It all started back in 1845. That's when Louisiana's ruling class realized that the state's original 1812 constitution, patterned in a pinch after Kentucky's charter, wasn't a good fit. Popular sentiment at the time favored a more democratic form of government, one with a clear line of succession to the governor. Thus the office of lieutenant governor was created.
Under the new constitution of 1845, Trasimon Landry of Donaldsonville, a war hero and slave owner, won the election to be Louisiana's first lieutenant governor. He almost became governor on the spot when Isaac Johnson, a Democrat who won the governor's race, came under fire from Whig Party leaders for allegedly taking an improper oath. The Whigs argued that Johnson was not legally governor, so the oath was given a second time. (President Barack Obama had to be sworn in twice last year for similar reasons.)
In 1865, a lieutenant governor finally inherited the top spot in Louisiana when James Madison Wells became governor upon the resignation of then-Gov. Michael Hahn, who spent most of his time in office pining for Washington, D.C. (Sound familiar?) Hahn won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Today, political theories abound that Gov. Bobby Jindal won't serve two full terms — he'll either land a spot on the 2012 GOP national ticket or run against Mary Landrieu for U.S. Senate in 2014 — which makes this year's special election for lieutenant governor, in effect, a race for governor.
Louisiana has a long and colorful history of No. 2's, some of whom ascended to the Mansion. In 1868, Oscar J. Dunn became Louisiana's first elected African-American lieutenant governor. Something known as the "Custom House Conspiracy" suggests that Dunn — and not P.B.S. Pinchback — was in fact the first African-American to serve as governor in the United States. Dunn briefly served as "acting governor" when then-Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth was injured in a boating accident. Dunn later died in office and was replaced by Pinchback, whom history credits with being Louisiana's (and America's) first black governor.
In 1988, Paul Hardy became the first Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction. In 1992, Melinda Schwegmann became the first woman elected to the office. In 2004, Kathleen Blanco became one of the few lieutenant governors to win an election as governor. And, earlier this year, Gov. Bobby Jindal tried to abolish the office altogether. The normally compliant legislature would hear nothing of it.
Today, Louisiana's lieutenant governor presides over the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. While the history of the office is clear, voters will decide its future on Oct. 2 as eight candidates are vying to wait in the wings as Bobby Jindal plots his Big Move.
In his office off Essen Lane, located behind the State Archives in Baton Rouge, Secretary of State Jay Dardenne walks over to a shelf and grabs a dated, fading blue-and-white box. He lifts the lid and slowly pulls out an oversized bottle of Hadacol, the infamous snake-oil mixture popularized by the late Cajun state Sen. Dudley "Coozan Dud" LeBlanc.
Dardenne looks wistfully at his collector's item, perhaps thinking of the many anecdotes about LeBlanc and other Louisiana political legends. One of his favorites involves a forgotten episode of Groucho Marx's radio show. When the mustachioed one asked LeBlanc, his guest, during the program what Hadacol was good for, LeBlanc's response was humorous and revealing. "It was good for $5.5 million for me last year," he told Marx.
Dardenne sometimes uses that line in a presentation titled "Why Louisiana Ain't Mississippi," a lively and colorful look at Louisiana's culture, demography, history, music and politics. He gives other, similar talks, but the PowerPoint presentation on Louisiana's uniqueness, created in 2005, is his crown jewel. He's even formed a company, WLAM, to guide the venture. He gets $2,500 per appearance.
Dardenne, who maintains a home and small law practice in Baton Rouge where he specializes in mitigations, is gunning to become Louisiana's next lieutenant governor. So far, he's the frontrunner. "I love this job and it's absolutely suited for me. But the lieutenant governor's job is suited for me, too," Dardenne says. "I have a background in marketing and journalism. Promoting tourism and selling Louisiana is very suited to my interests."
