For Secretary of State, We Recommend Julie Stokes or Renee Fontenot Free

Julie Stokes (above) and Renee Fontenot Free (below) (Source: Facebook); “I Voted” sticker (Copyright: George Rodrigue Collection, The New Orleans Museum of Art).

Former Interim Secretary of State Alice Lee Grosjean, the first woman to hold statewide office in Louisiana

In 1930, following the sudden death of then-Secretary of State James J. Bailey, Gov. Huey P. Long appointed his own personal assistant, Alice Lee Grosjean, to serve as Bailey’s interim replacement. While some question the legality of the appointment, the 24-year-old Grosjean effectively became the very first woman to ever occupy a statewide office in Louisiana.

Two years later, in 1932, Lucille May Grace became the first woman elected to a statewide office when she won the race for the now-defunct Register of the State Land Office. Until her death in 1957, Grace was a powerhouse and one of the most successful and influential politicians in the state. Grosjean, however, largely faded into obscurity; her brief stint as Secretary of State doesn’t even merit a mention on Wikipedia, for example. 

But some believe there is a reason Grosjean may have been perfectly content with remaining out of the limelight in the aftermath of the Kingfish’s assassination, though, like many parts of the mythology about Huey P. Long, it remains impossible to know for certain. Grosjean, the story goes, became the sole possessor of the infamous deduct box. A 1,700 page file unsealed by the FBI in 2012 contains notes about interviews agents conducted with Grosjean and her husband W.A. Tharpe, revealing the couple, who had moved to California, had a surprisingly detailed level of knowledge about the secret fund (see Section 5b).

Sure, it may be nothing more than an urban legend, but it still makes for a great story. And there is a good reason Louisianians should remember the name Alice Lee Grosjean as they head to the polls tomorrow. 

Since Alice Lee Grosjean occupied the position in 1930, the office of Louisiana Secretary of State has been held exclusively by men. All told, only seven women have ever been elected to a statewide office, and because Grosjean was an interim appointment, she isn’t in that number.

Under normal circumstances, Louisiana voters would be greeted by their congressional candidates’ names at the top of this year’s ballot. Instead, the initial choice they’re asked to make is for a state and not a federal office: Who should fill the unexpired term of Louisiana’s Secretary of State for the next fourteen months? 

Nine candidates are vying for the short-term job, with the election this year expected to provide an easier race next year for the eventual winner. Four of the nine candidates are women, more than have ever competed for the same statewide position in Louisiana history. There are several reasons this particular election has attracted so many female candidates, and undoubtedly, one of those reasons is a consequence of why an election is even necessary.

The vacancy was created after two-term Sec. Tom Schedler resigned on May 8th in the wake of disturbing allegations contained in a lawsuit filed in late February from a former female employee, who had served as his executive assistant. According to the suit, Sec. Schedler, who is married, pursued and sexually harassed the employee for several years and retaliated against her whenever she rejected his advances. Schedler, however, publicly maintained their “relationship was consensual.”

After more than two months of controversy and calls from both Gov. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy that Schedler resign, he finally and reluctantly announced on May 1st that he would be stepping down the following week; his first assistant Kyle Ardoin would take over as interim secretary. In mid-October, the lawsuit filed by Schedler’s former executive assistant was “amicably” settled, with Schedler personally paying $18,425 and the state (and, therefore, the taxpayers) spending an additional $149,075.

It behooves us, the citizens of Louisiana, to elect a replacement who will stand as a guardian against unwanted attentions from co-workers, as well as protecting our elections from unwanted interference from outside interests and foreign governments.

This is about personal integrity, and it’s also about the public integrity of our elections, the accuracy of our business filings, and the preservation of our historical documents.

Two of the nine running- Thomas J. Kennedy III, a white Republican from Metairie, and Matt Moreau, a white independent from Zachary- have neither raised nor spent any money (though Moreau has loaned his campaign nearly approximately $2,000).

In our estimation, that leaves seven possibilities: four women and three men.

Only two polls were made publicly available, and despite the fact they were conducted within only a week and a half of one another in September, they showed vastly different results. 

The first poll was commissioned by The Hayride, a far-right blog site, and conducted by Remington Research of Kansas City, Missouri, a company founded by Ted Cruz’s former campaign manager Jeff Roe. Remington Research, it’s worth noting, was recently ranked as one of the fifth least trustworthy “prolific” pollsters in the country, according to an analysis conducted by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight. FiveThirtyEight also gives Remington a “C” in its comprehensive grading of pollster ratings.

