What is your earliest political memory?
For most people, even for most politicians, the answer is probably a vague recollection from their early teens: the first time they started paying attention to a campaign or the day the governor showed up to their school or when the president came to their hometown.
For Louisiana’s former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, it came in 1959, when she was just four years old.
“My earliest memory of politics is literally knocking doors with my mom and dad in Broadmoor,” she said. “I had a little rock that my dad gave me because my hands would hurt. It would be hard to knock on the wood doors. So, he’d give me a little rock, and he taught me how to tap. I loved it.”
For the first time in her storied career, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu agreed to participate with The Bayou Brief in a series of extended and remarkably candid interviews about her lifetime in public service. Mitch Rabalais had initially envisioned a type of historical retrospective, but because of the experiences and insight Sen. Landrieu has shared with The Bayou Brief, we hope this will provide the people of Louisiana and students of politics and history with a more intimate portrait and a better understanding of arguably the most accomplished woman in Louisiana political history.
In 1979, Mary Loretta Landrieu, the first of nine born in a family that would eventually dominate Orleans Parish politics for nearly six decades, became the youngest woman ever elected to Louisiana’s House of Representatives. She later served two terms as State Treasurer, then narrowly missed the run-off for governor in 1995, and went on to serve three terms as U.S. Senator.
Her father Maurice, eventually known as Moon, served as a state representative, a councilperson at-large, two terms as mayor of New Orleans, and then U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Carter administration. Her brother Mitch also served as a state representative, followed by two terms as the state’s lieutenant governor, and currently, he is in the final two months of his own eight-year stint as New Orleans mayor. Their sister Madeleine recently stepped down as judge on the state’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to become the newest dean of Loyola University’s School of Law. Another brother, Martin, is a successful lawyer and partner of the firm Gordon Arata McCollam Duplantis & Eagan. And their youngest brother Maurice is currently an assistant prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans.
“When my dad first started out in politics, of course, he had no name.” she said. “My dad came from no money, no status whatsoever. His parents didn’t go to high school, let alone college. His father graduated from third grade. My grandmother graduated from eighth grade. They didn’t go to high school. They worked their whole lives.”
Her father, she says, “came from a very, very modest background – poor, but he didn’t know it because everyone was about the same. He bought a little house on Adams Street, which is still there. So when he married my mother (Verna), who came from a more solid middle-class family, an Italian family however, so no social standing because of their Italian heritage. They were excluded from any social standing.”
During her father’s first campaign, as she recalls nearly sixty years later, they created a moveable billboard — an old truck they’d bought and wrapped with campaign signs.
“We had this old truck that he would park in different places in the neighborhood, like on the corner of Rocheblave and Napoleon. Then, the next day, he would park at Freret and Napoleon, and then the next day, on Camp and Prytania,” she said. “I remember that truck. He and my mom would go park it and walk home while knocking on doors, and then we’d go move it the next day.
“People thought we had this big army of volunteers helping us, but it was just my mom and dad moving the truck,” she says, breaking into laughter. “So, yeah, I remember the signs in our basement; I remember the handcards, and I remember when I was little, my dad telling me ‘Look, your legs are strong. You can run up the tall steps, so go put this on the door,'” she said, adding, “And I loved it.”
Moon Landrieu won that race and went on to embark on his own legendary political odyssey.
Most families share memories when they gather, whether it’s reminiscing about a favorite family vacation, or “Remember that Christmas when….?” But in the Landrieu family, shared memories almost always revolve around something political.
“They tell these stories. They are kind of legends in my house,” she explains.
For example, “I couldn’t have been more than eight years old, maybe seven,” she said. “My dad was in the legislature, and my mom used to ride up on the bus, because we only had one car. So he would take the car to Baton Rouge, or sometimes, he would get a ride with friends. And I can remember riding up in the bus with my mom and staying with him at that old hotel, the Heidelberg. It was where Huey Long and all those guys used to hang out. I was so young, and he would leave for work. He told me where he was, but I think he didn’t realize how little I was. And so I had no money, no food, no nothing. So, I just got up, went down to the dining room and ordered food myself.
“And the lady said, ‘Well, how are you going to pay?’ and I said I didn’t have any money, but my dad is so-and-so and he’ll pay you later today.”
In hindsight, Landrieu says, “I would never leave a seven-year-old at an old hotel, but he just left me there. So I guess I learned how to be independent at an early age.”
Occasionally, Moon Landrieu toted his daughter to work with him at the Capitol. When he had a meeting or an event to attend, he simply left his daughter to vote his machine – albeit with very strict instructions. “I used to sit in his chair. He told me to vote how Mr. Smithers (his seat-mate) did, and I would sit there as polite as I could be and just voted. You can’t do that these days.”
Mary Landrieu was casting her first votes in the legislature at the age of seven.
“Those are my earliest memories.”
Fifteen years later, in 1979 and at the age of 23, she decided to run for the seat her father had once held, after having worked the switchboard at the Capitol while a teenager. She believed that gave her even greater insight in the way things worked in state government.
“I had been listening for my entire life at that point, and I realized ‘You know, I can do this.'”
Jumping into the race was a formidable challenge.
The seat was then held by Clyde Bell, a three-term incumbent. The race also drew several prominent challengers as well: Russ Henderson, a community organizer and advisor to Dutch Morial; Henry Julien, a prominent African-American attorney; and Felicia Kahn, an accomplished activist who, now well into her nineties, is still a force of nature in Orleans Parish politics.
