- The gloves are off in the Nov. 2 secretary of state election showdown between political novice Caroline Fayard and veteran politician Jay Dardenne
Caroline Fayard has traveled across south Louisiana most of her life. Reared in Livingston Parish and schooled in neighboring Baton Rouge, she worked briefly in Houma and now has roots and residency in New Orleans. She was a summer page on Capitol Hill and later practiced law there. She graduated with honors from both Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan Law School. She worked as an analyst for the investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs in New York City.
At just 32, Fayard already has traveled many miles. But, like a diligent Junior Leaguer (she's a member of the local chapter) Fayard also has the next five or so years planned out: On Nov. 2, she'll be elected lieutenant governor and serve out the rest of the unexpired term left by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and then she'll lock down next year's regular election for a subsequent four-year term.
Of course, those are just Fayard's plans. Voters may have something, or someone, else in mind. Any seasoned politician knows all too well what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men — and women.
That's where Jay Dardenne comes in. The Baton Rouge Republican secretary of state has spent most of his life with a political wind at his back, and now he hopes it will propel him into the state's No. 2 position. He served as student body president at LSU and lost his first real race in 1987. That was the last time Dardenne tasted political defeat. He won a seat on the East Baton Rouge Metropolitan Council the following year and a seat in the state Senate in 1991. Fifteen years later, he was elected secretary of state, a title he still holds.
And just like Fayard, he plans to be Louisiana's next lieutenant governor.
In some ways, Dardenne and Fayard are fighting over the same home turf — metro Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, she's defending her newfound base in New Orleans against one of the few statewide elected Republicans who can perform well in the Crescent City. In 2006, Dardenne faced a field of seven in the special election for secretary of state, including then-fellow state Sen. Francis C. Heitmeier, a New Orleans native. In that low-turnout race, Heitmeier garnered 12,908 votes in Orleans Parish to Dardenne's surprisingly strong 12,812.
That was then. When Dardenne and Fayard competed for lieutenant governor — along with six other candidates — on the Oct. 2 ballot, the results were dramatically different. Fayard, a Democrat, won more than half the total votes cast in Orleans Parish, or 20,279, to Dardenne's 8,866. Another 11,000 or so votes were split among the other candidates.
Political consultant James Hartman credits Fayard with getting her "ducks in a row." Her election-day spending report (filed on Oct. 13) showed 74 workers who were paid from $50 to $400, totaling more than $11,600 overall, with another $15,000 going to consultants and civic groups — all in New Orleans.
Hartman added that the political power structure in New Orleans, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, has never given Dardenne much mind. "I think Fayard can repeat her performance again in New Orleans fairly easily. ... She clearly had an excellent field organization. She was also the only strong Democrat in a crowded field of Republicans," Hartman says.
Meanwhile, the Oct. 2 results in Baton Rouge gave Dardenne his half of the votes, or 35,133, to Fayard's 19,337. That's a much tighter spread than what Fayard racked up in New Orleans. And in Baton Rouge, Fayard didn't put the kind of money on the streets that she did in New Orleans.
Albert Samuels, associate professor of political science at Southern University in Baton Rouge, says Fayard will have to work harder if she wants to capture East Baton Rouge Parish — as Barack Obama did two years ago. "I think Jay Dardenne is beatable, but she's going to need to do a better job here," Samuels says. "I've seen very little effort being used to mobilize the African-American community, and she can't count on the U.S. Senate race to do that for her."
Rolfe McCollister, publisher of the Baton Rouge Business Report and a good barometer of what that city's conservative-religious vote is thinking, is backing Dardenne, who has been criticized by some on the far right for being too moderate. "[Fayard] seems to want to keep people from learning she's a Democrat and says 'parties or labels' don't matter, [but] her record of support for one party — Democratic — is also pretty impressive," McCollister wrote in a recent editorial. "I have rarely met a Democrat who doesn't think more government or more spending will somehow solve our problems. And that is certainly true of (former President Bill) Clinton and (President Barack) Obama. Seems like Fayard has a lot of respect for the kind of 'career politicians' she criticizes."
Dardenne, at 56, clearly tips the scales in his own favor when it comes to experience. But Fayard, the daughter of highly successful plaintiff attorney and noted Democratic financier Calvin Fayard Jr. of Denham Springs (and, more recently, New Orleans), has ample loot. In addition to her family's wealth, Fayard got some seed money from a summer fundraiser in New York City hosted by former President Clinton.
