Political Horizons: Race in La. politics

In 1959, Gov. Earl K. Long gave a sometimes incoherent speech about race in the Louisiana Legislature. He was criticizing the efforts of state Sen. Willie Rainach, a Claiborne Parish Democrat, to purge voter registration rolls of black people. Long’s family used the speech to stick him in a Mandeville mental hospital.

From the same podium 54 years later, state Sen. Karen Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, evoked race as a reason why Republicans were so against expanding the rolls of Medicaid to include about 400,000 uninsured people in Louisiana.

Dozens of conservative bloggers, columnists, editorialists and politicians in Louisiana and around the nation have brought up Peterson’s comments in repeated emails, commentaries and talk radio discussions that range from the “Tsk, tsk, haven’t we all evolved from this kind of thinking?” to the more-angry finger-pointing of “proof” that liberal dogma is empty.

For instance, last week, the Louisiana Republican Party proclaimed Peterson, who chairs the Louisiana Democratic Party, as The Big Loser of the 2013 legislative session; a position that many commentators have assigned to Gov. Bobby Jindal, though not he.

“It’s a two-fer for Republicans,” said political strategist, Roy Fletcher, who mostly handles GOP candidates.

In addition to galvanizing the Republican Party’s base of supporters, many of whom believe the racial argument is being raised all too often by Democrats, Fletcher says, the message also repels moderates, whose support waivers between the two parties and many of whom are uncomfortable when race is included in political arguments.

Trey Ourso, a political strategist who primarily works with Democratic candidates, agrees with the part that it energizes the Republican Party’s base to write checks, letters to the editor and to elected officials. Ourso said the Republicans also have been able to divert attention from Peterson’s near-constant questioning of Jindal’s policies, such as privatization of public hospitals, continuing cuts to higher education, and using taxpayer dollars to pay tuition to private schools for some students.

Kirby Goidel is an LSU professor who is in charge of the annual state survey of voter opinions on various issues. He says social scientists have been polling racial thoughts for years. They’ve found a continuing divide between many black prople and white people on some issues, mostly articulated with indirect language.

Social scientists use a variety of methods, such as comparing opinions about the photographed faces that are the identical but for darker hue, to weigh the influence of race on certain decisions, he said.

The federal health care plan, called “Obamacare,” and the Medicaid expansion that is part of it, shows that stratification between the races, with many black people supporting it and many white people opposing. The new health care plan, which was approved by Congress and found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, includes a voluntary portion that would allow states to extend government health care coverage to people who make too much money to qualify for the government-run Medicaid, but too little to buy adequate coverage on the free market. Generally, Republican-led states have refused what is being called Medicaid expansion, while state governments controlled by Democrats have accepted the federal government’s incentives.

Studies also show, Goidel said, that efforts in the 1990s by President Bill Clinton to more involve the federal government in expanding health care coverage in the United States were opposed and supported in more or less equal proportion by white people and black people.

Though racism is less overt than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, it still influences the decisionmaking in America. It’s just not discussed.

“There is a recognition that (if you) bring up race in some way, even though we know it is a part of everything, even though when we study it we know it is ingrained in so many decisions, and so many processes, but to call it out is to do something that’s inappropriate,” Goidel said. “When people say something is about race, you worry about being called out for using race and using race in a way that is a political weapon rather than a way that’s a fair discussion of the issues.

“That seems like that should be a fair and open and honest conversation that we could have, but we can’t because it is so charged.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.