Erector Set: The Power Behind the (Hoped-For) Throne

Louisiana has a long history of wealthy white men banding together to influence state and local politics, donating individually and collectively to trade groups and candidates for elected offices. Once they were called “citizens’ councils,” and were aligned with the Dixiecrats. Now, they form non-profit “grassroots” organizations, set up political action committees (PACs), and are active within the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), and the Republican Party.

The latest gang seeking to dominate and control state government and policies are those we have dubbed the “Erector Set.”

How They’re Built

All of them have built their own multi-million-dollar companies, through building industrial facilities for other multi-million-dollar companies. They’re used to running things, and getting their own way. And they have friends who think like they do.

The mastermind of the current Baton Rouge-based triumvirate is Lane Grigsby, Chairman of the Board of Cajun Contractors, and Chairman Emeritus for the LABI Board of Directors.

Grigsby’s longtime friend and ally is Eddie Rispone, the founder and chairman of ISC Constructors, and now an announced candidate for Governor of Louisiana. Grigsby and Rispone have been working together to influence local and statewide political races and issues for nearly a decade.

Art Favre

The most recent addition to this cabal is Art Favre, the founder and president of Performance Contractors, a company with 2017 annual revenue in excess of $1.5-billion. Favre “joined” the Erector Set early in 2018.

These three men are involved in many of the same interest groups: LABI, Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), supporting LSU’s College of Engineering (of which they are all alumni), and, in the case of Rispone and Favre particularly, involvement in Catholic charities and fundraising for Our Lady of the Lake.

Art Favre, who started Performance Contractors in 1979, had generally been considered a “philanthropic” corporate citizen until recently. Certainly, he invested his wealth in a variety of projects, including purchasing the majority interest in The Wharf at Orange Beach, Alabama, in late 2011. The development was in foreclosure, and — after buying up the amphitheate and the marina previously, acquiring the condos and shops cost him a reported $14-million.

He has served on the Federal Reserve Board, and as director for Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. He also donated $1-million toward construction of the new Children’s Hospital at OLOL. Additionally, he endowed the chairman professorship for LSU’s construction management program, for $1.2-million.

By the Numbers

Up until the past couple of years, Favre was not one who could be classified as a “substantial” political donor. Although he – but more usually his company – contributed to campaigns and PACs, like LABI’s and ABC’s, but in relatively modest amounts.

In 2016, he put $58,000 into Eddie Rispone’s Citizens For A Better Baton Rouge PAC, which ran ads supporting Bodi White and opposing Sharon Weston-Broome in the Baton Rouge mayor’s race. Weston-Broome won that contest.

In 2017, Favre served as chairman of LABI’s Board of Directors. That threw him into close alliance with LABI’s chairman emeritus, Lane Grigsby.

Favre, who had a pattern of giving $50 per year to each of LABI’s four regional PACs (East PAC, West PAC, North PAC, South PAC), put $25,000 into each of those funds in April of 2018 – donated by his company.

That same month, he personally put $100,000 into the LA Free Enterprise PAC, which Lane Grigsby had seeded with another $100,000 one month prior. The fund is managed by John Diez, president of Magellan Strategies, a research and polling firm based in Baton Rouge. Diez also serves as LABI’s Director of Political Action Committees and of the super PAC, Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, which has now been renamed the Louisiana Conservative Majority PAC. (That’s the super PAC once controlled by David Vitter, who has since turned it and its work over to Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.)

The Grigsby-Favre LA Free Enterprise PAC spent about $75,000 of its money this past fall. In addition to hosting “PAC strategy meetings” at Hooters (Baton Rouge twice, Metairie four times, West Bank three times, and Bossier City twice) the PAC spent on oppositional research and direct mailings to influence the Plaquemines Parish Council elections – hoping to impanel a council that would vote to permanently end the parish’s coastal lawsuits against the oil and gas industry.

Those lawsuits are still set to go to trial later this year.

Follow the Money

In 1973, Lane Grigsby founded what has become Cajun Industries – now with five divisions: Cajun Constructors, Cajun Industrial Design and Construction, Cajun Deep Foundations, Cajun Maritime, and Cajun Equipment Services. As of 2016, the company’s total annual revenue was more than $721-million.

Grigsby was one of the first to join the newly-formed Louisiana Association of Business and Industry in 1976, with its initial mission of getting the “Right to Work” law passed, and dismantle what then-head of LABI, Ed Steimel termed “uncontrolled and excessive political power of labor unions.”

(It should be noted that, in LABI’s arguments for passage of the “Right-to-Work” law, Steimel claimed Louisiana lagged behind the rest of the nation in job creation during the prior 8 years because of organized labor – neglecting to mention the effect Louisiana politicians’ hard-line stance in favor of segregation and against implementing Civil Rights.)