If elected lieutenant governor, Dardenne says he would continue to place a spotlight on New Orleans — and maintain an office here — as former lieutenant governor and now Mayor Mitch Landrieu did, even though other parts of the state often complain they're being overlooked in the state's state marketing plans. "I don't think there's any question that New Orleans is the gateway to Louisiana. It's a key asset to marketing Louisiana nationally," he says. "But I think I can do a better job of molding all parts of the state in a way that helps dissolve some of the tension that sometimes exists between New Orleans and the rest of the state."
As to whether he would keep the satellite New Orleans office open as lieutenant governor, an on-again, off-again policy issue over the years, Dardenne told Gambit last week he would definitely keep the office open. All of the other candidates interviewed for this story agreed with that idea.
State GOP Chairman Roger Villere's hands are always doing something. One moment they're twisting a plastic cup of frozen coffee; the next they're folding and unfolding a straw wrapper. They're small, pale hands, smooth to the shake. They're the kind of hands that know how to avoid thorns on a rose, where to place baby's breath and how many colors can be crammed into a spring bouquet. They're the hands behind Villere's Florist in Metairie.
"I worked as a florist during the Easter of 1965, and I really needed a job at the time. It just took," Villere says after arriving a half-hour late for an interview at PJ's Coffee downtown — and only slightly remorseful that he wouldn't be in his regular seat for the New Orleans Saints' season opener that afternoon. "I liked flowers and I liked plants. I've grown orchids since I was 11 and was the youngest member of the New Orleans Orchid Society."
Villere is no political rookie, however. In 1989, he ran in a special election for the state House District 81 seat, an election won by former Klansman and neo-Nazi David Duke. Asked if he agrees with Duke philosophically, Villere mulled his response before answering. "I don't know what his political philosophy is now, but back then he was just telling people want they wanted to hear," Villere says. "He was a great speaker. He said all the right things."
Detractors contend the party chairman should be helping raise money for Republican candidates and working to get them elected, not challenging them. Villere also could have an advantage if he were to seek the party's official endorsement. "It's not something I'm pushing for right now. We have multiple Republican candidates in the race," he says. "But I'm not saying I won't at some point."
Dardenne, the most recognizable Republican in the race, says Villere's campaign hasn't impacted his efforts yet. He takes no position on whether Villere should relinquish the GOP chair and says no state law prohibits him from running. "That's his call," Dardenne says. "He has a right to run."
Villere says there's no conflict of interest — and little difference between his party incumbency and Dardenne's official incumbency. "Jay Dardenne is also the commissioner of elections. He's actually certifying elections," Villere says. "I don't see why one should be allowed and not the other."
Nonetheless, Villere has hired a deputy chairman to pick up the slack and made sure the interview for this story was conducted nowhere near the party's Baton Rouge headquarters.
If Villere is abusing his position — and we're not saying he is — it's difficult to see how he's benefiting. His endorsements so far have been underwhelming, even among Republicans: the Lafayette Tea Party, Tea Party of Louisiana, Jefferson Parish Republican Executive Committee, the Rapides GOP executive committee and the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce's political action committee. The Tea Party seems a cornerstone of his strategy; he told Gambit last week he couldn't count the number of Tea Party events at which he has appeared.
Dardenne, a Baton Rouge native, is keeping pace. He has the backing of the parish executive committees from Ascension, East Baton Rouge and Orleans, plus endorsements from the Greater New Orleans Republicans and the Southeastern Louisiana University College Republicans.
Polling and fundraising have been a challenge for Villere. He's in single digits in most surveys and has about $12,000 in his campaign kitty — less than anyone else in the race. Dardenne, by contrast, has $747,000 in the bank as of the last official tally.
While the undecided factor looms heavily over the lieutenant governor's race, the two leading Democrats with money and/or name recognition are beginning to make the contest a little more interesting. Two polls released last month showed that close to half of all likely voters had no idea who they would support in the Oct. 2 open primary.
