Women and Minorities in Louisiana Elections Despair or Hope?
By Norma Dyess
Vol. 2, No. 5, 1980, pp. 19-23
At first glance,the 1979 election returns portend a grim future for women and minorities in Louisiana for the next four years. In fact, many human rights activists have been in despair feeling that the outcomes of the gubernatorial, statewide and legislative races represented a giant step backward.
The main source of pessimism and alarm was the election of third district Congressman David C. Treen, the first Republican governor in 102 years. No moderate, Charles Percy-type Republican, Treen is a bedrock, longtime conservative who once belonged to the States Rights Party, was one of four Congressmen voting in 1974 against impeachment of Richard Nixon and has made feminist and civil rights activists recoil in distrust by his Washington voting record.
Their concern was compounded by the fact that the governor of Louisiana is probably the most powerful governor of any of the 50 states. He controls the purse-strings, a vast array of appointments and patronage opportunities and generally oversees a network of political power that guarantees his formidable grasp on the harness of state government.
But other elections were just as discouraging. Consider the scorecard:
-Only three women and one Black sought statewide office this year. All but incumbent State Treasurer Mary Evelyn Parker were defeated by White men. Former Secretary of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism Sandra Thompson of Baton Rouge lost her bid for Secretary of State, as did Ben Jeffers, a young, Black management consultant from Baton Rouge. Louisiana Women’s Political Caucus President Lynne Hair, also of Baton Rouge, was defeated in her race for Commissioner of Elections. With the exception of Parker, all statewide elective offices are held by White men.
-Of the 28 women who ran for seats in the state legislature, only three were elected. Furthermore, the state Senate lost its only woman member with the defeat of Virginia Shehee of Shreveport. In the House, formerly the state’s only female Representative Diana Bajole of New Orleans will be joined only by Mary Landrieu, (the 23 year-old daughter of Moon Landrieu, former Mayor of New Orleans and now HUD Secretary), and Margaret Lowenthal of Lake Charles. At least three of the women who ran for the state legislature were anti-feminists whose elections
would have been a setback for the women’s movement.
-There was a net gain of only two Blacks elected to the legislature. Sen. Henry Braden of New Orleans will be joined by William Jefferson, also of New Orleans. The new Black state representative is Charles D. Jones of Monroe.
-While strides were made the fact that 28 women were politically viable enough to wage strong campaigns for the legislature, for example, the overall results and above all the election of Treen made 1979 appear something less than a watershed year.
But there is another side to the story.
The same Republican victory that has signaled disaster has some liberals optimistic that perhaps the best is yet to come.
It’s a long story, and one that is as unique to Louisiana as crawfish etoufee, filet gumbo and Mardi Gras.
Louisiana is just now truly beginning to emerge from the decades-long grip of rural poverty that existed alongside the rich oil fields, the bustling commercial activity of the river port in New Orleans and the developing tourist industry of that area. The recent boom of the petrochemical corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the oil, gas, and related industrial growth of Shreveport and the manufacturing plants throughout the state has produced a more even distribution of the state’s wealth. It has also produced a nascent middle class – a political innovation that was bound to have a dramatic impact on the state government.
Surprisingly enough, it was Gov. Edwin Edwards who provided the mechanism that quickened the arrival of the new government. Back in 1975 Edwards was embroiled in his bid for re-election, and the memory of his 1971 gubernatorial bid was fresh in his mind. The closed primary system he was operating under pitted him against a legion of other Democratic contenders for the October primary spot. This meant that Democrats spent long months bitterly slugging it out, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars only to have to turn around and face a lone Republican candidate who often managed to swallow up 40 percent of the vote. While the Democratic party and candidates were bitterly divided and emotionally and financially drained, the Republican sat back until his December appearance, fresh as a daisy and with votes in hand. Determined to “reform” this procedure, Edwards began
pushing for a change. In 1976, he won. The legislature passed the open primary law.
In 1979, Dave Treen, the Republican nominee who was handed a mantle as a reward for his longtime party loyalty when times were bad, had to jump in at the forefront to assure himself a place in the general election. He would have to campaign just as long and spend just as much as the Democrats.
At the same time the Republican nominee was virtually assured a spot in the general election, because he started out with the usual 35-45 percent expected vote as well as a chance to pull out an early lead on the Democrats.
In the first primary, there was a stunning array of Democratic contenders, the top elected officials in the state, and each had something to offer. Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris of New Orleans, who as chairman of the Board of Commerce and Industry had made jobs and industrial inducement the foundation of his campaign, was early-on tagged the frontrunner. House Speaker “Bubba” Henry of Jonesboro, the “Mr. Clean” of state government, was the tall, Lincolnesque godfather to the Independent Legislature I Good Government faction. State Sen. “Sonny” Mouton of Lafayette, a diminutive Cajun, had labored in the vineyards of the legislature for 15 years for liberal causes. Secretary of State Paul Hardy, a boyishly handsome, young newcomer from St. Martinville had just been elected to his first statewide office. And Public Service Commissioner Louis Lambert of Gonzales, with the support of organized Blacks and labor, hoped to follow the historic footsteps of Huey P. Long by jumping from the PSC into the Governor’s Mansion. These five men represented the full gammut of political philosophy, intellect, and integrity. But only one would face Treen in the runoff. Everyone assumed it would be Fitzmorris. It wasn’t.
