GovernorBobby Jindal (R)
SenatorsMary Landrieu (D)
David Vitter (R)
- 1 D, 6 R
- 1 through 7
Louisiana often seems to be America’s banana republic, with its charm and inefficiency, its communities interlaced by family ties and its public sector sometimes laced with corruption, with its own indigenous culture and its tradition of fine distinctions of class and caste. It is a state with an economy uncomfortably like that of an underdeveloped country, based on pumping minerals out of soggy ground and shipping grain produced in the vast hinterland drained by its great river, an economy increasingly dependent on businesses typical of picturesque Third World countries—tourism and gambling. Its politics, too, has its own peculiar election laws and a heritage of no-holds-barred conflict and demagoguery no other state can match: What other state has produced the likes of Huey Long or Edwin Edwards? Louisiana has a hereditary rich class and a large, low-wage working class. It has conservative cultural attitudes. Louisiana and Utah have the most-restrictive abortion laws in the United States, and Louisiana in 1997 became the first state to offer covenant marriages, in which spouses agree not to be covered by no-fault divorce laws. But Louisiana also has a lazy tolerance of rule-breaking, and feels more like the Caribbean or the Mediterranean than the North Atlantic or the Pacific Rim. This is not an entirely original observation. Five decades ago, journalist A.J. Liebling described Louisiana as an outpost of the Levant along the Gulf of Mexico. And more recently, architect Andres Duany noted, “New Orleans is not among the most haphazard, poorest, or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities.”
It was, then, perhaps among the least equipped states to handle the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina raged in the Gulf waters off Louisiana and then slammed the coastline, resulting in flooding that devastated most of New Orleans and sent hundreds of thousands of evacuees to shelter on higher ground. One of the costliest natural disasters in the nation’s history, Katrina destroyed large parts of Louisiana and, in the process, laid bare its political and economic frailties. New Orleans mostly withstood the initial winds and storm surge. But then the levees broke, submerging much of the city under water as water sought its level. The 17th Street Canal sprang a 200-foot gash through which came much of the water inundating 80% of New Orleans. Levees along the Industrial Canal, in the poverty-stricken 9th Ward, likewise failed to hold back water driven by a wave surge that reached 30 feet. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, built by the Army Corps of Engineers as a shipping channel (though precious few ships ever used it), funneled waters and winds into St. Bernard Parish east of the city and the lowlands of New Orleans, devastating all in its wake. More than half of the 270 miles of federally constructed levees and flood walls in Louisiana were breached or heavily damaged by winds and flood waters.
It had been known since New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718 that most of the land in and around it, beyond the two ridges piled high by the silt coming down the Mississippi River, was below sea level. It was known that New Orleans, the nation’s fifth-largest city just before the Civil War, was at risk. It was no secret that the Mississippi River often flooded, as it did disastrously in 1927, or that hurricanes came roaring out of the Gulf, as one did that destroyed Galveston, Texas, in 1900. Yet in retrospect, it is clear that New Orleans was unprepared for the predictable disaster that caused more havoc in an American city than anything since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Public officials responding to the disaster were responsible for moments of inspired decision-making but also of lamentable cluelessness. President George W. Bush was unwilling to cancel a West Coast speech and then told his Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie,” a statement that was widely ridiculed. The Coast Guard moved in quickly and rescued perhaps 20,000 people, though no one knew it because the guardsmen didn’t have room in their helicopters and boats for reporters and camera crews. On the other hand, as Harvard scholar and Clinton administration official Elaine Kamarck noted, the FEMA battle plan assumed that local first responders would not be incapacitated by the emergency, but that was not the case with Katrina (or with Hurricane Andrew in Miami in 1992). It was a mistake made by many administrations over many years. It could be argued that Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco was tardy in officially requesting federal assistance, but she also dispatched the boats of the Louisiana Fish and Wildlife Service to rescue thousands of people, again out of camera range. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was pilloried for the school buses that were left under water when they could have been deployed to evacuate helpless people out of the city. But less dramatized was the fact that he had indeed sent city buses into neighborhoods as rescue vehicles. And the supposed murders and violence that were reported in the city’s shelter in the Superdome never actually happened.