Remington’s poll on the Louisiana Secretary of State’s race claims to have been “weighted to match expected turnout demographics for the 2019 General Election,” but it provides no information on its methodology on how it weighted demographics or why it relied on assumptions about next year’s electorate. The results are as follows: 

Source: Remington Research Group

The second poll was conducted by Louisiana-based pollster John Couvillion of JMC Analytics. Couvillion is generally considered a more credible and reliable pollster, particularly with respect to his work in Louisiana, but he earns an only slightly higher grade, a C+, from FiveThirtyEight. His poll was conducted on September 20-22, and its results are as follows:

Source: JMC Analytics. Note: 1% of respondents selected “other candidate.”

In other words, although these polls were conducted more than a month ago, it’s more likely than not that the race remains virtually impossible to figure out; the jungle is simply too crowded.

If we treat this as a process of elimination, the obvious thing – in view of why we’re selecting a new Secretary of State now – would be to simply say, “no men.” But that would be sexism, and we reject all gender-based discrimination.

Instead, let’s look more deeply into the platforms and campaigns of each, keeping in mind qualifications, financial viability, and the overall need to restore confidence in the impartiality and integrity of the office and its officeholder. 

Kyle Ardoin

Kyle Ardoin, the current acting Secretary of State, clearly has the experience and skills for the position after serving as Schedler’s second-in-command for nearly eight years. Yet he has done nothing to assure us he was not complicit in enabling his former boss’ inappropriate behavior toward a female subordinate. In fact, Ardoin was named in the lawsuit  (emphasis added):

“In April 2017, as a result of rebuffing his intensifying sexual propositions, defendant (Schedler) became enraged with Petitioner (the woman) in the office, yelling at her and ordering her out of his sight and that he never wanted to see her again in the office. Thereafter, Deputy Assistant Secretary Kyle Ardoin approached Petitioner and told her that she was required to ‘stay out of sight’ so that defendant did not physically see her on the premises.

This directly contradicts Ardoin’s subsequent attestations to lawmakers and the media that he “was unaware of any harassment issues or allegations between the secretary and his accuser until the day the lawsuit was filed.”

His personal integrity and truthfulness are suspect and were made even more questionable after telling state lawmakers he had no intention of running during his confirmation as acting Secretary of State and then signing up for the race during the last ten minutes of qualifying only sixty days later. 

As we pointed out in July, on Ardoin’s 44th day in office, he tweeted a picture of his new vanity license plate, which read “SOS 44.” The tweet appears to have been subsequently deleted. 

“Most politicians wait until they get elected to break their first promise,” Stephanie Grace of The Advocate noted. “So give interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin points for originality: He figured out how to do it on his very first day as a candidate for office.”

On the campaign trail and during candidate forums, Ardoin has claimed personal credit for every advancement made by the Department of State over the past several years. Yet, among other things, he denies allegations that, when he was still Schedler’s first assistant, he engaged in “bid-rigging” that appeared intentionally designed to ensure only one company would qualify for a $60 million contract to replace approximately 10,000 voting machines. When a losing vendor complained, the Office of State Procurement looked into the issue and found there were legitimate reasons to invalidate the contract, which, by then, had ballooned to $95 million. Ardoin first blamed his former boss for screwing up the bid specifications and then, once the contract was canceled, he blamed Gov. Edwards for playing politics.  

Considering his central role in botching the integrity of a mega-million dollar voting machine contract, it is more than ironic that Ardoin has made “protecting the integrity of Louisiana elections” the centerpiece of his campaign.

His election to the post would keep a cloud in place over the office.

Heather Cloud

Heather Cloud, the mayor of the village of Turkey Creek in Evangeline Parish, was motivated to run by a four-vote irregularity in the 2014 election which took a lawsuit against the Secretary of State to settle. (Turkey Creek has a total population of 441). 

Yet the votes in that election, which Cloud initially lost, were not questioned for being fraudulent, but because they were allegedly purchased. It was truly a question for the courts to order a new elections (which she eventually won), not a ruling within the purview or powers of the Secretary of State. That difference seems to escape her, as she appears to consider this her opportunity to finish righting that first wrong.

Cloud has been unable to generate much name recognition or campaign traction outside the immediate Acadiana and CenLa region. As of the last week’s campaign finance filings, donations to her campaign have dried up, leaving her with just the proceeds of a self-made $100,000 loan available to finish out the race. 

