Editor’s note: The Advocate on Tuesday will profile the three Democratic candidates running for the 5th District seat.
WASHINGTON — Prior to entering politics, state Sen. Neil Riser once donated a modest $250 for Clyde C. Holloway’s unsuccessful bid for the congressional 5th District seat in 2002 when former U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander was first elected.
Little did either of them know that 11 years later Riser and Holloway would be two of the three GOP elected officials — along with state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe — running against each other to replace Alexander in Congress.
Fourteen candidates have signed up to run for the seat.
Early voting for the special election begins Saturday.
The time allowed for campaigning was unusually short for a congressional seat when Alexander surprised many last month when he announced he would resign his position as one of Louisiana’s six among the 435-member House of Representatives.
Gov. Bobby Jindal quickly set the election for Oct. 19, a date when municipal and local elections already were scheduled in some jurisdictions. Jindal then named Alexander to a cabinet position in his administration, overseeing the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
The short campaign window left Riser, R-Columbia, with a leg up. He says he had been building his network for two years to run whenever Alexander decided to retire.
Any head start was due to that planning, Riser said, adding, “It’s been no secret I intended to run.”
Within days of Alexander’s announcement, Riser declared his candidacy, set up his organization and began receiving endorsements from prominent state and national Republicans.
Several people cried foul, alleging an orchestrated, albeit unproven, plan by Jindal, Alexander and Riser. Jindal’s top political strategist, Timmy Teepell, was hired to work on Riser’s campaign, which fueled the claims.
Allegations of backroom deals
Morris, a lawyer and freshman state representative, was the first Republican to complain. Then Holloway signed up to run at the last minute, arguing that he was motivated, in part, by anger from how the special election unfolded.
“This whole thing was planned,” said Holloway, of Forest Hill. “Neil Riser was out there months ago campaigning.”
Holloway, who turns 70 in November, served in Congress from 1987 to 1993 before his district was eliminated because decreased population required congressional seats to merge.
Although Holloway, a plant and tree nursery owner, has lot gubernatorial and congressional elections over the years, he has remained politically active since being elected to the Louisiana Public Service Commission in 2009.
The redrawn 5th District is the state’s poorest, most rural and by far the largest geographically; stretching from Monroe down to Alexandria and into the Florida parishes.
It includes the Baton Rouge suburban and bedroom communities in the Felicianas.
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.
After Alexander switched to the Republican Party in 2004, he never faced strong Democratic opposition.
Given that reality, University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Joshua Stockley said there is a strong chance the runoff election in November could feature two Republicans, if the Democrats fail to make enough of a dent.
Riser is a heavy favorite for one runoff spot, Stockley said, but Holloway is beginning to look like the strongest candidate for the second spot.
Stockley admitted some surprise by that development after initially predicting Holloway would not attract much of the vote beyond senior citizens.
“He (Holloway) has surprisingly been able to draw on a lot of his old political networks … and he’s proving to be very formidable and running a very strong campaign,” Stockley said.
Get to know the candidates
State Rep. Morris is not counting himself out.
While Morris admits he will not have the strongest fundraising numbers, he says, “We’ll have enough to compete.”
Morris is positioning himself as a “free-market conservative” candidate who “will stand up against the establishment when the establishment is wrong.”
Morris is distinguishing himself from Riser, who Morris calls a “Jindal loyalist,” by touting his alliance with the so-called “fiscal hawks” in the state Legislature.
While Morris and Jindal may agree on a lot, the fiscal hawks and Jindal clashed over state budget crafting and transparency in recent years.
Morris also voted against all the bills he said promoted “corporate welfare.”
“I think that’s a big distinction with someone who’s willing to take on the established powers,” Morris said. “We need a fighter.”
State Sen. Riser is running with the campaign message that he is the best fighter to hit back at alleged federal government overreach.
“The federal government is overreaching into American lives, and we just want them to leave us alone,” Riser said. “The Constitution’s not broke.”
Riser, a funeral home director, describes himself as a small-business owner who eventually decided to run for the state Senate because of his frustrations on what he calls government “over-regulations” and “overreaching” on the business community.
The first time proved the charm, becoming the first Republican in his legislative seat since Reconstruction.
“I never had any clue I’d get into politics,” Riser said. “But I truly, honestly, as a businessman just wanted to make a difference.”
Riser can also tout his biggest claim to fame — sponsoring the 2012 constitutional amendment making the right to bear arms a “fundamental” one in the state.
“It’s the strong Second Amendment protection in the nation,” Riser contends.
PSC Commissioner Holloway says he is promoting his experience and his ability to get things accomplished.
Holloway said he has an advantage because he already knows much of the constituency from his long record of political experience.
It is impossible for an “unknown” candidate to win with the short election timeframe in a district with 24 parishes, he said.
As one of the five elected regulators of utilities on the PSC, Holloway consistently votes against allowing increases on monthly electricity bills, whether sought by utility companies seeking recompense for expenditures or by consumer groups seeking funding for alternative energy sources.
“My record speaks for itself,” Holloway said. “We hit the ground running, and we know a lot of the people in Washington.”
Holloway said he believes he can work through the current malaise of partisan congressional gridlock. “No one can out-conservative me, but I’ve always been able to work with other people,” he said.
Obamacare and the issues
The U.S. Census Bureau calculated the median household income is $34,421 in the 5th District, as opposed to $54,575 for Louisiana’s 6th District households.
About 30 percent of 5th District’s children live in poverty, defined roughly at or below a $23,550 annual income for a family of four, according to the Census Bureau analysis released earlier this month.
Across the district, one of every five families are poverty stricken. But 55.9 percent of the families headed solely by a woman with children under the age of 18, live in poverty.
The Census Bureau calculated that 186,627 families live in the 5th District.
Of that number roughly 75,028 families — about four families in every 10 — would qualify for food stamps and would have been covered by Medicaid, the state-federal government insurance program for the poor, had Jindal allowed its expansion as sought under Obamacare.
An estimated 150,654 people — about 21 percent — living in the 5th District had no health insurance in 2012, according to the Census Bureau reports.
Of those who had jobs in 2012, 27.6 percent had no health insurance.
The top Republican candidates in the race oppose the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, commonly called Obamacare, with its individual and employer mandates for health insurance coverage.
“Obamacare is going to hurt small businesses,” Riser said. “When you hurt business in Louisiana, you hurt everyone in the state.”
“The answer to our problems is not more government spending,” Morris chimed in on the Affordable Care Act. “The culture of dependency in this country is out of control.”
Morris criticized the “incredibly invasive takeover by the federal government.”
Holloway, however, took the stance of preferring a delay of Obamacare, rather than an outright repeal.
He said it needs to be further studied, then Congress should opt to keep what is good and throw out the negative aspects.
Holloway said he recognizes the need to help the “very poor” in the district. Economic development and job creation is critical to that end, he said.
On other issues, Holloway said he wants to make it a priority to “stop the illegals” from entering the country.
While the district is vast and spread out from the Ark-La-Miss state borders, as it’s known down to parts of southern Louisiana and the Florida parishes, the candidates said the constituents do not differ that much.
“I find the similarities very much the same,” Riser said, noting there are mills in Ouachita Parish just as in Washington Parish. “All these are rural parishes … and I come from a rural area.”
A lot of the election may come down to turnout.
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 Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo; state Reps. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, and Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe; Fairbanks oil and gas landman Tom Gibbs; 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.