In actuality, the inundation of New Orleans was the result not of the inadequacies of the incumbent officeholders supposedly in charge but of the decisions made, and the derelictions committed, by federal, state, and local officials of both parties over many years before the disaster. The New Orleans levee boards were incompetent and corrupt. The Army Corps of Engineers never had a long-term strategy appropriate for a predictable disaster, and its congressional and executive overlords never insisted on one. The destruction of so much of the city in the few days after August 29, 2005, was the result of decisions, over many years, of politicians operating out of full view, of congressional logrolling and administrative inertia, and of the particular civic and political culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, which, for all its charms, has been in many ways dysfunctional.
This is a product of history. The very things that made New Orleans distinctive—the look and feel of a French and Spanish outpost in the New World—were linked also to traditions of dirigiste centralized control and easygoing corruption. Louisiana is the only state whose law is based not on the common law of England but on the Napoleonic Code of France; the concept of civil liberties has shallower roots in Louisiana than in the other 49 states. It also is a state whose economy has always been based on the export of raw materials—sugar, rice, and cotton in the 19th century; oil and gas in the 20th century. Antebellum Louisiana’s agricultural abundance generated the wealth that built grand plantation houses behind alleys of oaks running in from the Mississippi and made New Orleans the one significant city in the South by the time of the Civil War. Then came oil, discovered in 1901, at the dawn of the automobile age. The first offshore well, out of sight of land, came in 1947, at the start of the postwar boom. In 1921, Democratic Gov. John Parker and a young Public Service Commission chairman, Huey Long, got the idea of putting a severance tax on oil. In the 1970s, Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards, a man similar in many ways to Long, changed it from a tax on amount of production to a tax on market value. Oil money came gushing into the Louisiana treasury and financed state government for six decades—and found its way into other pockets as well.
The most enduringly famous politician here, and by far the most talented, was Democrat Huey Long, who in less than a single term each as governor (1928-32) and U.S. senator (1932-35) left an imprint on the state’s public life and imposed an organization on its politics that faded into history less than a generation ago. Long’s genius was not that he promised to tax the rich to help the poor—hundreds of idealists and demagogues in America have done that—but that, to an amazing extent, he delivered. He dominated the Legislature so thoroughly that, as governor, he roamed the floors of both chambers at will, bringing to the podium bills he insisted lawmakers pass without changing a comma—and they did. He was ready to use bribery, intimidation, and physical violence. He built a new skyscraper Capitol, a new Louisiana State University, and more miles of roads than any other state but rich New York and huge Texas had. He also built a national following and, by 1935, was planning to run for president on a platform of ‘‘Share the wealth, every man a king.’’ That year, Long was assassinated at age 42 in the hallway of the Capitol. The bullet holes can still be seen in the marble walls.
His impact was lasting. The Long threat may have moved President Franklin D. Roosevelt to embrace the liberal programs—the Wagner Labor Act, Social Security, steeply graduated taxes—of the second New Deal. For Louisiana, Long delivered a political structure that revolved around him even after he was dead—and a class of political leaders who, lacking his talents, treated the state as Long’s incompetent doctors had treated his fatal wound, leaving Louisiana with neither a fully developed economy nor a fully competent public sector. For 50 years, until Huey’s son, Democratic Sen. Russell Long, retired in 1986, Longs and Long protégés held high political office in Louisiana and elections were run along pro- and anti-Long lines. The Long experience strengthened Louisiana’s already strong predispositions—tolerance of corruption, disinterest in abstract reform, and taste for colorful extremists regardless of their short-term means or long-term ends—in a way that helps explain the rise and fall of such unlikely politicians as the four-term Gov. Edwards and the onetime Ku Klux Klan leader and state legislator David Duke, both of whom by 2003 were spending time in jail. It also helps to explain the state’s lack of economic dynamism. It has been a state with low incomes and workforce participation and low levels of education, with income disparities greater than almost anywhere else in the United States. New Orleans’s rich, like many of their counterparts in Latin America, have been notoriously tight-knit, not venturesome, and determined to hold on to their wealth against the grasp of the impecunious and unlearned masses. This has made a huge difference over time. Metro New Orleans in 1940 had a population of 564,000; it was about the same size then as metro Houston (610,000) and metro Dallas (624,000). But in 2004, just before Katrina struck, metro Houston had 5.1 million people, metro Dallas 5.8 million, and New Orleans just 1.3 million.
