Editor’s note: The Advocate on Wednesday will profile other candidates running for the 5th District congressional seat.
WASHINGTON — When U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander opted to step down from Congress for a job in the Jindal administration, the Louisiana Democratic Party got caught flatfooted.
But Democrats quickly recognized a huge opportunity to win a congressional seat after failing to field competitive candidates in the state recently.
Fourteen candidates have signed up to run for the seat. Three candidates are elected Republican officials, three are elected Democratic officials and the rest of the candidates have less profile, making initial runs, or comebacks, or represent smaller parties.
The election is Oct. 19. Early voting begins Saturday.
Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy and state Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, were the initial elected officials considering running for the 5th district seat that runs from northeastern Louisiana down the Mississippi River before turning east across the Florida parishes.
Democratic leaders said their goal was to rally around one strong candidate.
While the more seasoned Democrats, like Mayo, considered running, two younger Democratic upstarts from the Louisiana Legislature — state Reps. Marcus Hunter, of Monroe, and Robert Johnson, of Marksville — jumped into the race.
After that chain of events, Mayo also decided to run.
Try to turn the district blue
University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Joshua Stockley said the latest polls suggest no one candidate will win the primary outright, setting up an opportunity where a Democrat “could still slip in” to the runoff, which is scheduled for Nov. 16.
Stokley said Mayo likely has the best chance, but there is a stronger likelihood of two Republicans winning the runoff spots. The base vote for both Mayo and Hunter is in the neighborhoods of south Monroe, he said.
If two Republicans end up in the runoff, Stockley said Democrats in Louisiana should be “ashamed or disappointed” after “yet another failure.”
The candidates themselves discard such arguments and contend that this election will come down to people and not parties.
“I don’t think this race is going to be about political parties,” Johnson said. “It’s about who best serves the needs of the constituents.
“The people in this district are very diverse, but very great, and I think the people in this district are very energized about the election,” he added.
The redrawn congressional 5th District is the state’s poorest, most rural and by far the largest geographically, stretching into 24 parishes from Monroe down to Alexandria and into the Florida Parishes, which include the north Baton Rouge suburban and bedroom communities in East Feliciana.
The median household income is $34,421 for people living in the 5th District, as opposed to $54,575 for the 6th District in and around south Baton Rouge.
About 30 percent of 5th District’s children live in poverty, roughly at or below a $23,550 annual income for a family of four. But 55.9 percent of the families headed solely by a woman with children under the age of 18, live in poverty.
One-third of the mostly rural district is African-American and 50 percent of the total registered voters are Democrats — compared with 27.5 percent Republicans — although many of the registered Democrats may no longer vote that way.
About 60 percent of the district backed GOP nominee Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama last year.
Alexander, who became secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday, narrowly won his seat in 2002 as a Democrat. In 2004, Alexander registered for run for re-election as a Democrat then minutes before qualifying ended, filled out the paperwork to run as a Republican. He won easily in every election since.
Get to know the candidates
Hunter, a first-term state legislator, became the first Democrat to publicly declare his intentions to run.
The 34-year-old lawyer is following in the footsteps of his father, Willie, who served in the Legislature and is serving as his son’s campaign manager.
Marcus Hunter said his father is a “tremendous” influence.
He said the people in the district have helped mold him into the man he is and that he wants to give back to the district.
Marcus Hunter said he knows he trails some other candidates in fundraising and name recognition in the special election with the tight timeline.
He is asking voters to “trust your gut” and back a younger candidate.
“We have to return to what our core values are,” Hunter said, touting “Christian values” and “sound spending.”
“I’m coming with a new fresh approach to work across party lines,” he said.
Agriculture, health care and education are “major issues” in the district that could all use more federal support to help get the economy moving more, he said.
Hunter will have his support in his hometown base split by the inclusion of the more established Monroe mayor.
A former University of Louisiana at Monroe basketball player and businessman, Mayo served on the Monroe City Council for nearly six years before becoming mayor in 2001.
He has held the position ever since.
“Our message is resonating on my success as a mayor and on the City Council,” Mayo said. “We’re going to transition that energy and dedication and success to the 5th District with job creation and fiscal responsibility.”