The decision to pad her campaign account with a sizable loan seems to have been a calculated attempt to draw attention, and to a certain extent, it succeeded, at least among a small contingency of conservative talk radio listeners. One of her few expenditures was for advertisements on Moon Griffon’s radio show, and although she lists an area real estate investor as her campaign manager, it is commonly known that Cloud’s campaign has been largely directed by Chris Comeaux, the hot-tempered conservative political consultant who primarily works for Rep. Clay Higgins. 

When directly asked about guarding against sexual harassment, Cloud would only say, “I will not tolerate any nonsense.” We would suggest then, that some notion of “payback” coupled with serving as mayor of a village of 441 people does not constitute sufficient experience or qualifications to oversee more than 300 employees in an $84-million state agency.

Gwen Collins-Greenup

Collins-Greenup is the only African American in the race, and in a state in which 31% of the population is black, this would ordinarily provide an inherent competitive advantage in a crowded election. Yet Collins-Greenup, a self-described entrepreneur who has degrees from Liberty University and earned her J.D. from Southern University, has struggled to break through in any meaningful way.

Three years ago, Collins-Greenup, who spent much of her career as a notary public and a deputy clerk of court, ran unsuccessfully for Clerk of Court of East Feliciana Parish, and her current campaign for Secretary of State primarily comprises of a series of well-intentioned but vague platitudes about increasing voter registration among millennials. Much like Mayor Cloud, Collins-Greenup has not sufficiently demonstrated an understanding of the breadth and range of responsibilities that fall under the office. We admire Collins-Greenup’s positive tone, but we are unimpressed by her command of the issues.

It is worth noting that a political insider, on the condition of anonymity, also alerted The Bayou Brief that well-funded Republican operatives have been allegedly making off-the-book and strategic contributions to organizations that distribute sample ballots in majority-minority communities, with the understanding those organizations will endorse the almost entirely unknown Collins-Greenup; there is an expectation, the source claimed, that these paid endorsements will dilute enough Democratic support from Renee Fontenot Free, who is widely considered to be the current frontrunner, to ensure an all-Republican runoff. We are not alleging, in any way whatsoever, that Collins-Greenup is aware of these rumored, behind-the-scenes maneuvers, but we are urging voters to be cautious and conscientious.  

Perhaps more importantly, however, we are confounded by a disturbing donation Collins-Greenup lists in her campaign finance reports. She has clearly struggled to raise the requisite amount of money necessary to run an effective statewide campaign. All told, she has raised less than $3,000, primarily from family members and primarily (and potentially incorrectly at times) listed as in-kind donations, but her single-largest donation, $162, appears to be illegal. That $162 contribution came directly from Riverside Baptist Church in Norwood, Louisiana.

Source: Louisiana Ethics Administration:

Churches are prohibited from making donations to political candidates, and while some may have a principled disagreement with the prohibition, it is critical that our next Secretary of State understand the importance of complying with campaign finance law.

Almond Gaston “A.G.” Crowe

Former state Sen. A.G. Crowe of Pearl River entered the race after more than two years away from the political fray. While he was able to tap into the goodwill and pocketbooks of many of his former state senate peers early on, his campaign has become financially anemic. He’s even taken to raffling off a week-long vacation in his campaign RV, in order to generate more funds.  (State law requires any organization that conducts a raffle first obtain a gaming license).

Additionally, Crowe has been counting on a conservative evangelical voter base for support, as can be seen by his adopting and touting the nickname “Amazing Grace” during the course of this campaign. (A.G. actually stands for “Almond Gaston”.) Yet he’s having to share that base with the next candidate on the ballot, and has said little about the harassment issue beyond very generalized statements regarding the Secretary of State’s “single most important responsibility is to protect your privacy.”

He pulled back from the fray in early October to – appropriately – focus his time and attention on a family member’s serious illness. We commend him for that, yet must point out it has compromised his ability to build the statewide name recognition necessary to make it to a runoff.

Rick Edmonds

State Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baptist minister and former VP of the Louisiana Family Forum, has the advantage over Crowe in his appeal to conservative evangelicals. He’s been more in the public eye, as a current lawmaker serving on the House Appropriations Committee. And he’s been stacking up endorsements from local and parish GOP organizations as a major part of his campaign strategy.

Edmonds has been assuring voters he is the ideal replacement for the disgraced Tom Schedler because of his faith-based life and career, and because he loves his wife. Yet loving your spouse and/or pastoring a church is obviously no assurance that sexual harassment complaints will be handled swiftly or certainly. And at one candidate forum held in early October, Edmonds specifically mentioned the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a reason for “conservatives like me” to “rejoice.”