The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 did for Louisiana what they did for Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Venezuela: They made it suddenly hugely richer. Louisiana incomes reached national levels and 500,000 new jobs were generated between 1972 and 1981. But oil prices plummeted in the 1980s, Louisiana’s rig count dropped by two-thirds, the state lost 150,000 jobs, and energy taxes fell from 41% of state revenues in 1982 to 9% in 1996. The state’s economy has never regained much forward momentum. Gambling, legalized in 1991, produced less revenue than expected and nothing like the boom that some had promised. People have been leaving the state. From 1980 to 2005, Louisiana increased in population only 7%, far less than any other Southern state and less than any state nationally except two in the Great Plains and the industrial triangle of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Then, as evacuees left New Orleans after Katrina, its population fell by some 250,000, according to Census estimates. It has slowly rebounded, as people have returned, but was still below 2005 levels in mid-2008. And despite the focus on those fleeing New Orleans’s impoverished and predominately black 9th Ward, two-thirds of those who left the state were white, which is about the same proportion of whites in the state’s population.
All this has accentuated long-term demographic trends. Within the state, people have been withdrawing from the lowland silt brought down over the centuries by the Mississippi River—from the city of New Orleans and low-lying St. Bernard Parish, from communities directly facing the Gulf, from the parishes fronting on the Mississippi north of Baton Rouge, and from much of rural northern Louisiana. One place where growth has been robust is along the Interstate 12-Interstate 10 corridor running west from the state line to Lafayette in the Cajun country. High-ground suburbs have burgeoned in St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes north of Lake Pontchartrain, in Livingston and Ascension parishes east and southeast of Baton Rouge, and in and around Lafayette Parish.
Louisiana has long had natural political divides. One is by religion. Catholic Cajun parishes (Louisiana has parishes rather than counties) cast about 30% of the state’s vote; the New Orleans area casts 25% or so; and Protestant parishes from Baton Rouge on north cast about 45%. White Protestants for years have wanted nothing to do with national Democrats, while Cajuns sometimes will support them. Another divide is by race. Some 32% of Louisiana residents are black, the second-highest percentage after Mississippi. African-Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic, while whites are split in seriously contested state elections. A third divide is by income. Low- and high-income whites have voted very differently and are much less influenced than voters in most other states by candidates’ cultural values, marital status, lifestyles, and the like. As a result, Louisiana politics since Huey P. Long’s time has often been a struggle between reformist and conservative forces on one side and roguish populists on the other, a struggle waged in lavishly financed campaigns and with grandiloquent rhetoric. For a quarter-century, the lead role was played by Edwards as the roguish populist, with a number of rivals as reformist conservatives. Edwards was elected governor in 1971 and 1975, sat out 1979 because he was ineligible to run, and then in 1983 won a third term. While in office, he faced corruption charges and was acquitted by a jury in 1986. He lost a bid for re-election in 1987 but ran again in 1991. In Louisiana’s (since altered) all-party system, he won 34% of the vote to 32% for Duke, the onetime Nazi sympathizer and Klansman who had won a special election to the Legislature as a Republican in 1989. Duke was repudiated by Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater and President George H.W. Bush as well as Louisiana Republicans. Bumper stickers read, “Vote for the crook—it’s important,” and Edwards won 61%-39%. He was convicted on corruption charges in May 2000 and went to prison.
