Contrary to conventional wisdom, the most important and consequential election in Louisiana history wasn’t when the crook beat the klansman for governor in 1991. It was when David Duke won, two years prior, a special election to represent state House District 81, the beginning of an improbable political ascent that had struck such fear into the national Republican Party both the President of the United States, George H. W. Bush, and the former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, recorded messages to every District 81 voter with a working phone line: Whatever you do, they urged, please don’t vote for the racist.
Ronald Reagan violated his own 11th commandment. It backfired. The overwhelmingly conservative and overwhelmingly white electorate in District 81 didn’t appreciate national politicians telling them how to vote.
In each of his three major elections in Louisiana, David Duke carried the majority of white voters. Campaign consultants took notice. Duke’s anti-government, pro-business, nativist populism could be a winning message, if it were delivered by a different messenger. Duke narrowly lost his bids for U.S. Senate and governor not merely because enough voters were repulsed by his virulent racism but also because enough voters understood that David Duke was bad for business and, perhaps just as importantly for some, bad for college athletics.
“Increasingly worried about how Duke’s image was hurting the state’s ability to attract economic development, New Orleans businessman Dave Dixon paid for a series of TV spots. In them, he explained how David Duke in the Governor’s Mansion could negatively effect LSU’s ability to attract top athletes,” writes The Bayou Brief‘s Mitch Rabalais in a recent column on LAPolitics, where he also serves as a paid contributor.
“Dixon’s ads were effective and generated a fair bit of attention, and sportswriters covering LSU began asking players and coaches for their thoughts on the governor’s race. When approached, (Shaquille) O’Neal said, ‘I’m not into politics. I looked at LSU as a school when I came here. Now if David Duke were the coach and trying to recruit me, I’d have told him to take a hike.’”
1989 was also the year the state’s largest trade association, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), spun off four different political action committees, NorthPAC, SouthPAC, EastPAC, and WestPAC, all charged with the same simple mission: “help elect state and local candidates who truly understand the need to support job growth policies and economic development — and defeat those who do not.” Each of these PACs was seeded with significant contributions from LABI members.
In 1991, LABI announced that its four newly-minted PACs would be “big spenders” in that year’s elections and “would likely get involved in 100 to 115 legislative races,” pledging to pour in more than $1 million. But there was one particular election they sought to avoid, the most important one on the ballot, the race for governor.
“Who’s governor is not that important to business,” LABI’s president Dan Juneau, explained to The Shreveport Times two weeks before the run-off election. “Generally speaking, businesses don’t look at political factors. They look at the bottom line cost of doing business.”
It was an extraordinary statement, tacitly granting an excuse to members of his conservative business association who supported the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan for governor, even if it meant forswearing one of his organization’s core beliefs: Of course it matters to LABI who is elected governor.
But David Duke had spent the better part of the past two years criss-crossing the state and sharing many of the talking points and policy proposals that LABI had also been championing: Reducing the size of government, cutting taxes, eliminating entitlement programs, ending race-based quotas and affirmative action, curbing immigration, codifying Christian beliefs on abortion, ramping up the War on Drugs, and, of course, running government like a business. (When asked what business experience he had, Duke would point to his leadership of an organization he founded, the National Association for the Advancement of White People).
Dan Juneau, like Stephen Waguespack, the current president of LABI, was a frequent guest columnist for several of the state’s newspapers, and in those columns, he made the case for many of the very proposals that David Duke was now using to build a powerful political movement.
Although LABI did not endorse or financially support David Duke or Edwin Edwards, they did host the two men at a fairly unremarkable “debate” only four days after Juneau asserted that it wasn’t important who became governor. “The affair ended on a discordant note when (Mark) Russell, who was joking, asked for applause from those who planned to vote for David Duke for governor,” Richard Ryan reported for The Town Talk. “You could hear people breathing in silence. When Russell asked who would vote for former Gov. Edwin Edwards, the applause was light and polite.”
Russell, a well-known political satirist from Buffalo, New York, had been invited by LABI to provide some much-needed comic relief. “After watching a one-hour ‘debate’ between Duke and Edwards, which was signed for the hard of hearing, Russell said, ‘If I lived here, I would vote for the lady giving the sign language.'” Later, one LABI member told The Town Talk he intended on voting absentee for Edwin Edwards, “before I change my mind.” He wasn’t joking.
After David Duke, mercifully, lost to Edwards in a landslide, LABI’s Dan Juneau somehow managed to blame the whole embarrassment on Huey P. Long.
LABI was founded in 1976 by Ed Steimel, an Arkansas native who had worked for 21 years as the executive director of the nonpartisan, “good government” organization, the Public Affairs Research Council (also known as PAR) in Baton Rouge. Steimel’s work with PAR largely focused on his principled opposition to legalized gambling, which he feared would disproportionately exploit the poor and working class. “Very few rich people ever play the pinball machine,” he once observed, warning that casinos would never create the 100,000 jobs or generate the $250 million in annual revenue that Gov. Edwin Edwards had promised. In fact, the state’s eighteen casinos have created more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs and currently provide more than 16,000 full-time jobs, generating approximately $600 million a year to the state.
But his aversion to gambling wasn’t what inspired Ed Steimel to create the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. LABI was formed to ensure that the so-called Right to Work laws, which had passed early in the year, couldn’t be weakened. In other words, LABI was created to spar with the state’s most powerful unions. Eventually, Steimel and his organization took up other causes: He opposed efforts by teachers’ unions to engage in collective bargaining; he blamed the state’s tax burden for all of its ails, and he argued that the petrochemical industry wasn’t responsible for environmental damages; government policy was.
Steimel’s politics earned him a host of powerful opponents, but even his opponents respected him personally for his premium on civility and for the consistency of his convictions. In 2007, well into his eighties, Steimel publicly rescinded his endorsement of gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal. Jindal, he said, wasn’t conservative enough.
Steimel also did something that the organization he founded didn’t do: In 1989- the year he turned over the keys to LABI to libertarian Dan Juneau- Ed Steimel, along with his long-time rival Victor Bussie of the Louisiana AFL-CIO, publicly announced his opposition to a candidate for state representative named David Ernest Duke.