The Blind Spot in the 2019 Campaign

Forget the D vs. R microanalysis. Fs say you boys effed up.

With a mere margin of 40,000 votes out of one-and-a-half million votes cast, Gov. John Bel Edwards squeaked out a 51% to 49% re-election victory in the runoff against Eddie Rispone. Post-campaign analyses are the present hot topic in Louisiana political news, with pollsters and poli sci profs up and down the state picking apart the demographics of who punched the box beside which name in the voting booth.

More than a few analysts are drilling down on race, while others are endeavoring to determine how many independents and crossover Republicans it took to give the Democratic governor of a mostly red state a second term.

I have yet to see or hear any of the current crop of (male) political analysts so much as mention the “female factor” – how women, who comprise 55% of all registered voters in Louisiana, were courted by the candidates and thence impacted the outcome of this election.

In the week immediately following Kathleen Blanco’s 2003 runoff victory over Bobby Jindal (she prevailed with 52% of the vote to Jindal’s 48%), I asked LSU Political Science Professor Wayne Parent for his thoughts on the “female factor” as a voting bloc.

“I don’t think there was a ‘female factor’ that contributed to Blanco’s win,” he said. “Women in Louisiana don’t coalesce around being female, or use that as a political force.”

And the following year, when Dr. Parent published Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics, his book discusses the state’s (pre-Katrina) voting blocs in great depth: north Louisiana vs. south Louisiana, white vs. black, urban vs. rural, Protestant vs. Catholic, New Orleans vs. everyone else. He also elaborates on what was formerly the unpredictable wild card in Louisiana voting: the Cajun bloc in south Louisiana, which had for decades often chosen to support more liberal candidates or causes than one might conventionally expect. Yet Parent never mentions or indexes “women,” “female,” or even what has become a seminal gender issue — “abortion” — in this important book on Louisiana political theory.

A decade and a half later, there remains a blind spot regarding women in the Bayou State, and their ability to become a wedge that could split wide the wooden worldview of Louisiana’s masculinized culture. It’s one part of what feminist scholarship refers to as “the male gaze” – men heteronormatively objectifying rather than humanizing women.

Rep. Pat Smith speaking at women’s luncheon, Nov. 14, 2019. Photo by Sue Lincoln.

“It gnaws at me inside – the fact that I’ve had to support that man’s election – because he clearly doesn’t support us in return.”

“But remember, the alternative is far worse.”

Although I heard these statements just last week at a gathering of Democratic women, female friends involved with Republican Party politics tell me they’ve heard similar sentiments privately expressed at GOP women’s functions.

Certainly, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stance on abortion, proudly supporting every Louisiana legislative attempt to diminish and ultimately eliminate a woman’s right to choose, made whole-hearted advocacy for his re-election awkward for the more liberal-leaning sisters among us.

But Eddie Rispone’s adoration of “grab ‘em by the pussy” Donald Trump presented its own set of soul-searchings for women, particularly the evangelical Christian contingent which has, almost unswervingly, aligned itself with the Republican Party.

And the boys who were running the campaigns had tunnel vision. They aimed fixedly for the light at the end, ignoring any possible merging of peripheral traffic, thus increasing the chances they could crash and burn. And while I expected no better from the Republican side, I was and remain deeply disappointed (and frankly dismayed) at how tone-deaf the Edwards’ camp proved to be.

Conventional political wisdom was clear: John Bel Edwards had a narrow path to victory in 2019, just as he did four years previously. This time he would again require what he achieved in 2015: crossover voters who were uncomfortable with how far to the right the Republican Party was determined to yank the state’s chains. The guys running the governor’s re-election campaign focused the messaging at that demographic.

Their first TV ad, 30 seconds long, was released July 8th and was titled “Surplus.” It referenced the Edwards administration solving the $2 billion budget hole left behind by the Jindal administration and how state revenues are now achieving small annual surpluses. The ad also notes public school teachers have, under Edwards, gotten pay raises.

The next ad, “Family Tradition,” pays tribute to the men of the Edwards family – John Bel’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather who each served as sheriff, and how that inspired his attendance of West Point and becoming an Airborne Ranger. At the end, showing a picture of (a much younger) Capt. Edwards in uniform with his wife and their then-toddler daughter, Edwards says, “My greatest responsibility is still fighting for and protecting our families.”

And while he doesn’t say “womenfolk,” it’s still there subliminally, in the messaging.

On August 5th, the campaign issued another 30-second ad that was essentially a reprise of one that had proved effective four years prior. Donna Edwards speaks of her husband’s strong policy focus on improving education opportunities for “Every Child” in the state.

A week later, a full minute-long ad went up, showcasing the governor speaking about the importance of “Workforce Development.” The video is replete with images of suited men in conference rooms, or hard-hatted men working outside at industrial sites, along with women indoors, as nurses, lab assistants, and teachers.

It was clearly aimed at those businessmen along that previously-described narrow path — Republicans and independents who are most comfortable with men and women sticking to gender-traditional jobs.

One month later, on Sept 12th, the Edwards campaign put out an ad themed around one of the governor’s favorite maxims, taken from the U.S. Military Academy cadet prayer. His West Point classmates talk about John Bel’s leadership, and one quotes the line, “Choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.”

The campaign titled the ad “Harder Right,” and a number of Democratic women running for office (or running campaigns) observed that title seemed to sum up the philosophical turn the governor’s politics appeared to be taking.