In the years since, Louisiana politics has seen vigorous competition with volatile results. The state is one of only four to cast increasing percentages for Republican candidates for president in the past four elections, and its Legislature, long heavily Democratic, is now almost evenly divided. Its statewide races have also been close. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has been elected to three terms starting in 1996 but never with more than 52% of the vote. Republican Sen. David Vitter was elected in 2004 with 51% under Louisiana’s old system of multiparty primaries. Republican Bobby Jindal, defeated for governor by Democrat Kathleen Blanco in 2003, 52%-48%, came back in 2007 and, against split opposition, won the multiparty primary with 54% of the vote.
But the votes did not break the same way in all of these races. Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain carried Louisiana easily by running barely ahead in metro New Orleans, winning more robustly in metro Baton Rouge, and winning 60% or more in most of the rest of the state. The northern Protestant areas and the Cajun country cast large majorities for them. In 2008, the Democratic vote in metro New Orleans was down by 48,000 votes from 2004—evidence of black outmigration after Katrina. But the Republican vote there was also down, by 20,000, suggesting a net Katrina loss to Democrats of 1% to 2% of the total state vote, not nearly as much as some analysts had feared (or had hoped). Jindal in 2007 and Landrieu in 2008, although from different parties, ran best in metro New Orleans, with 58% and 59% of the vote there, respectively. They both carried metro Baton Rouge by narrower margins, and both barely ran ahead in the rest of the state. Vitter, from suburban New Orleans, ran about the same in all three regions, just barely clearing the 50% hurdle needed to avoid a runoff.
The impact of Katrina was most pronounced on the 2007 contest for governor. Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, a Hindu-turned-Catholic, and a fast-talking policy wonk, had run four years earlier and lost the runoff to Democrat Blanco. He had poor showings in the Cajun country and northern Louisiana, particularly after Democrats ran a television ad with his skin darkened. Two years later, Blanco’s performance after Katrina left her politically wounded and she announced she would not run again. In the multiparty primary, Jindal won a solid 54% majority against split opposition. He persuaded the Legislature, with many new members and more Republicans, thanks to term limits, to pass major ethics legislation and tax legislation. As Louisianans continued to return after Katrina—and Louisiana’s Road Home program financed many new homes—he called for stopping outmigration with grants for college graduates who buy homes and stay in the state for five years. With generally good reviews in his first months in office, Jindal was the subject of speculation about a future presidential run.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
In recent years, Louisiana’s presidential politics have been racially polarized, and the trend continued in 2008, when Republican nominee John McCain won 59%-40% over Democrat Barack Obama, the first African-American to be nominated by a major party. In 2004, whites voted 75%-24% for Republican President George W. Bush and African-Americans voted 90%-9% for Democrat John Kerry. Four years later, the difference was even starker. Whites voted 84%-14% for Republican John McCain, and blacks 94%-4% for Democrat Barack Obama. Even young whites voted 81% for McCain, as did 60% of white Democrats. Those who indicated that race was an important factor in their voting split almost evenly, which is to say, more in Obama’s favor than the state’s electorate as a whole. As a result, Louisiana was one of the few states that trended Republican in 2008, despite a significant increase in black registration and turnout. The exodus of African-Americans from New Orleans after the hurricane was one reason, but only a minor one. In terms of percentages, an exodus of whites from Republican St. Bernard Parish was even greater. And the metro New Orleans vote changed only marginally, from 50%-49% Republican in 2004 to 52%-46% Republican in 2008.
The biggest drops in Democratic percentage came in Cajun parishes—perhaps Kerry’s Catholicism had some appeal there—and in the two heavily Cajun congressional districts, the 3rd and the 7th. The Democratic percentage rose in Baton Rouge and Shreveport and in rural parishes with large black populations. But the pattern was mixed, as might be expected in a state that was not targeted by either party in either election and in which the Obama campaign had far less occasion to organize than it did in target states such as Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Louisiana has seldom played a significant role in presidential primaries and caucuses, with one odd exception. That was 1996, when Republican allies of candidate Phil Gramm set up a pre-Iowa and pre-New Hampshire caucus in Louisiana on February 6. The aim was to jump-start Gramm’s campaign. Instead, the caucuses killed it. Only 20,000 Republicans showed up at 42 voting sites (compared with 100,000 at 2,000 sites later in Iowa), and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan won more votes than Gramm and took 13 of the 21 delegates. Gramm’s campaign in Iowa faltered, and he left the race before the New Hampshire primary. The 2000 and 2004 primaries were held in March, after both parties’ nominees had been chosen.
