1983: The Last Hayride

At the time, to people unfamiliar with the circus of Louisiana politics, it seemed like a staggering amount of money to spend in a gubernatorial election, especially in a state with only two million registered voters, but in 1983, more than $20 million changed hands during the race between former two-term Gov. Edwin Edwards and incumbent Gov. Dave Treen. “In fact, in 1983,” LSU political science professor Wayne Parent writes in his book Inside the Carnival, ”when the state was still enjoying the fruits of the oil boom, more money was spent on a governor’s race in Louisiana than in any nonpresidential election in American history up until that time.”

While the spending may have surprised the uninitiated, it was arguably the least interesting part of a campaign season that culminated the following January, when 618 Louisianians forked over $10,000 each to join Edwards in Paris on a week-long “extravaganza.” His campaign, which collected $8,000 from each guest (the other $2,000 covered travel expenses) to repay some of the $14 million it had spent during the election, boasted that the trip was “the largest single political fund-raiser ever held any place in the world.” 22 of the Louisiana’s 39 state senators made the trip, including state Senate President Sammy Nunez, who told the New York Times that there was “a quorum.” He wasn’t kidding.

Of course, big money has been inundating Louisiana politics since the era of the Kingfish. Prior to the 1983 election, the record for the most money ever spent in a nonpresidential election was set in 1979, when then-Congressman Dave Treen replaced the term-limited Edwin Edwards as Louisiana governor, beating Public Service Commissioner Louis Lambert by a razor-thin 9,557 votes. But outsized spending wasn’t just limited to statewide elections. Years ago, there was more money spent in a race for Kenner, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, than in the race for governor of Connecticut.

Today, nearly 37 years after the record-setting race between Edwards and Treen, which is brilliantly chronicled by the late John Maginnis in his book The Last Hayride and only a decade after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United opened the floodgates nationwide, $20 million now seems quaint. But adjusting for inflation, the $20 million spent in 1983 amounts to $51.7 million today, making it (still) the most expensive race in Louisiana history, though we should probably add an enormous asterisk mark.

The $100 million year

This year, all told, campaign spending in Louisiana likely topped $100 million, according to a review of available campaign finance reports and discussions with people familiar with the total amount spent by outside groups.

The National Institute on Money in Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Helena, Montana, has collected approximately 78.8% of all campaign finance reports filed this year in Louisiana, including 98.4% of the reports filed by the six gubernatorial candidates and the two candidates for lieutenant governor. Their analysis reveals that, thus far, total contributions received by campaigns and committees total $80,818,956. It is worth emphasizing again that approximately 21.2% of reports have not yet been collected, nearly all of which pertain to down-ballot legislative races and party committees.

Notably, their reporting only includes contributions and expenditures by candidates and committees. When accounting for the millions of dollars spent by outside PACs and 501(c)(4) nonprofits, the total would easily surpass $100 million.

Source: FollowtheMoney.org

Top of the Ticket

The six gubernatorial candidates raised a combined total of $39,743,215, a figure that is all but certain to remain essentially the same and well below the $40 million mark once the final report- which is from Gary Landrieu- is included.

Source: FollowtheMoney.org

There are a three things worth mentioning: First, John Bel Edwards received vastly more individual contributions than either of his two main opponents, Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham. Edwards’ reports list 37,013 separate contributions, whereas Rispone lists 5,303 and Abraham 4,951 (Note: All three candidates received contributions from individuals who donated more than once).

Secondly, although Eddie Rispone personally loaned his campaign $13.5 million, Edwards still out-raised him by approximately $2.9 million. Moreover, when one accounts for the loans that both Abraham and Rispone gave their campaigns, the two men raised nearly the same amount, roughly $3 million each.

How does this compare to other recent gubernatorial elections?

As the chart above illustrates, the 2019 election only brought in $3.6 million more than the one held four years prior, which is surprising when one considers that contest featured four major candidates. And while the 2015 election generated nearly double the money raised in 2011, there is a simple explanation for the wide discrepancy: In 2011, Bobby Jindal was re-elected without any real opposition.

Regardless, all three elections raised less than the 2003 battle between Kathleen Blanco and Jindal, which hauled in more than $41 million, and none have yet matched the $51.7 million (adjusted for inflation) that was raised in 1983.

Paging Dr. Dantzler

Oscar “Omar” Dantzler, Jr.

The third and final thing worth mentioning: The money allegedly raised by Oscar “Omar” Dantzler, Jr., a school bus driver from Tangipahoa Parish and a man who shamelessly refers to himself as “Dr. Dantzler,” presumably because he reportedly graduated from Cornerstone Christian College, an online academy that doles out high school diplomas, not college degrees.

As widely reported, Dantzler, a 51-year-old African American Democrat, was the beneficiary of $100,000 worth of campaign ads that aired on urban radio stations across the state, all paid for and brought to you by Eddie Rispone’s close friend, the Republican mega-donor and self-anointed “kingmaker” Lane Grigsby. Grigsby funneled the money through a fly-by-night campaign committee, Movement for Change, that was set up in early October exclusively to promote Dantzler’s quixotic candidacy.

