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9.12.06

Elections deliver bad news to state, national Democrats

Voters sent state politicians conflicting messages Saturday by Baton Rougeans sending a political newcomer to the state Senate over a veteran Louisiana House member, while denizens of the U.S. Second District reelected a legally embattled U.S. House member – but the signal was all clear to Democrats: bad.

Despite being the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation, Rep. William Jefferson was reelected to Congress. No doubt the two major factors of this was the peculiar Orleans-area insistence on thumbing its nose at the rest of the country, in this case manifested by many black voters believing Jefferson was being set up for posing too much of a challenge to “the man” (whoever or whatever that is) and “retaliating” by pressing the button for him, and by others who were supporters of unsuccessful opponents of Jefferson who, frankly, wanted a damaged incumbent in office in case he is indicted and resigns, creating another chance for their favorite to get in that office.

But the gesticulation of defiance also ended up giving the sanctimonious national Democrats a black eye. Jefferson is perhaps the most visible of the many ethical problems congressional Democrats have, reminding an electorate temporarily distracted from this fact long enough to vote in sufficient numbers for enough Democrat candidates last month. Jefferson’s reelection exposes the sham status of the national Democrats, and will embarrass them with a likely indictment and lengthy trial all the way through the 2008 elections.

So, the apparently unethical Democrat gets reelected, but a clean GOP incumbent met with defeat by another Republican. State Rep. William Daniel IV lost heavily to physician Bill Cassidy in the latter’s first run for office, for Senate District 16. On the issues, the candidates didn’t differ much, so the main factor in Daniel’s defeat here had to be his violation in spirit of term limits.

Daniel is preparing to conclude his third term in the state House. But the three-consecutive term limit in the state Constitution applies just to a lawmaker’s present chamber. In anticipation of a future political career, Daniel switched from Democrat to Republican last year, got an early break when past occupant of the seat Jay Dardenne was elected as Secretary of State in this year’s special election, and ran for it.

But so did Cassidy and, again, while it was perfectly legal for Daniel to run for the Senate, apparently a good portion of voters must have held it against his desire to stay in the Legislature more than 12 years. As long as this sentiment is not particular to that portion of Baton Rouge comprising the district, this could be a sign of big trouble to other term-limited legislators who are thinking of a similar switch.

And being that term-limited Democrats outnumber Republicans 40-24, it’s likely that of those others who try to extend their careers they disproportionately will be Democrats so this trend could hurt the state party fortunes as well the damage being done to the national party’s image by Jefferson’s triumph.

7.12.06

Can Jefferson use dynamics, like Nagin, to win reelection?

Voters in Louisiana’s Second District will hit the polls Saturday as one of the two last U.S. House races to be decided this election cycle. It may also be the next House race contested in the country as well, for incumbent Rep. William Jefferson stands a good chance of winning it.

Even as Jefferson led the field in the primary, his underwhelming total of about three-tenths of the electorate reflected poorly on an incumbent, but understandably given his being in the crosshairs of a corruption investigation. While some of his supporters make ridiculous excuses for him, and while he promises to explain all after the election, the fact remains about $90,000 in marked bills related to a sting operation was found in Jefferson’s residence, after a government witness testified Jefferson accepted that marked money as a bribe.

In these political corruption cases, authorities walk a fine line in deciding whether to return an indictment prior to an election involving a targeted official knowing an indictment almost certainly would mean that politician’s defeat. In this case, if it’s coming, they decided the will of the people in determining his fitness for office given the information already released would suffice. Also complicating the fact is the government may be waiting on the resolution of certain constitutional questions before it indicts, so it know what it can do. Lack of indictment to this point does not mean suspicion against Jefferson is spurious and was manufactured.

But it does mean that Jefferson, who almost certainly would have resigned had he been indicted, may continue in office by winning this election. Reviewing the dynamics, it’s not hard to draw parallels between this contest and the New Orleans mayor’s election earlier this year. There, you had a contest between two Democrats, one black, one white, where black voter suspicions about the Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu allowed Mayor Ray Nagin on mostly monoracial voting in a majority black city to win reelection.

Now equate Jefferson with Nagin and Landrieu with Jefferson’s general election runoff opponent (of course, bleaching her and changing some of her parts) state Rep. Karen Carter. Nagin was embattled by his underwhelming performance during the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, with many in the black community feeling that Landrieu (backed in large part by whites and reformists) was trying to take advantage of the chaotic aftermath of the storm to win election to make New Orleans, in terms of policy, more a vanilla than chocolate city.

As Jefferson’s opponent (and keeping in mind the district’s dynamics are somewhat different than the city’s), Carter, like Landrieu from a prominent political family, also is drawing support more from whites who are less likely to believe Jefferson is fit to serve than blacks and government reformers also have lined up behind her (even though she, like Landrieu, has never backed a reform agenda at all). Embattled for different reasons, racial solidarity for many still is a driving factor in supporting Jefferson as Carter’s basis of support among whites makes her seem more “suspicious.”

Yet what well could put Jefferson over the top is the lack of indictment, and the almost sure resignation that would follow if he still occupies the office, that in essence would reopen the seat to challengers if Jefferson wins this time around. Most prominently, the Jefferson Parish West Bank political organization of state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who finished third in the primary, could provide enough muscle to send Jefferson to victory especially since this election standing alone on the ballot will magnify the mobilization fortitude of political groups (including Jefferson’s Progressive Democrats and Carter’s BOLD). Jefferson Parish could be vital to a Jefferson win, given the bad publicity Carter has received there.