At this point, women – both inside and outside of the Edwards campaign organization – were expressing their dissatisfaction and concerns to the campaign’s management. They were told that the messaging – if it addressed women at all – was talking at or past women, rather than speaking to and with them regarding issues that involve women in particular. The response was, “But we show women in our ads, and there’s an entire ad done by the First Lady. Why, in our very first ad, we talked about teacher pay raises, and that affects every mom in the state?”

Hey, guys? Not every woman is, or wants to be, a mom.

Not every female heart is softened by the sight of cute little school kids. Take one of my daughters, for instance. She’s married, but won’t be having kids. She works in IT, and says while it’s nice that public school teachers got their first statewide pay raise in a decade, she wants to know that there’s a law guaranteeing she gets paid the same as the dude in the cubical next to her. Louisiana has no such law protecting workers in the private sector, and the campaign wasn’t addressing that or other gender-based workplace protections.

Sadly, this time they weren’t even mentioning raising the minimum wage, since that might not sit well with those middle-class, moderately conservative businessmen the campaign was working so hard to woo.

In fact, it wasn’t until the beginning of October, when the Lane Grigsby-created “Truth In Politics” PAC tried to trash the governor’s handling of a 2017 sexual harassment incident with an ad utterly misrepresenting the sequence of events that the John Bel Edwards campaign reached out to women specifically.

The Grigsby-funded video had the purported victim saying she was out of a job after reporting the harassment, although the record shows she tendered her resignation a full three weeks before she reported the incidents. The anti-JBE ad is titled “John Bel Edwards Doesn’t Listen to Women.”

In response, John Bel’s campaign put out an ad called “We Know Gov. Edwards.” The ad features nine women of varying ages and ethnicities speaking out in support of the governor’s hiring and treatment of women, and refuting the implications made by the opposition’s ad.

Although the campaign might have hoped that was enough of a nod to the ladies, it wasn’t sufficient to put Edwards over the top and secure an outright win in the October 12th primary.

The runoff ads went after Rispone, courted the potential crossover voters, and again turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to that 55% of Louisiana’s voting population.

“Do your part in your sphere of influence,” Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said to attendees at the Progressive Women’s luncheon, held Thursday, Nov. 14th, just two days before the runoff election. And, despite their misgivings about John Bel Edwards’ campaign overtly wooing independents and more moderate Republicans with conservative messaging, Democratic women – white and black – worked to get out the vote.

One of the messages the ladies shared comfortably and widely was “Four more years…for First Lady Donna Edwards!”

Why did the women continue to work for John Bel’s re-election, even though his campaign seemed to mostly ignore their advice and concerns? You see, as the old phrase goes, the women “know which side of the bread their butter is on.” Of course, that’s primarily because they had to mix the dough, bake the bread, slice it and butter it themselves.

You doubt?

The latest “breadwinner” stats from the Center for American Progress, issued in May 2019, show that

in Louisiana, 48.3% of all mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners for their family, compared to the national average of 41%. The report, which follows the methodology originally used for the 2009 Shriver Report, states that 69% of all mothers in Louisiana – single and married – work for pay that constitutes 25% or more of the family’s total income.

Leaving aside the societal value judgment implied through only counting breadwinning mothers, let’s also look at pay equity.

In their most recent annual evaluation, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) show that – overall – women in Louisiana earn 70 cents compared to each dollar earned by a man. African-American females in the Bayou State average a mere 48 cents for each dollar earned Louisiana males – black or white.

Beyond the fact that Louisiana has no gender equity pay protection for workers in the private sector, a trio of reports released last week by the National Women’s Law Center determined that “tax policy is a major reason for the persistence of the gender labor-participation gap and the gender wage gap in the United States.”

“Nowhere in today’s tax code does it explicitly say that women shall be treated differently than men, or families of color treated differently than white families,” one report concludes. “But while the language of our tax laws may be neutral on its face, in many instances, its impact disadvantages women and people of color in practice.”

Louisiana State Capitol, January 2019. Photo by Sue Lincoln.

Even as next year marks the 100th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, there’s still so much to be done to achieve any semblance of gender equality in Louisiana. And while John Bel Edwards will remain in residence at the Governor’s Mansion for four more years, he won’t have a strong legislative constituency to advance his policy proposals.

Not only will he have to deal with a Republican super-majority in the state Senate, the women aren’t represented in sufficient legislative numbers to have any gender clout whatsoever.

The first woman, Jeannette Rankin, was elected to Congress in 1916. This fall, 103 years later, Louisiana voted to increase its female legislative contingent just the slightest. Presently, women are five of the 39 state senators, and 17 of the 105 state representative. Next year, there will be six female senators and 18 female representatives. That’s 15% of the Senate and 17% of the House.

And although she won’t be among them, I’ll leave you with some of the comments and questions that Beverly Brooks Thompson, Ph.D, a state senate candidate, heard while campaigning.

“You know this is a lot of work, right?”

“You need to pay your dues.”

“We thought this was sweet at first, but you really want to win this thing, huh?”

“You’re too smart to be in office.”

And 45 years after enacting the 1974 state Constitution, which finally changed Louisiana women’s legal status from the chattel (property) of their husband, father or nearest male relative to that of a person, a self-actualized citizen, Dr. Thompson was asked – several times:

“What does your husband think of all this?”

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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.