Louisiana Democrats rally behind John Bel Edwards as the party rebuilds


John Bel Edwards at the 2015 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in New Orleans held by the Louisiana Democratic Party.
  • John Bel Edwards at the 2015 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in New Orleans held by the Louisiana Democratic Party.

Louisiana's Democratic party is picking itself up and preparing for battle in 2015 and 2016. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's loss to Republican Bill Cassidy in the 2014 Senate race was a blow to Louisiana Democrats, now without any statewide office. But the 2015 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner at the Sheraton New Orleans on July 25 served as a rally to bring the party back to its fighting weight. That battle begins with Gov. Bobby Jindal.  

Though Landrieu received a lifetime achievement award and U.S. Sen Amy Klobuchar was the event's keynote speaker, the event served more as a sort of unveiling of state Rep. John Bel Edwards, who is the Democratic front runner in the governor's race. Edwards said the pressing issue on voters' minds going into the 2015 election is recovering from Jindal. And Jindal's not even on the ballot. But the party continues to link Republican candidates for governor to Jindal — in his speech, Edwards called his opponents "Jindal on steroids" (David Vitter), "Jindal Lite" (Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne) and "Jindal incarnate" (Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle). Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the last Democrat in the governor's mansion, introduced Edwards, whose supporters rang yellow bells with blue handles throughout his speech and at any mention of his name throughout the event.

In his speech, Edwards championed higher education, equal pay, a living wage and health care, adding that he will immediately expand Medicaid as soon as he enters office, if elected. "It's the right thing to do, it's the moral thing to do," he said.

But how will Edwards, and the party itself, motivate Democrats to the polls and push for better voter turnout? Edwards said it's not just Democrats, but all voters, who are fed up with Jindal's administration and are looking for a change. "People are not happy with Bobby Jindal. Voting the party, voting Republican, has not gone the way they wanted," Edwards said to reporters before the event. "We're just going to make it very clear what the differences are among the candidates, and why it's important to go out and vote."

Edwards also will face the money machine that is Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, whose campaign has raised a mighty $9 million in his bid for governor. Edwards said he feels confident.

"He better worry about the Edwards machine," he said with a smile. "I'm comfortable."

Democrats also are focused on rebuilding their brand post-Landrieu with a fleet of younger faces in the party amid familiar figures like state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson.

"I've seen parties rebuild from the ashes," Klobuchar said, pointing to own her election amid a Republican presence in her state; Klobuchar told Gambit it wasn't dissimilar to what's happening in Louisiana. "I just see that one, you can build a party up, and two, you have done a lot of what you've done here in New Orleans, incredible investment in infrastructure and starting over again. If you go backward, and cut mental health, hospitals, the kinds of things these guys are doing..."

"Our challenge as a party is to articulate what Louisiana's values really are," Peterson told reporters.

Still, it goes back to Jindal, whose shadow will follow the upcoming elections even as he travels out of state with his own campaign for U.S. President. At the dinner, Jindal was the butt of jokes from statewide and national Demoratic figures — former legislator and New Hampshire Democratic Party head Raymond Buckley joked about Jindal's trips to the state: "Every day he's marching around the state talking about... not much," he said. "He really can't brag about being your governor, can he?"
Klobuchar asked, "Are you ready to put a Democrat in the governor's office? Are you ready to put a governor in the governor's office?"

Peterson said Jindal and "his flunkies," including Republican members of legislature, "brought the entire state to the brink" with the "stubbornness of the GOP and the stupidity of their failed policies." Klobuchar challenged Louisiana Democrats to help pass a federal minimum wage bill, family medical leave policies, equal pay legislation, and reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.

"Rewrite your own history, Louisiana," she said.

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