what most of us are used to: It’s a primary contest where candidates vie regardless of party, and anyone winning more than half the vote is elected, otherwise, the top two vote-getters square off in a runoff election. This year, the frontrunner is a most non-Louisiana-type candidate: an earnest, 32-year-old ex-Rhodes scholar who flaunts his policy-wonk credentials along with his Republican party bona fides.
Moreover, both candidates and observers in the media remarked this year on the lack of negative campaign tactics and dirty politics in the campaign for governor. What’s going on here? This in the state where now-jailed Gov. Edwin Edwards once famously assessed his chances for reelection as certain, unless “they find me in bed with a dead girl or a live boy,” where Gov. Earl Long relieved himself in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel between chasing Bourbon Street strippers and being committed to a state mental hospital, where Huey Long perfected the art of politics-as-medicine-show 75 years ago.
What happened? Was there a secret plot to export larger-than-life candidates to California? A mass exodus of oddball politicians over the borders to Mississippi and Arkansas?
What happened was that the state’s electorate woke up in an election year with a nasty hangover. Not unlike California, Louisiana is, in the minds of its citizens, in a bad way. Virtually every candidate for governor noted that young people have to leave the state to find a career. The state has seen businesses move and sell out to the point that there are only a handful of major companies headquartered in the state compared with two or three decades ago. Crime, particularly in New Orleans and its environs, has grown as a hot-button concern. State government is financially troubled, and tax increases are feared.
In California, a difficult financial picture led the electorate to call for the Terminator. In Louisiana, the leading candidate is also a political novice from an immigrant background, but there the similarity ends. Thirty-four-year-old Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian parents who migrated to Baton Rouge before he was born, is as slight as Ah-nold is muscular. And even detractors acknowledge that if Jindal does not have star-power, his brain-power is formidable: Rhodes scholar, head of Louisiana’s troubled health system at 24, president of the state’s university system at 27, a Bush Cabinet assistant secretary at 29.
As different as his background and career are from California’s governor-elect are Jindal’s views on social issues: A convert to Catholicism, he’s strongly and publicly pro-life (not an unpopular position in either heavily Catholic south Louisiana or the largely Baptist north).
Jindal’s opponent in the November 15 runoff is Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who, if elected, would be the first female to sit in the governor’s chair in the skyscraper state capitol that Huey Long built. Blanco, a Democrat who had occupied the state’s second-highest office for two four-year terms, was the frontrunner for much of the race, until Jindal, supported by GOP Gov. Mike Foster, developed growing voter traction with his outsider’s resume and a platform stressing job creation and social conservatism. In the primary, Blanco ran as a centrist Democrat from a power base in the state’s Cajun country, also stressing education and economic development, and her role in building the state’s critical tourism industry.
But, even though you could hear campaign commercials with a Cajun band singing “Allon, votez Madame Blanco,” playing on radio stations in the I-10 corridor from New Orleans to the Texas border, there is precious little showbiz on her side of the campaign either. Blanco’s website is bannered with an earnest quote from Aristotle about justice, temperance, and bravery (What would Huey say?).
One other comparison of the two elections may be instructive (or just dismaying)–while voter turnout in California was at record levels, Saturday’s contest in Louisiana drew only about half the voters, 12 points off the last election where an incumbent was not on the ballot.
Maybe for the runoff, they should import Gary Coleman.
–John Hillis is president of Equinox Media International, LLC, a consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. A longtime broadcast journalist and founding producer for CNN, Hillis is a Louisiana native.