After a close primary that required several recounts and three court rulings before a decision, Louis Lambert emerged as the Democratic candidate who would battle Treen for the go vernorship. The state’s populist heritage and the considerable political clout of organized labor and urban Black groups (over 100 in number) that had put Lambert in the runoff, was expected to put him over the edge – until an incredible phenomenon that still has the Democratic party reeling began to take shape. All four of the defeated Democratic primary contenders joined together to endorse Republican Treen over their fellow Democrat.
That development is what finally tilted the scales over to Treen. With the support of some Democrats, Treen was able to carry the traditional Republican votes and enough of the new middle class independents. It was close – a margin of less than ten thousand votes among over a million cast. Still, it was a victory for Treen.
The fact is that Treen owes his election to a large segment of the Democratic party. The four gubernatorial candidates were not the only elected Democratic officials to cross party lines to endorse him. Legislators and local officials all across the state actively worked toward his election. The Iberia Parish Democratic Executive Committee even voted unanimously to endorse him over Lambert.
The most fascinating aspect of this boost from Democrats is that Edgar Mouton, the most liberal of all of them, is the one to whom Dave Treen owes the most. A quick took at the demographics of this year’s returns shows why: North Louisiana went for Lambert in spite of “Bubba” Henry’s help (due to labor’s pressure increased recently by the heavy amount of unionization accompanying the lumber/paper mill industry). New Orleans went to Lambert despite the endorsement by Fitzmorris. But Acadiana was another story. While 97 percent of the Black vote in the state went to Lambert, the Lafayette parish area was an exception. Because of Mouton’s support, Lafayette even the Black boxes – went resoundingly to Tree n. (Because Mouton endorsed George McGovern for president in 1972, Lafayette was also the parish in the state that McGovern carried.)
Ironic? It appears that way until one considers that Mouton says he extracted a commitment from Treen prior to his endorsement regarding appointments of women and minorities in his administration and the operation of several key programs as well.
Mouton didn’t have to work very hard to achieve that promise; it was one that Treen
had articulated repeatedly throughout the entire campaign. Since the state only has 98,211 registered Republicans, the Treen machine set its sight early on capturing the votes of what they termed “discerning Democrats”. During the primary, Treen worked hard to moderate his philosophy, moving so far to the left in some cases as to usurp some traditional Democratic positions. The end result was that on virtually all of the issues of the day Treen’s positions were essentially identical to those of his Democratic opponents.
In fact, Treen came out early and strongly in favor of affirmative action programs, even saying that quota systems were sometimes necessary to ‘address the grievances of the past.” He publicly apologized during a live television debate with Lambert for his having been “remiss in the past” in the area of race relations in response to a question about his membership in the States’ Rights Party and acknowledged that he had a lot of catching up to do in that area. His position on labor-management relations was downright friendly compared to Democrat Hardy, who campaigned on vituperative attacks on organized labor.
The glaring exception to Treen’s conversion was his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment; he was the single gubernatorial candidate who did not come out in support of ratification of the ERA. Near the end of his runoff campaign, however, he began hinting that he “had an open mind” and that Mouton, who was lobbying him on the issue extensively, “was beginning to make a lot of sense.” Treen also sounded like the old Dave Treen on crime. In fact, much to his political gain, Treen cornered the market on the “hard on crime” line early in the campaign.
Because he moderated his positions, recognized his need to establish political debts to certain key Democrats and “discerning Democrats” in general, Treen is now the governor-elect. As a newcomer to state government, he says he needs the advice, counsel and guidance of leading Democrats, and has pledged repeatedly a bi-partisan administration. He is publicly committed to appointing women and minorities (as well as the elderly and the handicapped) to key policymaking positions.
Treen is no political naif. As the first Republican governor of a deep South state in over a century, Treen is aware his performance in office will reflect glaringly on his party and will affect Republicanism throughout the South for years to come. As LSU Prof. Mark Carleton recently pointed out, “If he (Treen) is a flop he could be the last Republican governor for another hundred years.”
Gov. Edwards is waiting in the wings, eager to reclaim his old job with $450,000 already sitting in his campaign coffers. Elected eight years ago by a coalition of labor, Blacks and liberals, Edwards has appointed more Blacks and women to government positions and done more to steer state government in the direction of their needs than any other in Louisiana’s history. He has publicly pledged to be back in 1983.
Edwin Edwards is leaving office this year with the highest popularity and approval rating in the polls of any Louisiana governor in history. Treen will have to encroach mightily on the governor’s “coalition territory” to stave off that kind of opposition in four years.
If any state in the union has little patience with politicians who don’t it’s Louisiana. That is not a state that is particularly enamored of the lofty ideals of “good government”; it is a state steeped in the tradition of autocratic Gallic rule, of benevelent dictatorship, of despotic populism of the Longs. Less than it demands honesty and reform it demands action. And such preferences diminish in the energy-short and inflation plagued 1980’s.
Louisiana in the 1980s will face a unique opportunity for women and minorities to impact state government as inexorably and as emphatically as they did
in the 1970s – and possibly more so. As more of them discover they have an entree in the vast network filtering down from the governor’s office, more programs will be developed and funded, more victories will be won in the legislature, and more women and minorities will be getting elected.The ground is fertile for change.
The mantle of his party bearing heavy on his shoulders, Treen’s victory is founded on a shiveringly thin margin of 9,557 votes and campaign promises and debts to liberal Democrats. Certain of formidable Democratic opposition in four more years, Treen will probably be a man of his word. With the economic law of Supply and Demand, Louisiana’s gubernatorial politics, and the state’s unique history, the Treen administration may add up to an opportunity for those so long denied equality in the South.
Norma Dyess is a Baton Rouge native currently working as a reporter for the Louisiana News Bureau, a private state government reporting and service agency.