With New Orleans’ mayoral election runoff so close, now seemed like a good time to look back at elections that were defining moments in the state’s political history through the 20th century to now. Here’s my list. If there is disagreement, it is well within in the spirit of Louisiana politics to question results. Let the bashing begin:
ABOUT JOHN BEL EDWARDS AND MITCH LANDRIEU: Those who are currently in office were not included so as to await the perspective of history. The overall evaluation is best made from a distance.
IN ASCENDING ORDER
10. David Duke vs. Edwin Edwards- 1991
This election, the most globally covered in the state’s history, will be remembered more for who lost than who won. For one brief political moment most of the state stood together to defeat a candidate. Had the outcome been different we might have discovered something about ourselves as a state, though perhaps more than we wanted to know. As for Edwards, while walking on the brink of trouble, he pushed through the legislation legalizing casino gambling. His own maneuvering on behalf of the Kenner riverboat would ultimately bring him down. For different reasons, both candidates in this runoff would ultimately spend time in federal prison.
9. Mike Foster re-elected governor- 1999
Foster’s election signaled stability in the state’s Republican party. Republicans had been elected before in the century; Dave Treen in ‘81 and Buddy Roemer in ‘87, but they each lasted only one term, partially because Edwin Edwards was lurking as a shadow governor. Both were preceded and succeeded by Edwards. But Foster, during whose term Edwards had been preoccupied with legal matters, became the first Republican governor to be reelected. He would be succeeded by a Democrat but the GOP had emerged from being little more than one-term wonders. Of perhaps the most significant long-term consequence, Foster introduced a 24 year-old whiz kid to Louisiana governor to head up the state’s health programs. His name was Bobby Jindal.
8. Dutch Morial elected mayor of New Orleans- 1977
Morial, the city’s first black mayor, represented the next step after Moon Landrieu who, though white, was the first mayor to be elected by having a large black majority vote. The Jackie Robinson of Louisiana politics (he was also the first black elected to the state senate) Morial performed well under pressure. He was tough and bright but vulnerable to a hair-trigger temper. Morial signaled the arrival of a whole race of Louisiana voters and politicians who were now players in the state’s politics. Among those was his son Marc who would continue the name in City Hall.
7. Moon Landrieu elected mayor of New Orleans- 1969
Landrieu was the first important Louisiana elected official to achieve office due to the passage of the federal voting right in 1967. His victory revealed the emerging power of the black electorate. Previously, white candidates had courted the black vote behind the scenes, Landrieu set precedent by openly asking for it. In the runoff he got a 98 percent vote in black precincts. Landrieu offsprings have also made their mark in state politics. Mitch Landrieu served two terms as mayor of New Orleans, having previously served as Lt. Governor, and, prior to being elected to the U.S. Senate seat, daughter Mary was a state representative and a state treasurer.
6. Voter approval of two-terms and the domed stadium- 1966
This was John McKeithen’s greatest success. Prior to his election governors were limited to only one successive four-year term. Based entirely on McKeithen's popularity voters approved an amendment allowing governor’s two successive terms. On the same ballot was a proposed amendment authorizing a domed stadium in New Orleans. Here too McKeithen made the difference especially with north Louisiana voters. The vote that day changed the nature of gubernatorial politics and triggered major economic development in New Orleans.
5. Voter approval of new state constitution-1973
Next year will be the 45th anniversary of this event which was Edwin Edward’s greatest success- a new constitution. It wasn’t easy and the referendum was a study in the geographic shift in state elections. The document was passed largely on the strength of the emerging suburban vote in South Louisiana particularly Jefferson Parish. Jefferson’s assessor, Lawrence Chehrady, chaired the constitutional committee that raised the homestead exemption. Despite some log-rolling necessary for its passage it was a good document. For several years after, other states needing to upgrade their legal structure studied what was regarded as Louisiana’s model constitution.
4. DeLesseps Morrison elected mayor of New Orleans- 1946
Although Mayors of New Orleans have never been successful at achieving the governor’s office, at least not in modern times, they have often had a lot to say about who does. Morrison’s surprise election ended the tenure of the Old Regular political machine in New Orleans and introduced a new crowd to both New Orleans and state politics. Morrison’s law partner Hale Boggs became a powerful congressman to be succeeded by his wife Lindy. For the next 16 years after his election Morrison, who finished second in three gubernatorial campaigns, battled with the Long organization and in doing so became a leader of the opposition in Louisiana politics.
3. John McKeithen elected governor-1964
There was nothing encouraging about the fluke election of this little known public service commissioner from northeast Louisiana who spoke with a dialect that bordered on redneck. But McKeithen was supportive of Civil Rights issues at a time when that was politically risky. He also embraced New Orleans and championed the domed stadium. He was a rarity in Louisiana politics, an enormously popular governor, at least in his first term, though less so the second time around. His tenure is also the benchmark for the end of the Huey Long era political organization dominance. Though 60-four years late, state politics moved into the 20th century under McKeithen.
2. Edwin Edwards elected governor- 1971
By the time Edwin Edwards came along governor’s didn’t have the absolute power that Huey had in his heyday, but they were still powerful enough. Had Edwards dropped out of politics after his first term he might be remembered as the great reformer who delivered a badly needed reform-minded constitution to the state. But, like the Eveready Bunny, Edwards kept coming and coming. No individual ever dominated the state’s politics for so long. Over a quarter-century Edwards would serve as governor four times, more than anyone else.
There’s another story to the ‘71 election. In the Democratic runoff Edwards defeated previously little known state senator J. Bennett Johnston of Shreveport. Incumbent U.S. Senator Allen Ellender died shortly after that election and Johnston, riding the momentum of his impressive gubernatorial campaign was elected to Ellender’s seat. That began a long, distinguished and powerful career in Washington for Johnston. I once asked him if in retrospect he is glad he lost that gubernatorial runoff to Edwards. Johnston merely grinned. I think he knew that he came out ahead.
1. Huey Long elected governor- 1928
No contest here. This was easily the pivotal moment in Louisiana’s Twentieth Century politics. Huey Long built a legacy that, as continued by his brother Earl, would dominate the state’s politics for the next three decades. While politics in other states was described as Republicans vs. Democrats, Liberals vs. Conservatives or Machines vs. Reformers, in Louisiana it was Longs vs. Anti-Longs. The Longs’ political control over the state, especially in the early days, was almost total. Louisiana became the ultimate populist state and that would shape policy and provide services for the poor for decades to come. For better or worse it was the Long era that gave Louisiana its colorful political image as popularized in books and movies. It is an image that we still laugh at and suffer from today.
“New Orleans: The First 300 Years,” edited by Errol Laborde, is now available at bookstores. A collection of journalists and academics wrote chapters on different aspects of the city’s life. It is an important guide to understanding the city’s history from a wide range of perspectives.
Errol’s Laborde’s book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), is available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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