In the end, the contest will hinge on how prevalent perceptions within the black community are that Jefferson is being persecuted for his race, and on the willingness of political opportunists to put that opportunism aside and advise followers to vote their consciences.

6.12.06

Blanco possibly forced to choose between royalties, session

The plot thickens as a harmonic convergence of political forces prepares to clash over the looming special session of the Louisiana Legislature, with reverberations all the way from Washington, D.C.

Many politicians and pundits continue to criticize having the session, with varying complaints about its being too broad and/or too little time available, that it rushes on matters that can wait, its matters open for discussion deserve more debate prior to a session, and it is highly uncoordinated. Some actively are trying to get the thing adjourned immediately, while others have done things to make the idea of a session less attractive, but the surest way to stop it is to get Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco to call it off herself.

This Blanco would be loath to do. Her fondest wish is to have the session turn into an orgy of gift-giving in various forms (tax cuts, rebates, salary increase, etc.) regardless of the long-term implications to state finances still shaky over the long run because of the hurricane disasters of 2005, in order to boost her reelection chances next year. Acceptable to her would be a session where at least some of this happens. Even having an immediate adjournment would not hurt her politically, it just wouldn’t help. But the only harm that could come to her now politically would be calling it off, an admission that she erred, compounded if the Legislature came back to the regular session in April and proceeded to do all of these things.

5.12.06

Poker with real dollars being played over session limits

Hardball politics went on display at the meeting of Louisiana’s Revenue Estimating Conference, producing results with implications concerning this year’s special session and next year’s elections.

At the meeting, which establishes limits of money to spend by the state, there are two kinds of funds considered. Non-recurring funds are those (in essence) left over from previous years considered a bonus and can be spent on public works projects or debt reduction of various kinds. Recurring funds are predicted to come in future years and may be spent for any purpose. Unless additional funds were recognized in this meeting, the only way the upcoming special session could spend money would be by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. All four members of the panel must agree on the limits.

Consensus was there on $1.6 billion in recurring revenue, meaning these monies are available for things like tax relief, insurance rebates, and operating expenses of state government. But Sen. Pres. Don Hines refused to go along with the others in allowing $827 million from being recognized as nonrecurring expenses, which could reduce a backlog of authorized transportation spending, paying off state pension debt, or projects across the state.

3.12.06

GOP, Hines can damage Blanco session reelection ploy

Gov. Kathleen Blanco raised the stakes in her battle to jumpstart her reelection campaign by calling for a special session of the Legislature Dec. 8-21, putting the ball squarely in the court of legislative Republicans and Senate Pres. Don Hines, whose next moves may seriously damage Blanco’s hopes to serve past 2007.

The short session involves as much material as a regular fiscal session would, including changing laws to restructure homeowner insurance provision by the state, changing laws to ease state tax burdens by allowing again certain exemptions wiped out by the infamous Stelly Plan, accelerating dinosaur-speed tax breaks on business timidly brought into being by Blanco, tax credits galore such as for transportation by sugar farmers, pay raises for multitudes such as public safety personnel and school workers, and infusions to reduce transportation backlogs and unfunded accrued liabilities in state pension plans. In other words, spending huge sums from a presumed large state revenue surplus that may evaporate when rebuilding from the 2005 hurricane disasters abates, much on operating expenses, to give some goodies to a large portion of the Louisiana public.

Parsing through the requests, no real coherence exists to it, or any contemplation of these measures’ long term impacts seems clear, with just one idea holding it all together – trying to get as many votes as possible for Blanco next year. But, she may find, the Legislature may not feel so cooperative in this endeavor.

She had the ill fortune, also in large part governed by reelection calculations, to oppose Hines on the issue of whether to commit state money to guarantee a loan to build a sugar mill at Bunkie. Prevailing, Hines now has come out full against the idea of the session. More importantly, Hines can subvert the entire basis of the session by his vote, scheduled Tuesday morning, against declaring about $1.5 billion in surplus revenue that the Legislature could spend at the Revenue Estimating Conference meeting as available.

If Hines makes that move, then the spending could occur only with a two-thirds concurrence of each house of the Legislature (which explains item #6 in the call). Having just $331 million to blow may not be enough to entice members to do much of anything unless it’s related to spending for their own districts which, if anything, would hurt Blanco’s reelection chances if her nominal opponents point out she called a session that turned into a pork barrel festival. Thus, Blanco is hoping the siren song of much greater revenues out there would be enough to get two-thirds to want to work on the bigger items that could make her look better to voters.

Here, others against Blanco for different reasons could take up the opening Hines can provide to make the whole session a fiasco for Blanco. Republicans in particular have been critical of the session’s transparent reelection boost, rather than its representing any serious (given the time frame involved, therefore limited agenda to it) attempt to address looming state issues. Given that they control over a third of the seats in both chambers, with a few to spare, when House Republicans conference tomorrow, they could issue a statement that they oppose any efforts to raise the expenditure limit.

If they did so, followed by Hines scuttling the declaration of extra revenue (because he and his three Conference counterparts unanimously must approve of any increases), Blanco would be left with two bad choices, call the session only to see the GOP block any raising of the limit and watch it degenerate into a pork-fest, or to cancel it to avoid this. Either action makes her look weak and unable to govern, not what she needs heading into an election year. She could save her reputation only if she could twist enough legislative arms to get that two-thirds vote, in each chamber.

Starting tomorrow, some real tests of political will go on display. We’ll see who blinks, and if it’s Blanco, the state will be better off.