State legislators often receive too little attention, but one being buried today in Louisiana merits gratitude from conservatives nationwide. Charlie Lancaster, a state representative for 32 years until finally term-limited from office, was an exuberant legislator, a dedicated free marketer, a painstaking Republican party-builder, an unforgettable character, and a political brawler with an uncommonly tender heart.
Lancaster was a state champion high hurdler and football star in high school and a college track athlete before attending Loyola Law School. While there, he took a part-time job in 1967 in the law firm of John Hainkel, who was just starting a legendary career that would make him state House speaker as a Democrat and state Senate president as a Republican, and Ben C. Toledano, later a Republican candidate for New Orleans mayor and U.S. Senate and sometime author of National Review cover stories. Lancaster caught the political bug from those two men who became his friends for life, and four years later, running against the Jefferson Parish Democratic machine, he won election as one of only five Republicans in a 144-person legislature.
There, Lancaster tirelessly promoted free enterprise, limits on government, and systemic reforms, while founding the Republican Legislative Caucus as a policy clearinghouse. He also did thankless service for years on the Republican State Central Committee, helping the party’s internal rule-making body create the conditions for Republican electoral growth. He had sharp elbows legislatively, but was famously convivial at each day’s end, building friendships with conservative Democrats and credited with playing a direct role in talking 17 of them into switching to Republican in the early 1980s. One of them, Quentin Dastugue, told the Times-Picayune that Lancaster “would appeal to your basic philosophical instincts. When Ronald Reagan was president and Edwin Edwards was in his third term, he’d say, ‘Whom do you want to be associated with?'”
There was no subterfuge in Charlie Lancaster, and remarkably little ego. To see him rejoice when his good friend and contemporary Bob Livingston became U.S. House speaker-designate (alas, an ill-fated mission) was a thing to behold, with a ruddy-faced Lancaster waxing eloquent not about what Livingston could do for him, but about how thrilled Lancaster was for his buddy on a personal level and how good a job Lancaster thought Livingston would do for the country.
“Charlie was a jovial pioneer in politics showing the rest of us that Democrats would vote for Republicans,” Livingston told me this morning. “He began a statewide transformation, always having fun in the process!”
In retirement, Lancaster mellowed considerably, but his smile was always a mile wide when talking about his favorite protégé, Steve Scalise, now U.S. House majority whip. Lancaster had supported Scalise in his very first legislative primary, and it was Scalise who first announced Lancaster’s death via a tweet calling him “a dear friend, and one of my true mentors. He is one of the giants who built the Republican Party in Louisiana, and had a brilliant political mind.”