It’s also uncertain that Edmonds has the skillsets or experience needed to head an entire state department. Earnest though he may be, there is no equivalency between overseeing a faith-based nonprofit organization and running Louisiana’s Department of State. Indeed, there is a constitutional prohibition against conflating the two, known as the doctrine of separation of church and state. 

Edmonds, perhaps predictably, has made the almost entirely nonexistent threat of voter fraud at the forefront of his campaign, including promoting draconian identification restrictions. We believe the hype about the existential threat about voter fraud is nothing more than a deliberate partisan strategy by conservative Republicans to excuse and justify their persistent efforts at suppressing our most vulnerable and marginalized citizens from exercising their fundamental right to participate in our democracy.

There is a reason President Trump’s Voter Fraud Commission ended in humiliation; the data clearly demonstrates that voter fraud is not even a statistically negligible occurrence. To borrow from the president’s own parlance, it’s fake news. (Heather Cloud also believes she was a victim of voter fraud, but her case did not involve individuals who illegally voted; it centered on allegations that intellectually disabled individuals were exploited).

Our next Secretary of State needs to ensure the right to vote remains sacrosanct and needs to encourage participation instead of perpetuating the notion, which traces back to the Jim Crow era, that Louisiana is somehow under assault from a scourge of illegal voters.  

We recommend either of the two remaining candidates: Renee Fontenot Free or Julie Stokes. 

Yes, we recognize that recommending two different candidates of two different political parties may not seem like much of a recommendation at all, but both of these women are worthy of your consideration. Both would be far superior than any of their opponents, and a vote for either of them is also a rejection of the good ol’ boy culture that has infected our politics for far too long.

The vast majority of the people who work at the Secretary of State’s office are exemplary civil servants who have, year after year, demonstrated competence and extraordinary customer service. They deserve a leader who understands the need for a diverse, innovative, and respectful work environment. We all do.

We also all deserve a Secretary of State who understands the job has nothing to do with scaring people about voter fraud or promoting any particular partisan agenda. That is precisely why either of these women are fit to lead.

Free, a Democrat who is on leave from her position as Director of the Attorney General’s Public Protection Division for the duration of this campaign, has direct management experience within the Department of State. She served as Assistant Secretary of State under both Fox McKeithen and Al Ater, overseeing the department’s merger with the former Department of Elections. She also supervised the difficult task of rebuilding the voter rolls and polling place access in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita.

Regarding the circumstances that created this election, Free addresses it directly. “The Secretary of State is primarily tasked with protecting the public’s trust. That trust has been compromised, and I intend to restore it. There were no issues of this sort while I was with the Secretary of State and none within the Attorney General’s Office – and I have overseen Human Resources in both departments. I always have an open door.”

Free points out the majority of tasks done by the Secretary of State – keeping accurate and complete corporate records, preserving Louisiana’s documents and cultural history – are adminstrative in nature. But because the position also oversees elections, she says, “It’s important that we keep partisan politics out of this.”

Julie Stokes, current state representative from Kenner, has made resolving the harassment issue an important part of her campaign.

“It’s the good ole boys’ network,” she says. “It permeates Louisiana’s political culture, and it’s time for it to stop.” She’s right. 

She hasn’t shied away from confronting that culture in legislative committees and on the floor of the House.

A CPA by trade, Stokes says she’ll turn her accountant eye for details to all the administrative minutiae of running this office, starting with a complete audit of each of the departmental divisions. She’ll be looking for ways to economize and ways to streamline the paperwork required for businesses, in particular. Streamlining is her thing, as she chairs the state’s Sales Tax Streamlining and Modernization Commission.

Stokes’ accounting background will also serve voters in good stead, for protecting the integrity and accuracy of financial documents is closely analogous to protecting the integrity and accuracy of the votes they cast.

Stokes, who is a Republican, is also adamant that the Secretary of State must remain non-partisan. Her voting history in the House proves that she is not one of those politicians who puts party loyalty above commonsense and the greater good. It’s one of the reasons one of her colleagues and one of the most progressive members of the state House of Representatives, Ted James, an African American Democrat, singled Stokes out by name as “a very, very good candidate” for Secretary of State. 

On January 14, 2008, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco walked out of the state Capitol as the last female statewide elected official in Louisiana (Mary Landrieu, of course, was still in office at the time, but she occupied a federal U.S. Senate seat, not a state government position).

A decade later, in what is shaping up to be the Year of the Woman, Louisianians have the opportunity to contribute, to make history, and to signal both a cultural and institutional change for the better.