Fox McKeithen was among the last of a dying breed of Louisiana politician, one who placed loyalty to people ahead of loyalty to party. It is more than a little ironic that he was the state's highest-ranking Republican, because that party enforces the strictest code of discipline. When McKeithen died from an infection on July 16, a piece of Louisiana political lore died with him. He was 58.
The best example of McKeithen's now-maverick brand of politics came in 1991, when he faced his first bid for re-election as Secretary of State. Two years earlier, he had bolted from the Democratic Party to the GOP -- a move that shocked his populist Democratic mentor and father, former Gov. John J. McKeithen.
The party switch was a bold move even in the best of times (this was just after the Reagan presidency and at the beginning of Bush pere). By the time Fox McKeithen's re-election campaign rolled around, former Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi David Duke was running for governor as a Republican, and he had made it to the runoff against Edwin Edwards. While people all over Louisiana were placing "Vote for the crook -- it's important" bumper stickers on their cars, McKeithen found himself in a runoff against Democratic attorney Doug Schmidt. It was not a good time to be a Republican running statewide in Louisiana, and McKeithen was doing it for the first time.
Here in New Orleans, a young man named Marc Morial had just won a bid for state Senate in the primary, and it was clear that he was assuming the mantle of his late father, former Mayor Dutch Morial, as the leader of Dutch's political organization LIFE. All across the state, black political leaders were organizing to defeat Duke (and all other Republicans), and it appeared the Democrats were going to sweep the statewide offices.
But McKeithen knew Dutch Morial from his days as a state legislator, when Dutch was mayor of New Orleans. He also knew that his father, while governor, appointed Dutch Morial to the Juvenile Court bench after Morial, as a lawmaker, helped John McKeithen pass a key piece of legislation. The judgeship gave Dutch a citywide base and launched his march to the mayor's office. Dutch and "Big John" McKeithen became lifelong friends, and in politics that meant their sons should be friends also. Fox knew this.
In a move that spoke volumes about both Marc Morial and Fox McKeithen, LIFE endorsed McKeithen in 1991 and helped him win re-election by a scant 9,000 votes. From that moment on, McKeithen broke the mold among Republicans and enjoyed unparalleled support among African-American voters. When black voters and leaders saw Fox McKeithen, they didn't see a Republican. They saw a friend. Fox looked at people that way, too.
Two other examples of this kind of politics stand out in McKeithen's career. In 1998, his daughter Marjorie, a Democrat, challenged Republican Congressman Richard Banker of Baton Rouge. Although he typically stayed out of other people's elections, McKeithen went to bat for his daughter against a fellow Republican. She lost by less than 3,000 votes.
And years later, shortly before his death, he called his old friend Al Ater, a Democrat and former legislator, and asked him to return to his former post as first assistant secretary of state. McKeithen knew he was dying, and he wanted to make sure the office would be in the hands of a man who helped him run it for years. Ater is now acting Secretary of State. A special election for that office will be called to coincide with the 2006 congressional elections.
There was one other hallmark of McKeithen's public life: he did a superb job as Secretary of State. Ask any attorney or businessperson who has used the office, and they will tell you it's the most efficient and professional office in state government. Its Web site is excellent, its personnel thorough and courteous, and its level of services unmatched.
In a way, that was an extension of Fox McKeithen's brand of politics: people mattered most.
- When black voters and leaders saw Fox McKeithen, they didn't see a Republican. They saw a friend. Fox looked at people that way, too.