Louisiana did make at least a little bit of difference in 2008. Legislators chose to hold the primary in early February, but not on Super Tuesday, February 5, because that was Mardi Gras, and it was unthinkable to hold an election during Mardi Gras. Instead, the voting was set for the next Saturday, a day on which Louisiana has often held state elections. The decision left Louisiana at risk of irrelevance if both parties’ nominations were settled on Super Tuesday, but they weren’t. Obama came in and held a rally at Tulane University, and former President Bill Clinton spent Friday campaigning around the state for his wife, Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. In retrospect, the outcome should have been no surprise. As recently as 2000, the body of registered Democrats in Louisiana was 58% white and 40% African-American, but in 2008, after a big rush in registration, blacks made up nearly half of the state’s registered Democrats. Democratic turnout in the primary was 384,000—roughly double what is was in 2004 and 2000 and almost identical to what is was in 1992, when Bill Clinton won 69% of the vote, but well below the 1988 record of 625,000. This time, the Clinton family didn’t do as well. Obama won 57% of the vote (and about 80% of the African-American vote), and Clinton won 36%.
There was less enthusiasm on the Republican side because it was pretty clear after Super Tuesday that McCain would be nominated. Nonetheless, evangelical Christians and others set up telephone networks for Arkansas’s Mike Huckabee. With a turnout of 161,000 voters, half the Democratic level but the highest Republican turnout in Louisiana ever, Huckabee won 43% of the vote to 42% for McCain. McCain carried metro New Orleans big and ran about even in the heavily Catholic Cajun country. Huckabee won large majorities in heavily Protestant northern Louisiana. But it didn’t matter. A candidate must win 50% of the vote in Louisiana’s Republican primary to win any delegates. A few days later, party insiders awarded 44 of the 47 delegates to McCain.
|111th Congress: 1 D, 6 R|
Louisiana redrew its congressional districts three times in the 1990s. The first two plans created two black-majority districts, and in each case one of them was highly irregular in shape. They were declared unconstitutional in federal court in December 1993 and July 1994. The first plan was used in the 1992 elections, the second in 1994. In January 1996, a federal court came up with a plan, adopted by the Legislature, that cut through few parish boundaries and had much more regular lines. And it had only one black-majority district, centered in New Orleans. The plan was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 1996.
In August 2001, six of the seven House incumbents (one was running for the Senate) submitted a plan to the Legislature. Republican Gov. Mike Foster called a special session for redistricting in October, and the legislators made minor tweaks in the House incumbents’ plan. It was opposed by the Black Legislative Caucus, which drew up a plan with a second black-majority district stretching from Lafayette and Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River to the Arkansas border. But the Legislature rejected that by solid margins. Foster signed the new plan in October, and the Justice Department approved it in April 2002. Generally, it has favored Republicans, but five of the seven districts have elected members of both parties in the elections from 2002 to 2008.
Louisiana’s big population loss after Hurricane Katrina made it clear that the state would lose one House seat after the 2010 census. That might have happened anyway, given the state’s sluggish pre-Katrina growth. Demographically, the 2nd District, centered in New Orleans, suffered the greatest population loss by far. But Voting Rights Act jurisprudence forbids the elimination of the state’s one black-majority district and practically commands the 2011-2012 Legislature to create an African-American majority seat, perhaps by connecting part of New Orleans with part of Baton Rouge through a corridor running up the Mississippi River. That would leave a heavily Republican suburban New Orleans seat and four more districts in territory currently represented by four Republicans and one Democrat.