Grigsby was brazen about his intentions. He hoped to move enough African American Democrats away from John Bel Edwards in order to prevent him from an outright win in the jungle primary, and in Dantzler, he found a perennial candidate who would happily go along. Indeed, a few days before qualifying began, Dantzler’s candidacy, suspiciously, was first floated by a right-wing blog.

In a transparently cynical attempt at justifying his chicanery, Grigsby claimed he was simply motivated by the desire to empower the voices of African Americans. “The white Democrats don’t really listen to the black community except for every four years,” Grigsby told the Advocate about his support for Dantzler. “I think the black community should pay close attention to what leads to the betterment of the community.”

One should keep Grigsby’s words in mind when considering what had already been readily known about the candidate he decided to promote.

Oscar “Omar” Dantzler had run twice for Mayor of Hammond and two other times against John Bel Edwards’ brother, Daniel Edwards, for Sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish. Following his most recent campaign for Sheriff, he filed suit against former FBI Director James Comey, former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, Sheriff Edwards and several others, alleging a wide-ranging and bizarre criminal conspiracy that resulted in him losing at the ballot box. Among other things, he claimed that turnout must have been dramatically higher than reported, because he personally saw more 30,000 voters show up to the polls on Election Day.

Notably, this wasn’t the first time he had filed a federal suit alleging a criminal conspiracy; a few years earlier, he filed an even stranger lawsuit against his ex-wife and a string of elected officials, including Sheriff Edwards, over a custody battle involving his young daughter. Both cases were ultimately terminated, but it’s worth mentioning because some on the far-right purposely distorted the facts and neglected to mention that both cases were ultimately dropped in an attempt to smear Sheriff Edwards and, by extension, the governor as well.

In addition to his work as a bus driver, Dantzler is the registered agent for Dantzler Affordable Bail, Dantzler’s Global Police and Investigation Enforcement Corporation, the National Injustice Organization for All People, and the Tangipahoa Islamic Center, according to documents filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State. His association with the Tangipahoa Islamic Center is interesting because, as a candidate, he claimed to have received a degree in Biblical Studies. Dantzler also registered the trade name “Dantzler’s Global Security College,” which does not appear to have ever offered any coursework.

Naturally, given Lane Grigsby’s interest in boosting Dantzler and Dantzler’s own history, one might be curious how exactly his campaign was able to raise nearly $34,000, apparently from more than 150 individual contributions.

After all, he didn’t appear to be running a serious operation. His campaign Facebook page, for example, redirects visitors to the wrong website, OscarOmarDantzler44Gov.com- a broken link- instead of the correct domain, OscarOmarDantzler4Gov.com.

If, unlike the candidate, you did notice the typo, then you were able to find a pitiful, poorly-designed page featuring a donate button and three homemade campaign commercials: One about the horrific killing of Alton Sterling, another that included an interview with the musician Lil’ Boosie, and a third in which Dantzler unintentionally appears as an apparition, the result of comically shoddy editing.

A still image from one of Oscar Omar Dantzler’s three digital ads.

Upon close inspection, the reports that Dantzler filed with the Louisiana Ethics Administration reveal that he was the sole contributor to his gubernatorial campaign. The reason why it appears he received more than 150 contributions is simple: Dantzler itemized all of his expenditures as contributions.

Curiously, unlike most candidates, Dantzler didn’t loan his campaign the $33,595 it received; he presumably just gave it to the campaign. While his donations are only a fraction of the personal fortune that Eddie Rispone spent on his campaign, $33,595 is roughly equivalent to the total annual salary of an average school bus driver in Tangipahoa Parish. To be sure, according to Dantzler’s reporting (albeit reporting that is fraught with major errors), he contributed a total of $22,990 to the campaign, and it is possible that, given the way in which he had listed his expenditures as contributions, the aggregate total is less than it may appear to be.

Gubernatorial candidate Oscar Omar Dantzler listed hotel rooms booked with Sai Hospitality as contributions and provided a misspelled name, street address, and city. His campaign finance reports are littered with similar entries, making the task of determining his campaign’s activities nearly impossible.

The majority of itemized expenditures were for office equipment and furniture, meals, and hotel rooms; his campaign spent thousands of dollars at Home Depot and Office Depot despite the fact that it never advertised a campaign headquarters and appeared to have had all of its advertisements, mailers, signs, and push cards designed by third-party vendors.

Dantzler’s obviously bogus reports demand immediate action from the state Ethics Administration, because currently, they consistently misrepresent the political activities of dozens of privately-owned businesses. As a result, every single restaurant, hotel, and retail store that Dantzler paid during the course of his campaign will now find themselves listed in the state’s database of campaign contributors, which is not exactly an insignificant issue for many of these businesses.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.