More recently, the Louisiana Democratic Party stepped forward to bankroll a $200,000 ad buy. Fayard has raised another $35,000 in individual contributions since Oct. 2, while Dardenne has pulled in more than $153,000. Fayard outspent Dardenne on Election Day by a margin of $29,600 to $4,800. She likewise surpassed his media buy. That trend is expected to continue through the Nov. 2 general election.
Given Fayard's fundraising edge and despite Dardenne's clear advantage in experience — and not to mention his first-place finish on Oct. 2 (by a margin of 28 percent to Fayard's 24 percent) — nobody in the political arena was surprised to see Dardenne to go negative early in the runoff. His statewide blast pegged Fayard as a "liberal Democrat" who supports gay marriage and opposes the death penalty. It also suggests that "Bill Clinton advises her" and that her campaign's loot comes from her "rich trial lawyer father and his rich trial lawyer friends."
The ad goes on to call Fayard an "Obama Democrat" who donated money to a variety of Democratic politicos ranging from former state Sen. Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge to ex-Congressman Bill Jefferson of New Orleans, the latter of whom was convicted of federal bribery charges in Virginia.
There's a snide suggestion at the end of Dardenne's ad that it's only the first of many volleys. "There's more," the voiceover intones, "but we're out of time."
Monica Pierre, Fayard's press secretary, offered a brief statement in response to the radio ad. "It is what you would expect from a 23-year career politician to attack in this way," Pierre says. "We are continuing our efforts to speak to voters around the state and focus on the issues that are most important to Louisiana."
With the money she got from the state party, Fayard is running a commercial statewide called "What I Believe," a soft and fluffy intro-to-the-voters spot. Dardenne's TV ad closely mimics his radio attack spot.
As you might expect of someone who has spent several decades in the political arena, Dardenne has picked up the lion's share of major endorsements. Two weeks ago, he won the support of the Alliance for Good Government, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a one-time presidential contender still looking to gain national influence, landed in Dardenne's corner.
Dardenne's biggest boost, however, came on the heels of the Oct. 2 primary when Lafayette Republican and country music star Sammy Kershaw, who finished a very respectable third in the primary, threw his support to the secretary of state. Sources say Fayard made overtures to Kershaw, but GOP insiders say it's not surprising he stayed in the party lane. Kershaw clearly has residual appeal. He barely campaigned, yet he garnered 126,000 votes in an eight-person field, compared to Dardenne's 181,000 and Fayard's 160,000.
In addition to picking up Kershaw's endorsement, Dardenne also gained a press flack. Amy Jones, who previously handled media outreach for Kershaw, is now on Dardenne's team. No word yet on what Kershaw may have gotten out of the deal, but it no doubt was more favorable than the outcomes of some of the crooner's many well-publicized divorces.
Not to be outdone, Fayard has a media veteran in Pierre, probably best known for co-hosting WWL Radio's First News show with Bob DelGiorno, which remains one of the most listened-to radio programs in southeast Louisiana. Her journalism career spans 23 years in the Crescent City, and she has an Emmy to her credit.
Pierre's talk radio background may have helped Fayard land a guest spot on the statewide syndicated Moon Griffon Show, a beacon for conservative voters. It was a defining moment for Fayard, even if Griffon has an ax to grind with Dardenne, having long been a critic of the senator-turned-secretary of state.
During the broadcast, Fayard began to distance herself from Obama & Co. She declared that the health care overhaul was giving her "anxiety" and explained that she had backed Republicans as well as Democrats over the years — much like her father. She also promised not to support tax or fee increases. She delivered that message to an audience Griffon has kept well-informed about Dardenne's old Senate votes on taxes, gaming and a variety of other issues. There's even a PDF of talking points on Griffon's website.
Dardenne's camp, meanwhile, was forced to post www.therealjaydardenne.com months ago to explain some of the votes being criticized now — and to clear up a few half-truths, such as his record on abortion. That was long before he went on the attack against Fayard over the airwaves. The dynamics of the race have shifted since then.
One could argue that Dardenne's name is on the ballot because he has been preparing for this job his entire adult life. Fayard's name is on the ballot as a true political novice, but she's already established herself as the "future" of the state Democratic Party. Some Republicans are touting Dardenne as the "future" as well, noting that he's more prepared to step up and take the place of Gov. Bobby Jindal should the governor answer the call of Beltway Republicans, some of whom view him as the "future" of the national GOP.
It's probably safe to say that Dardenne, Fayard and Jindal all will remain part of Louisiana's political future; we just don't know yet in what capacity.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him at www.jeremyalford.com.