Loranger, Louisiana is an unincorporated town in Tangipahoa Parish, about fifteen minutes north of Hammond and an hour east of Baton Rouge. Its most notable “sightseeing” attraction, according to Facebook, is the Methodist Church, which had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places until its building was torn down and replaced three years ago. The Southern Baptists own a small summer camp there, Living Waters, on the banks of the Tangipahoa River.
There’s a local donut shop and a Dollar General, which both earn a mention on the town’s Wikipedia.
This place is tiny.
It’s also the hometown of Jessee Carlton Fleenor, the 34-year-old Democrat challenging Ralph Abraham, a two-term Republican congressman from Alto, another tiny town on the other end of Louisiana’s vast Fifth District.
Abraham, a physician and veterinarian, is the state’s wealthiest member of the U.S. House.
He represents the state’s poorest district, the tenth poorest congressional district in the entire nation in fact. All told, more than 25% of its citizens live under the poverty line.
Abraham recently supported a bill that “could take food off the table for as many as 155,000 Louisiana families and saddle Louisiana taxpayers with millions of dollars in new, bureaucratic mandates that state government cannot afford,” Davante Lewis of The Louisiana Budget Project explained. “That’s because the bill would force people to work in exchange for receiving benefits, even if there is no work to be found.”
Prior to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to accept Medicaid expansion funding, 20.9% of the district’s residents were uninsured, the highest in the state. Since then, that number has been cut in half. Abraham, on other hand, has relentlessly opposed expansion, despite the fact that his constituents have benefitted more than anyone else in the state.
The fifth is also home to more African Americans (slightly more than 40% of its population according to the most recent American Community Survey) than any other district in the country controlled by a Republican.
After addressing the Press Club of Baton Rouge in February, The Advocate‘s Lanny Keller described Abraham as “out of touch, lacking ideas, (and)… not ready for prime time.”
Despite this, Abraham is signaling his intention to challenge John Bel Edwards for governor next year, and until the final day of qualifications, it appeared that no Democrat would oppose his reelection to Congress.
In fact, the fifth was one of twelve districts across the country that some believed would not attract a Democratic candidate; as it turned out, only three of the 435 contests lack a Democrat. Republicans aren’t running in an astonishing 39 different races, including Louisiana’s Second District, held by Cedric Richmond.
Jessee Fleenor had heard rumors that conservative political operatives were considering planting their own, phony Democratic challenger, but when he learned it was likely no Democrat would challenge Abraham, he decided to do something he had been discussing with his family and closest friends: He climbed into his 1995 Dodge Ram 1500, and he headed straight to the Secretary of State’s office in Baton Rouge to qualify as a candidate for the United States House of Representatives.
Abraham, he said shortly after qualifying, “is just an overpaid horse doctor.”
“We currently have a multi-millionaire representing the poorest district in one of the poorest states in the nation,” Fleenor tells me. We spoke candidly for more than an hour on Thursday. “But this man doesn’t really represent the people of this district. He is out-of-touch with the daily realities here.”
He should know: Since qualifying, Fleenor has put thousands of miles on his old Dodge pickup truck, visiting all 24 of its parishes and the small towns that dominate its landscape.
Fleenor is a vegetable farmer. He grows lettuce, bell peppers, corn, broccoli, and cucumbers, among other things. It’s seasonal work, 12 weeks in the spring and 12 weeks in the fall. For the past few years, he’s operated what he calls a “farm to door” program, delivering bags of 8-10 items, including a small selection of fruit and flowers, every week to customers across the region. In the fall, he includes organic eggs and fresh bread as well.
He’s not in it to make a fortune. Most years, he says, he earns between $20,000 to $30,000; the average household income in the district is slightly more than $37,000 a year.
The fifth is the geographically largest congressional district in Louisiana, a consequence of Republican-directed gerrymandering. It spans all the way from the Arkansas border to the heart of Cajun Country to the Florida Parishes, only an hour north of New Orleans. A roundtrip from one end of the district to the other takes 13 hours.
A Democrat should be able to win this district. There are nearly twice as many registered Democrats than Republicans, though, to be fair, a sizable percentage of white Democrats are conservatives who simply haven’t gotten around to changing their party affiliation. But the primary problem, it seems, is voter apathy. “Everywhere I go in the 24 parishes, no one – outside of the hard-core political types- even know Abraham’s name,” Fleenor says.
“We’re not a red district; we’re a non-voting district,” he explains, echoing comments made by many Democrats in Texas, including Wendy Davis and Beto O’Rourke.
According to analysis by elections guru Nate Silver, Ralph Abraham has a 99.9% chance of winning. He expects Fleenor to receive around 33% of the vote, which essentially anticipates that white progressives and African Americans simply won’t show up.
Fleenor isn’t naive about the enormous odds he is up against, but during the past few months, as he has traveled across the district, he has developed a working theory about why Democrats have failed to compete in what should be a Democratic stronghold. “We need to bring together white Democrats and black Democrats. I have to go to some of these cities twice, once to meet with white Democrats and again to meet with African American Democrats,” he tells me.
He’s also reaching out to white conservative women, who, he believes, have become increasingly dissatisifed with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. At a recent event with the Republican Women’s Association of Bogalusa, which was attended by more than 500 people, Fleenor encountered a surprisingly receptive audience. “I was raised by Republican women,” he says, “and I know these are good and decent people.” Fleenor showed up to listen to their concerns, and he quickly discovered he was the only candidate who decided to take the time. Abraham was a no-show.
In fact, according to Fleenor, there is very little evidence his opponent is campaigning at all or is even interested in campaigning. “I have reached out to Abraham’s campaign several times to schedule a debate,” he claims. “His campaign has been entirely unreceptive. In a democratic society, people should be able to stand up and speak about their ideas and defend their record.”
Fleenor is also showing up at college campuses across the district, and he is quick to credit Louisiana Tech’s College Democrats, led by student Nik Durman, for their advocacy and support.
Fleenor is a millennial, and he is optimistic about his (our) generation’s potential. “If our generation can take all that irony we cultivated in our twenties and turn it into authenticity, there’s nothing that can stop us,” he says.
He’s also optimistic about the capacity of African Americans to shape the future of Louisiana’s Fifth District. He was so inspired by the work and the message of the local NAACP chapters he’s met with that he decided to join the organization. As a college student at LSU, Fleenor lived for a year in West Africa, traveling extensively through Ghana, Benin, and Burkina Faso. The experience changed his life.
On the campaign trail, he emphasizes the basics, ensuring clean water and updating rural sewage systems, for example.
“We need to double the minimum wage,” he says, “and we need to remember that even when we do, those earning the minimum wage will still be among the poorest in the entire country.”
He is also emphasizing criminal justice reform. “Up to 80% of the people we lock up are there because of our outdated approach to drug crimes,” he says. “We also need to do away with private prisons. We cannot sell off the responsibilities of criminal justice to corporations. It’s unethical.”
The odds may be stacked against him, but Jessee Carlton Fleenor believes he has tapped into something real, a network of like-minded progressives, both black and white, who are destined to be the future of Louisiana.
“I’ve fallen in love with the good people of the Fifth District,” he says. “And I am so fortunate to have so many good friends from all across the district.”