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When the Smoke Clears

What if you gave a candidate forum and the candidates failed to show?

It happened in the Nov. 15 run-off election for governor of Louisiana. A statewide coalition of 15 environmental organizations -- including the Alliance for Affordable Energy, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and the Sierra Club-Delta Chapter -- invited Republican Bobby Jindal and Democrat Kathleen Blanco to Baton Rouge to debate air, water and deep well injection issues. Neither candidate appeared at the forum. No media either.

"We had a forum without candidates and it was great," Mary Lee Orr, the cheery director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) says, without sarcasm. "You felt like sending a postcard to the candidates, saying, 'Wish you could have been here.'"

An estimated 100 people showed up at the site, a Unitarian church in Baton Rouge, despite warnings from the Jindal and Blanco camps that the candidates would be unable to attend. Undeterred, the activists, including some who had driven from New Orleans, coalesced to strategize.

Attempts to fire up public debate over the often-technical questions about health-threatening pollution issues fell short in the Oct. 4 primary campaign as well. The LEAN-led coalition put together a detailed questionnaire for the original 16 candidates for governor. Sample question: "What will you do to curtail air emissions of mercury from the major emitters in Louisiana, and, since this is an air-borne problem, what will you do to support national pollution-control programs that will reduce the emission of mercury nationwide?" Only candidates Buddy Leach and Mike Stagg returned the questionnaire. (Leach, whose campaign spent millions for his fourth-place finish, reportedly hired a Yale environmental expert to help the candidate respond.)

During separate endorsement interviews, Gambit Weekly asked both candidates if they received the environmental questionnaires. "Questionnaires?" Blanco replied, wearily. She held a hand high over a conference table to indicate how many forms her campaign had received from various groups around the state. Jindal also pleaded that his campaign was too busy -- the environmentalists just had not made it to the top of the stack.

By the final week of the campaign, all questionnaires are very much history. Candidate attention shifts to get-out-the-vote-efforts, turnout for absentee balloting prior to the election -- and maps of the state. When all the votes are tallied Nov. 16, a map of Louisiana will appear on the Web site of New Orleans political consultant Greg Rigamer ( Parishes won by Jindal will be colored in red. Parishes captured by Blanco will appear in blue. Political pollsters and pundits will pore over the data on the morning after, overlaying Saturday's parish results with previous elections. But where politicos see victories and defeats, environmentalists see parishes with health problems for the next governor to address.

Take air quality, for example. The American Lung Association's 2003 "State of the Air" report gave 15 of the 21 most populous parishes in Louisiana failing grades for air quality. While political strategists tally up "red" and "blue" parishes, air-quality environmentalists can attest which parishes have the most "orange days," "red days" and "purple days" -- public ozone-depletion warnings for children, senior citizens and people with asthma, emphysema and other respiratory illnesses.

East Baton Rouge (the seat of the state capitol) led all parishes surveyed in red days and in orange days. In the primary, Jindal carried East Baton Rouge -- his home parish.

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