“They were all three times my age,” she said.
Looking back now, Landrieu admits that she was a bit naive. “It was a very challenging race, and I was probably the only one who thought I had a chance to win,” she said. Aside from her father’s campaigns, her political experience was limited to campus activities at LSU and that part-time job answering phones in the state Senate.
The campaign was also a somewhat disorganized effort, staffed almost exclusively by Landrieu’s friends volunteering their time. Her signs were handmade. “Baby blue and black,” she recalled. Her friend owned a screen print shop.
“It was a riot. We had a ton of fun.”
While she did have district-wide name recognition as the daughter of a former two-term mayor and current Secretary of HUD, Moon Landrieu was not an active participant in the campaign. “My father didn’t even believe that I was going to run until he came home and saw the 500 signs I had up in the district,” she said. “When he finally realized I was going to do it, he sat me down and gave me a few hints.”
Paramount in his advice was the suggestion that she go door-to-door, traversing many of the same streets she had walked with her little rock nearly twenty years earlier. Drawing on his own experiences, Moon Landrieu also told his daughter to be sure to campaign when it was raining. The reason? “When you knock on somebody’s door in the pouring down rain, they will know for sure that you are serious and they will give you good consideration.” He also told her it was best to walk on her own, not with an entourage.
Doors opened for her.
“I walked that district every single day for three, four, five hours for six months. Then, each night, I went home and wrote a thank you, hand-written note to everyone I met. I kept meticulous records, and it paid off.”
On election night, the candidate was very nervous as she arrived at Andrew Wilson Elementary School for the tabulation of votes.
“My mom and dad had a tradition of always going to their home box to get results for each race my dad was in,” she explained. “So I continued the tradition.”
When the polls closed, she asked permission to watch the count, and soon, her anxiety turned to jubilation. Laughing as she recalls getting the results from her home precinct, Landrieu said, “I think I got like 328 votes and my (main) opponent got eight. And I’m like, ‘Yes! I’m going to win!’”
At 23, she was the youngest member ever elected to the body, a record that still stands to this day.
In 1980, now embarking on her own legislative career, a glaring issue quickly came to Landrieu’s attention.
“There were no women, for example, in the whole Senate, and there were only two women lobbyists in the entire state” she said, her voice still rising with the emotion of the memory. “I was shocked. That was the word I kept using to myself and my friends.”
Many male colleagues were not above boorish behavior – often making crude jokes and catcalling when she went to speak at the rostrum. Once, a fellow member even placed a rubber snake in her desk as a prank.
“It was a rude awakening,” she recalled.
After easily winning re-election in 1983, Landrieu found herself increasingly frustrated in the House. She decided to forgo a third term in 1987 and run for State Treasurer.
“After eight years, I had enough and said ‘I’m either going to quit, or go to an office where I could really make an impact.’”
The state’s longtime Treasurer, Mary Evelyn Parker, was retiring. Landrieu knew that Louisiana voters had been comfortable with a woman running the Treasurer’s office for 20 years, so gender would not necessarily be an issue in the race.
“It was the only job I thought people would elect me to, because there was a woman in it,” she explained.
Landrieu asked Parker for her support, but she refused, instead choosing to endorse her chief assistant, Tom Burbank. Also running were two of Landrieu’s colleagues from the House: Kevin Reilly of Baton Rouge, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and CEO of Lamar Advertising; and Buddy Leach, a former Congressman from Leesville who was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Both had endorsements, name recognition, and large war chests.
Moon Landrieu attempted to dissuade his daughter from entering the race, believing she was better suited to run for Insurance Commissioner.
“He asked, ‘Why are you running for this office? You can’t even balance your checkbook!’ I simply said, ‘Dad, I have other plans. I have serious things that I want to do.’”
After acquiring a used Toyota at a discount from a Baton Rouge dealer – she is quick to point out that the car was missing one of its hubcaps – Landrieu set about criss-crossing the state.
“I knew no one,” she recalled. “I had a few of my sorority sisters. Outside of New Orleans, I think I maybe knew five people. Maybe a dozen.”
But Landrieu brought in an old family friend, Donna Brazile, fresh off of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaign.
Reflecting on the race earlier this year with The Bayou Brief, Brazile said, “I think the most fulfilling part to me was learning how to mobilize people outside of the New Orleans regional area, areas where she was not as familiar because she didn’t have strong name recognition in the north in Shreveport and Monroe and also in the center of the state, in Alexandria. So, it posed some significant challenges, but she was able to overcome all of them.”
Landrieu led the primary with 44% of the vote, and carried 39 parishes, over-performing expectations in the Florida Parishes, Acadiana, Central Louisiana, and the Northeastern corridor around Monroe.
Reilly, the second-place finisher, dropped out, eliminating the need for the runoff.
As Treasurer, Landrieu transformed the office, putting a very public face on a state department not often thought of. Mostly run by career bureaucrats during its history, the State Treasury was long seen as Louisiana’s least glamorous political post, often obscured by the characters and antics in other statewide offices.
She made it high-profile, ushering in sweeping changes, hiring women and African-Americans to top positions, and implementing a series of reforms that saved the state money and protected employees’ pensions.
And by the early 1990s, Landrieu was on the move. Unopposed for a second term, she was now determined to make a run for the Governor’s Mansion and crack Louisiana’s highest glass ceiling.
It would be her toughest political challenge yet.