Anything can happen under such conditions. Just ask New Orleans attorney Caroline Fayard, who at age 32 has become a Democratic heavy hitter practically overnight. While she carries a well-known last name among behind-the-scenes players — her father, noted plaintiff trial lawyer Calvin Fayard of Denham Springs, is a major donor on the state and national levels — Fayard came into her own earlier this month after a New York City meet-and-greet hosted by former President Bill Clinton.
She also went on TV with a splashy ad after Labor Day. The ad is in regular rotation in major markets. In it, she slams "career politicians" and markets herself as a "new leader." Hers will certainly be a message of change. "I believe it is time for a younger generation to take responsibility for the future of our state as well as our country," Fayard says.
Campaign finance records show Fayard has dumped $300,000 of personal cash into her campaign, but they reveal another $200,000 in individual contributions collected so far this year as well — not including the Clinton fundraiser.
The other Democrat who has been making waves in the race is state Sen. Butch Gautreaux of Morgan City. Last week, he benefitted from a fundraiser at White Oak Plantation in Baton Rouge, co-hosted by chef John Folse, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and others.
He's making some serious moves to consolidate traditional Democratic support, despite Fayard's family connections. The AFL-CIO threw its support behind Gautreaux early on, and he recently scored endorsements from the parish party organizations in Orleans and Jefferson.
Gautreaux has loaned his campaign $25,000 and collected more than $87,000 in individual donations in recent months. Fayard has $445,000 in the bank to Gautreaux's $40,000, as of the latest campaign finance reports, but Gautreaux has already sunk significant money into a statewide media buy and was among the first contenders on the air with a television commercial.
Gautreaux's TV ad focuses on his main campaign theme: his call for BP to create a marketing fund to "repair the damage to Louisiana's image" caused by the oil disaster. He says holding BP accountable for repairing the state's image strikes at the heart of the lieutenant governor's role in tourism. He adds that the $100 million or so that BP has spent on repairing its own image shows the oil giant has the cash to pony up. "If they can spend millions on propaganda, they can pay to fix the problem they created," Gautreaux says. "We need to stand up for our state and put Louisiana first."
Everyone in the race is hoping to garner enough undecided voters to get a spot in the runoff. To say the undeclared portion of the electorate is prominent might be an understatement.
An August poll by Clarus Research Group of Washington, D.C., for WWL-TV had the undecided factor at 47 percent. A recent survey by Southern Media and Opinion Research of Baton Rouge pegged it at 40 percent. Both polls suggest that a pair of Republicans are positioned to secure the runoff spots: Dardenne, who polled in the mid-20s, and country musician Sammy Kershaw of Lafayette, who held at about 15 percent in each poll.
The election is now less than three weeks away. On their campaign websites, Fayard and Villere point to a new poll released last week showing a surge in support for their efforts. The CMS automated telephone survey yielded 16 percent for Dardenne, 13 percent for Kershaw, 11 percent for Fayard and 9 percent for Villere, according to results originally posted on www.LaNewsLink.com. Automated surveys are considered less reliable, however.
Still, every survey makes Kershaw, who did not return calls requesting an interview, the wild card in this race. Elsewhere, Villere will have to get past Dardenne among Republicans and conservatives. Fayard and Gautreaux, meanwhile, will be fighting it out for the Democratic base in New Orleans and other urban areas.
As for frontrunner Dardenne, the possibility of one day being governor has nagged at him since he was student body president at Louisiana State University. Back then, friends jokingly encouraged his political career; but now it's part of every serious discussion about Louisiana's political future.
Publicly, Dardenne dismisses talk about being governor — just as Jindal waves off questions about his obvious national ambitions. As is often the case in politics, though, less is more. The less Jindal says about his ultimate ambitions, the more just about everyone believes he lusts for national office.
And that makes the Oct. 2 primary for lieutenant governor a lot more than a race about culture, recreation and tourism.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him through his website at www.jeremyalford.com.