Political Horizons: Democrats react to GOP dominance in Legislature

by mark ballard

Capitol news bureau

Louisiana Republicans have been gloating recently since three prominent Democratic legislators switched their party allegiance to the GOP.

Last week, state Sen. Rick Ward III, of Maringouin, joined. RW3 is the son of District Attorney Ricky Ward, a powerful political force in the heavily unionized Baton Rouge west bank parishes.

The rumor around the State Capitol is that Ward is angling for the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, which requires more conservative credentials than his Senate District 17.

Former Democrat Jim Fannin, of Jonesboro, who chairs the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, switched red a couple weeks ago. And state Sen. Elbert Guillory, of Opelousas, rejoined the Republicans after a brief foray on the other side of the aisle.

Republicans sit in every elected statewide office of state government. They’re a majority on the Public Service Commission and the Louisiana Supreme Court.

In the Louisiana House, Republicans account for 59 of the 105 members. And with Ward and Guillory switching, the GOP has two-thirds of the 39-member state Senate; enough to pass pretty much anything they want without so much as a howdy-do to the Democrats.

Plus, some lawmakers are predicting even more Democratic defections during the next few weeks. The evidence suggests Republicans have every reason to pop a cork.

Democrats say such celebrating may be premature.

“I don’t see the sea change thing,” said Democratic state Rep. Sam Jones, a longtime political adviser to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. “That would be a lazy observation at what seems to be obvious.”

A more-detailed look would show individual politicians trying to find an edge for their next race, he said.

The polls show that about a third of the Louisiana electorate would vote Republican regardless of the candidate, and a third would vote Democrat the same way, Jones said. It’s the remaining third who decide elections, and their support is based on issues and individual candidates. The closeness means that the dominance of one party over the other, which historically has lasted for decades, can now swing from election to election, Jones said.

“There’s going to be a big reactionary election in a couple years to this governor’s policies,” Jones said. Voters are being motivated by specific issues these days. A good indicator was the impact a relatively small group of parents of disabled children had on legislators of both parties. They sought — and almost won — a new session to override Gov. Bobby Jindal’s vetoes of additional access to state services and cuts to programs on which they relied.

Baton Rouge state Sen. Sharon Broome, who as president pro tempore is the highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, says individual politicians are surveying the political scene and choosing the path best for their careers.

“Being a term-limited legislator myself, I can assure that 2015 is rapidly approaching. So I know that they are looking at that as they evaluate where they are and where they want to be,” Broome said.

Many of “the ones (senators) who are Republican now were Democrats when I was serving” in the Legislature in the 1980s and 1990s, said state Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport.

State Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said party may be an important identifier nationally, but his election is based on personal relationships with constituents. “It’s kind of foolish to let any party tell what you ought to be thinking,” Thompson said.

Far from being marginalized, state Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans and chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, said, “We have a strategy.”

The 2011 remapping of districts from which officials are elected was controlled by Republicans and hence the legislative districts were redrawn to GOP advantage, she said. Nevertheless, Democrats plan to challenge the GOP across the board in hopes of winning back a majority in 2015, she said.

Party leaders are reorganizing and re-energizing parish organizations and training grassroots operators to reach out to individual voters, Peterson said. Democrats also are working to raise money and create a financing network for candidates.

For instance, the party’s biggest fundraising event will take place Aug. 17. Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who once was a Republican, has been invited to speak.

When Crist visited Louisiana in December 2007, he talked about his “natural bond” with Jindal, a “kindred spirit.”

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