Mayo said his experience is a huge advantage because “mayors are where the rubber hits the road.” Monroe is in its “best financial position” ever, he said.
“These smaller towns and villages are hurting in a major way and they’re not getting the support they need,” Mayo said, citing the need for more community development block grants. “Government cannot be anything and everything to all people, but it can lend support. That is not being done as it should be to get us out of the bottom of the pit.”
One element that could work against Mayo and Hunter is that they are African-American candidates in a majority white district, Stockley said.
The reality is black Democratic candidates are struggling to win enough “crossover” votes in majority white congressional districts throughout the South, Stockley said, although he quickly added he is not pointing to racism.
While someone such as Mayo could get into a runoff, Stockley said, winning in the general election in November is a big challenge.
Mayo said he recognizes that challenge, but he said he is confident he can overcome it.
“I feel I have the most crossover appeal than anyone else in this race,” Mayo said, citing his multiple reelections in Monroe and his support from all races.
The other element is Johnson could struggle to win more of the African-American votes in the primary election.
Johnson, who has served in the Legislature for nearly six years, said he will win more support because he has a record of “standing up for the people in my district.”
“I think I can be that strong and effective voice,” he said. “They (constituents) want to see their tax dollars come back home and do something for them.”
Johnson counts himself among the more moderate anti-abortion, pro-Second Amendment Democrats.
He has stood up to Gov. Bobby Jindal on what he called the governor’s job-killing and healthcare-harming plans to sell prisons and privatize the state’s charity hospital system.
He succeeded in stopping the sale of Avoyelles Correctional Center, but not the closure of J. Levy Dabadie Correctional Center in Pineville. Johnson and his allies also were unable to prevent the hospital changes.
“We’re in a very rural and very poor district,” Johnson said. “The charity hospital system was our Affordable Care Act.”
Speaking of the Affordable Care Act
The U.S. Census Bureau calculated 186,627 families live in the 5th District and, of that number, about four in every 10 qualify for food stamps and would have been covered by Medicaid had Jindal allowed expansion through the Affordable Care Act health care law.
As such, Johnson, Mayo and Hunter all argued the Medicaid expansion would benefit the 5th District.
They said “Obamacare” needs to be tweaked and improved, but not repealed.
“The real test of this thing is whether it (health insurance) is going to be affordable,” Johnson said. “There shouldn’t be anyone dying because they can’t afford health insurance.”
Hunter acknowledged some problems with the health care law, but he said the district “absolutely” would benefit from the Medicaid expansion if Gov. Bobby Jindal ever allows it. Hunter cited the district’s high poverty levels as the reason.
“We’re at the top of the list of how we can be improved by the Affordable Care Act,” Hunter said.
Mayo blamed some of the law’s unpopularity on lot of “false information” and intentional “deceiving of the public” by the “far-right wing” of the GOP.
“When you don’t have a healthy state physically, you’re not going to have a healthy state fiscally,” Mayo said in support of the law.
In general, the candidates were critical of the congressional gridlock and government shutdown threats in Washington.
“There’s just tremendous gridlock,” Johnson said. “We want to be part of the solution. Compromise is never a dirty word. Either you get something done or you don’t.”
Everyone also acknowledged this election will come down to resonating with the public and getting the vote out.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler said, based on past special congressional elections, he expects a maximum of 25 percent of the district’s 481,294 registered voters to cast ballots on Oct. 19.
About 21 percent of the registered voters live in Ouachita Parish and another 17.4 percent live in Rapides Parish. Roughly 15 percent live in the Florida parishes.
Also on the 5th District ballot are state Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia; state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe; Public Service Commissioner Clyde Holloway, of Forest Hill; Fairbanks oil and gas landman Tom Gibbs.
Also, Lettsworth resident Peter Williams; Baton Rouge underwriter S.B.A. Zaitoon; Calhoun resident Phillip “Blake” Weatherly; New Orleans real estate agent Eliot Barron; Monroe businessman Vance McAllister; Libertarian Delhi resident Henry Herford Jr.; and former state Rep. R. Weldon Russell III, of Amite.
Mark Ballard of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.