Distaste for labor unions has remained one of Grigsby’s core values. In 2014 and 2015, Grigsby was heavily involved in LABI’s push for the slyly named “Pay Check Protection” bill, which would prohibit governmental agencies from collecting and remitting workers’ union dues. LABI did internet broadcasts of these meetings for their members, and captured snippets from them, publishing Grigsby’s video commentary to YouTube. (Though they misidentify him in one clip as “Wayne” Grigsby)

“The impetus of it is to cut off the unions’ funding. They lose their stroke.” Grigsby explains. “This is a fatal spear to the heart of the giant, in truth.”

A second clip shows Grigsby stating, “Guys, this is where you grab the aorta, and shut it off. If you control the money flow, you control the success.”

While that bill failed to pass, there can be no doubt that Lane Grigsby controls plenty of money, as well as its flow to like-minded politicians and causes.

As one of the 1980 co-founders of Associated Builders and Contractors, he retains a lot of “stroke” with the organization, which operates two political action committees: ABC Merit PAC and ABC Pelican PAC (which is run by Thad Rispone), and which have each contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Louisiana candidates over the years. Interestingly, those regularly benefiting from the ABC PACs are either Republicans running for statewide office, or state lawmakers who rank highly on LABI’s annual legislative scorecard.

(Also interestingly, there’s another PAC which goes by the “ABC” moniker: the Alliance for Better Classrooms. Grigsby originally set that one up in 2011. More on that later.)

Associated Builders and Contractors states in its strategic plan, “Without a voice influencing politics in the state, member companies will face complex and insurmountable challenges that will impact their bottom line,” and says the group’s goals include “robust political fundraising” and to “become one of the most influential lobbying organizations in the state.” Conveniently, that would align with electing one of their own as governor, would it not?

Educating Campaign Influencers

For at least eight years, Lane Grigsby has been refining his recipes for this year’s political picnic. He came to the attention of capital reporters in 2011, when– after his retirement from daily running Cajun Industries – he decided to infuse considerable cash and clout into buying the
Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) races.

Campaigns for the unpaid elected Board of Elementary and Secondary Education seats were normally sleepy, low-budget affairs. But then-Gov. Bobby Jindal had decided he wanted the newly-imported Recovery School District superintendent, John White, to become State Superintendent of Education. In the spring of 2011, after demanding the resignation of then-state Superintendent Paul Pastorek – literally within days of White’s arrival – Jindal ran into resistance to his plan to install White in the top K-12 education post, with BESE members refusing to agree. (They are, technically, the only ones with the power to hire and fire the Superintendent.)

Jindal was convinced having White at the helm would be necessary for implementing his planned “signature” legislation for his second term: education reform. Grigsby, who viewed the laundry list of proposed changes as being an opportunity for he and his business buddies to start profiting from the tax dollars going into public education – as well as a chance to spank the state’s teachers who would not give up their faith and support in unions – was only too happy to help.

He stated unequivocally that he was working to “inject free-market principles into the monopoly of public education.”

In an interview with in October 2011, Grigsby offered an example from his business experience as an illustration for why he supported “reform” of public education.

“When job seekers interview at Cajun Industries, we have to find out how many children they have. We’ve got to take the number of children, multiply it by $10,000 and add that to their salary so they can put their kids in private school.”

John White and Lane Grigsby

For that race, Grigsby started and funded the Alliance for Better Classrooms (ABC PAC), seeding it with $100,000, and getting Cajun Industries and its executives to kick in another $160,000 overall. It’s a process he repeated in 2015, with his own and company donations, and adding $100,000 more in his wife’s name. That was to ensure elected BESE members would “hold the line” on education reforms and John White’s job, no matter who the new governor turned out to be. (This PAC is still active, and presently has former LABI president Dan Juneau at the helm.)

In 2015, Grigsby also started and ran Empower Louisiana PAC, which funneled millions from Michael Bloomberg, the Waltons, Eli Broad and others into the BESE races, to purchase BESE and protect John White.

Grigsby also started and ran another PAC in 2015 — LA Forward, Inc.  Louisiana Campaign Finance records don’t specify its purpose, but they show the fund spent about $50,000 with Jay Connaughton of Innovative Advertising of Mandeville. This publication previously provided some background on Connaughton in an article about state Attorney General Jeff Landry’s efforts to protect the Koch Industry’s group, Americans for Prosperity, from having to disclose their donors.

In 2016, Lane Grigsby started a new PAC, called “Citizens for Judicial Excellence,” which shares the address of Cajun Industries. It’s purpose? To influence judicial races. In particular, it was aimed toward candidates who might ultimately be positioned to rule on the coastal lawsuits against the oil and gas industry. Grigsby personally contributed more than $280,000 to CJE, and the PAC spent $316,350 on a single attack ad in the Jimmy Genovese-Marilyn Castle state Supreme Court race. Genovese was the target, yet he won the race.

And, as we reported last March, Grigsby has hired David Vitter, as his business and personal lobbyist.

Altogether, Lane Grigsby has contributed more than $2-million of his personal money toward stirring the political pot in Louisiana over the past decade. Cajun Industries has put in nearly a half-million more dollars.

With Grigsby’s and Favre’s buddy Eddie Rispone running for governor, one thing is certain: there’s more where that came from.

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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.