In other parts of America, 2015 will be remembered as the Year of Donald Trump. Here in Louisiana, it will go down as the year we bade good-bye (and good riddance) to Gov. Bobby Jindal, saw the sudden end of U.S. Sen. David Vitter's political career and witnessed state Rep. John Bel Edwards do what many thought was impossible. And that's just the beginning.
As we've done for decades, it's time to close out the year by reviewing the Top 10 Political Stories of 2015. This year I'm adding a few Honorable Mentions. It was that kind of year.
1. John Bel Edwards Elected Governor
The state representative from the little town of Amite started his campaign for governor two years ago hoping to convince folks he was the Little Engine That Could. By the Nov. 21 runoff, he was the Locomotive That Could Not Be Stopped — and one of the South's few statewide elected Democrats. Edwards proved to be not only a disciplined campaigner but also a fierce debater and inspiring stump speaker. In the runoff, he earned significant crossover support against Vitter, thanks to his own skills and to Vitter's unlikely string of missteps and miscalculations.
2. David Vitter's Implosion
The year's biggest political surprise was Vitter falling apart at the seams after getting precisely the Democratic opponent he wanted in the runoff for governor. Throughout his career Vitter has been the state's most intensely focused and tightly scripted politician, but he built his campaign on the faulty premise that he could ignore (or marginalize) his prostitution scandal and win simply by shouting "Obama! Obama!" in the runoff. Ultimately, the scandal was only part of Vitter's problem. His divisive persona and sheer unlikability cost him the election and forced him to announce his retirement from politics. Love him or hate him, Vitter was the driving force in the Louisiana GOP for nearly 15 years. His departure leaves a big void at the top of the party lineup.
3. Jindal goes out,
Not with a Bang But a Whopper
In contrast to Vitter's spectacular flameout, Jindal left the stage unceremoniously, spinning the same specious myths that have defined his tenure as governor. For the record, there has been no Louisiana Miracle, and he did not cut state spending 26 percent. Rather, he blew a $1 billion surplus left by Democrat Kathleen Blanco; he cut higher ed more than any governor in the nation; he denied health insurance to hundreds of thousands of his constituents; and he gave the state seven straight years of deficits. Jindal leaves office the least popular governor in America, with an approval rating of just 20 percent.
4. State finances continue to suck
Moody's Investors Service put it best: Louisiana has a "structural deficit" that Jindal only has made worse. Thanks to courageous leadership by LSU Chancellor F. King Alexander, higher ed was spared more cuts this year, but we still finished Fiscal Year 2015 in the red — and we're headed for more shortfalls unless things change dramatically.
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down state bans against same-sex marriage had an immediate and profound impact. Our lawmakers typically rubber-stamp anything anti-LGBT, but this year they killed the "Marriage and Conscience Act" bill weeks before the high court's ruling — to avoid a distraction from state budget woes.
6. New Orleans' violent crime wave
Despite statistics that purport to show crime is down overall, many New Orleanians are gripped by fears of violent crime. Most blame Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who balanced his first five budgets by cutting funds for police academy classes.
7. Confederate monuments
Union gunboats captured New Orleans in April 1862 without firing a shot at the city, but modern-day Confederates cling to symbols of the Lost Cause nonetheless. Landrieu's push to remove four contentious monuments from prominent public places touched off a firestorm, and the City Council voted 6-1 for the mayor's proposal. Like the Civil War itself, this battle is far from over ... but the end result seems equally preordained.
8. Mike Yenni wins Jefferson prez race
Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni survived a brutal primary campaign to win the Jefferson Parish president's race, marking a generational passing of the torch in the state's largest parish.
9. Dave Peralta whipped (politically) in St. Bernard
Da Parish's embattled president, facing multiple criminal indictments, finished fifth in his bid for re-election with just over 3 percent of the vote. The charges against Peralta include corruption, abuse of public office, lying to a grand jury and stalking his former wife. Most damaging, perhaps, was a TV news story showing a bondage-style "sex room" at his marital abode — and Peralta's nonchalant talk of "role-playing" in an interview about it.
10. Super PACs dominate state election spending
The nation continues to feel the repercussions of the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial ruling in the Citizens United case, which effectively threw out the rulebook on campaign finance by allowing Super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash in federal and state elections. It's ironic that the candidate who benefited most from Super PAC spending — David Vitter — lost the governor's race, but that outcome reflects Vitter's weakness as a candidate more than the impact of money on political campaigns. Going forward, "independent" committees are going to overwhelm local fundraising efforts. That is not a good thing.
Here are some other big stories from 2015:
Republicans continue to hold majorities in Louisiana's House and Senate, and they are only one vote shy of a supermajority in the Senate. Although the GOP failed to capture the Governor's Mansion, it did retain all other statewide offices by healthy margins.
Incumbent Attorney General Buddy Caldwell lost a nasty fight for re-election to upstart former Congressman Jeff Landry of New Iberia. Landry is a GOP firebrand and a potential thorn in the side of new Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. It will be interesting to see if Landry brings a partisan approach to his office (he did while in Congress).
St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain lost his bid for re-election, completing an anti-incumbent sweep that began two years ago with the indictment of former Coroner Dr. Peter Galvan and continued this year with federal charges against former DA Walter Reed. Elsewhere in Louisiana, the courthouse gangs flexed their political muscles by providing critical endorsements and turnout efforts for Edwards in the gubernatorial runoff.