The political ghosts in the Hilton Capitol Center were already stirring when Foster Campbell took the microphone in his hand. The newly restored hotel, benefiting from more than $70 million in renovations, once hosted President John F. Kennedy and, earlier in its life, it was the legendary haunt of former Gov. Huey P. Long, who often used its notorious underground tunnel for quick escapes.
Comparisons of Campbell to Long have been made for decades, and his handlers have done little to squelch the association. Why should they? He's aiming for the fourth floor of Huey's Capitol from his seat on the Public Service Commission, just as Long did.
In a six-minute speech at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on July 21 -- where the Democratic elite meet to eat and greet, for tickets costing upwards of $5,000 -- Campbell managed to touch on education, corruption, consumer rights and environmental concerns while being interrupted by laughter and/or applause 15 times. Granted, he could have stacked the crowd, or it could have been the pre-event cocktails, but Campbell brought the house down. He even aimed part of his speech directly at former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a presidential hopeful seated among an assortment of Louisiana's political superstars. The comments revealed that Campbell isn't timid in the presence of power and is comfortable with his audience. "It's okay to be a trial lawyer here tonight," Campbell advised Edwards. "You got a lot of friends."
Largely, however, Campbell put on a show reminiscent of old-style Louisiana populism. "I took on the telephone companies when I passed the 'Do Not Call List,'" a red-faced Campbell said in his pitchy, country drawl, arms waving wildly. "I took on the railroads when we needed railroad safety in Louisiana."
Even his campaign's central plank smacks of the halcyon days when state government, under Huey Long, stared down Standard Oil. The Campbell Plan would eliminate the state income tax on individuals and businesses, return $3.1 billion back to those same groups, and impose a 6 percent fee on all oil and gas processed in the state. "They owe it to the great state of Louisiana," Campbell says. "If anybody is worried about the oil companies leaving the state, don't worry about it, because they are making $12,500 in net profit per minute."
Campbell left the stage with an ovation nearing half a minute. Someone, whether paid staff or an obsessed fan, capped it off from the crowd: "Now we got a leader!"
Of course, there are two Democrats in the race for governor, and state Sen. Walter Boasso was given the same amount of time allotted to Campbell at the fundraising event. Clearly sweating, the bulky Chalmette native and, more importantly, recent convert from the GOP, did his best to cheer for the home team. He was understandably uncomfortable, having come into the fold after being rejected by the GOP in favor of the race's unambiguous frontrunner, Congressman Bobby Jindal of Kenner.
Boasso, a self-made businessman with one of the best stories to tell in the race (one Nightline Report dubbed him a "hero" in the wake of Katrina), was once a registered Democrat. Still, he was unable to let his natural charm shine as his words stumbled out somewhat tentatively. "I really want to appreciate the warm welcome that the party has given to me in coming back home, and I appreciate that," Boasso said right off the bat.
As for issues, the speech was thin, not unlike his Web site, which features absolutely nothing under "On the Issues." An ill-advised portion of his time was also spent introducing his opponent. "We have two good Democrats in the race," he says. "Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell is a good man."
In return, Campbell pointed to the emperor's clothing. "I ain't never left ya," he reminded those gathered. "I'm a Democrat."Ê
The only wild card from the Democratic side of the race is New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who has avoided answering questions about his aspirations. Julie Vezinot, communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party, says Nagin has had no formal meetings with party leadership, and it's noteworthy that he is raising money outside of the state -- and that the congressional seat of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, a New Orleans Democrat facing federal corruption charges, could soon be open.
Since the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, the insider buzz has been growing around Campbell, Vezinot says, adding that the party is not favoring either candidate. "Foster got overwhelming support from the [Jefferson-Jackson Dinner]," she says, "It appeared to be a great night for him."
Traditional factions within the party are also inching toward Campbell. "I've seen some of those stirrings moving in that direction too in recent months," Vezinot says.
State Rep. Juan A. LaFonta, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and Democrat from New Orleans, where a big chunk of the party's base resides, reports that Campbell's grassroots campaign is well under way in the city although it's starting off slowly, with signage only. Boasso's materials, meanwhile, still haven't hit the streets. "This is going to shape up to be an interesting race," says LaFonta, who has not endorsed a candidate.
In an interview following the dinner speech, Campbell embraced the perceived shift -- although surely wondering why it didn't start when he was the lone Democrat -- and predicted he will land key endorsements from labor and teachers. "I don't think there's any question who the real Democrat is," he says. "I have 32 years of helping people as a Democrat and I have never thought about switching parties. I'm one of the strongest white Democrats you'll find in Louisiana."
Boasso shrugs off the assessment, still touting one of his own polls that shows a 10-percentage-point drop for Jindal and a boost from 6 percent to 21 percent for him -- after spending $1.3 million for television ads to increase his name recognition. Therein lies the most noticeable difference between Campbell and Boasso: Money. Boasso spent more on media than Campbell has in his account right now, roughly $1.2 million. As of the last reporting period, Boasso had only $232,000 on hand, but he has already loaned his campaign $1.4 million and can dig deeper if needed. Campbell, meanwhile, is challenged in his fundraising.
Boasso says his opponent is Jindal, the frontrunner who got more than 50 percent in Boasso's own poll. Meanwhile, Boasso is meeting with black mayors around the state -- Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden introduced him for his announcement speech -- and staffers warn not to underestimate him. While there might be a shift heading in another direction, Boasso says he has the time, resources and energy to play it out.
"The Democratic support I am getting comes from those who are ready for someone to take the fight to Bobby Jindal," Boasso says. "They are looking for someone who is willing to challenge Bobby Jindal on his record of following the incompetence of President Bush in Iraq and in New Orleans. And ultimately, they are looking for someone who can beat Bobby Jindal. They know I am that Democrat."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.
- In his bid for the Democratic nomination, Foster Campbell is touting his public service and lifelong party affiliation.