This article has been updated.
An internal memorandum from Mandeville-based GOP political operative Jay Connaughton, addressed to Republican state Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell, and privately circulated among GOP state legislators outlines a series of talking points to use in a coordinated campaign aimed at politicizing and undermining the emergency orders issued by Gov. John Bel Edwards in curtailing the Covid-19 pandemic.
Edwards’ orders are in conformance with the guidelines issued by the White House and follow the recommendations of public health experts and medical professionals. The Bayou Brief obtained a copy of the document earlier this evening.
Among other things, the memo advises legislators to avoid “trap words” like “death/die,” “politics/political,” “models,” and “hoax.” The very first “trap word” on the list: “Republican.”
It cautions lawmakers to anticipate questions about whether or not “reopening too early (will) cause the virus to rebound” and whether a “virus respects parish borders.” Taken in its totality, the document reads like a guide to subverting public health policy and reframing the efforts to curb the pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of at least 1,800 Louisianians, as an “economic shutdown.”
Covid-19 has now killed more people in Louisiana than those who perished as a consequence of the Federal Flood after Hurricane Katrina. More than one out of every 1,000 residents of New Orleans have died from the virus, which had been disproportionately affected when the novel Coronavirus was first reported in the state. Since then, the pandemic has spread to all 64 parishes.
The full three-page memo, in addition to an email from the political operative to state Sen. Hewitt, is embedded below.
Gov. Edwards announced Monday the extension of the state’s emergency “stay at home orders” until May 15th. “While this is not the announcement I want to make, I am hopeful, and all of Louisiana should be hopeful, that we will enter into the next phase of reopening soon, in mid-May,” he said. ”I am anxious to get all areas of our economy reopened, but if we accelerate too quickly, we may have to slam on the brakes. That will be bad for public health and for businesses, bad for our people and bad for our state.”
The GOP memorandum contains a series of factual distortions about the state’s response and falsely claims that Gov. Edwards’s order was made against the advice of the Trump White House. The White House actually recommended Edwards take the exact approach that he’s now implementing, telling governors to ensure their states have satisfied a set of criteria before ordering a “phased reopening.”
The Trump administration also makes it abundantly clear that plans for a phased reopening are at the “governors’ discretion,” and recommends that any phased reopening— which could only occur after meeting the initial “gating criteria” listed below— consider “local circumstances.” As an example, the White House distinguishes between urban areas with severe outbreaks and “rural and suburban areas where outbreaks have not occurred or have been mild.”
In Louisiana, the pandemic has spread to all 64 parishes, and the majority of new infections are now outside of the New Orleans area.
President Trump, who is scheduled to meet personally with Gov. Edwards tomorrow in Washington, has repeatedly singled out Edwards, a Democrat, for his coordination with his administration, praising the governor’s leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic on more than one occasion. “In the case of Louisiana, we have a very good governor, John Bel Edwards, though he’s a Democrat,” Trump told Fox News.
Vice President Mike Pence also praised the state’s response under Edwards. “I have to say how proud we are, despite the heartbreaking loss of people in our community and the families who’ve lost loved ones, New Orleans has made great progress, and Louisiana has made great progress by putting the health of their neighbors first.” Pence told WWLTV on Monday.
In a list of talking points outlined in the Louisiana GOP document, legislators are encouraged to argue that they are “disappointed in the Governor’s decision to delay the restart of our economy” (emphasis added), and to share the fact that some cities in Louisiana are closer to Dallas, Jackson, and Houston” than they are to New Orleans, though the memo leaves out the words “New Orleans.”
“Slidell is closer to Gulfport,” it points out. Slidell is the hometown of state Sen. Hewitt.
Connaughton, who earned statewide notoriety after his political marketing and advertising firm, now known as People Who Think, had worked as a vendor on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign; he was back in the press last November, when an attack ad against Gov. Edwards’s reelection campaign that Connaughton helped produce for the political action committee Truth in Politics was forced off of the airwaves for spreading a brazenly false claim that a West Point classmate of the governor’s was the recipient of a lucrative state contract.
Connaughton presented himself as the “spokesman” for the PAC, which was founded and funded by Lane Grigsby, a wealthy Baton Rouge construction magnate and the best friend of Edwards’s Republican opponent, Eddie Rispone.
Hewitt, a former employee of Shell Oil who ascended into Republican Party leadership after first winning election in 2015, currently serves as Chair of the Louisiana Senate’s GOP Caucus as well as Chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, where she recently sabotaged an emergency order that would have meaningfully expanded access to mail-in ballots for the upcoming Democratic Presidential primary election. Hewitt used her position on the committee to demand an amendment requiring those requesting mail-in ballots (who would not have ordinarily qualified under state law) sign affidavits certifying they have at least one of the underlying conditions the Centers for Disease Control includes in a list of diagnoses that pose unique susceptibility to Covid-19.
Already, legislators have lifted passages from the memo- often verbatim- to share on social media. One of the first members to do so was Hewitt herself:
Hewitt also prompted her followers to sign a petition, which is mentioned in the memo to legislators as well, by sharing a tweet from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, announcing the state’s decision to no longer require visitors from Louisiana self-quarantine for 14 days. Abbott’s order created an almost entirely unworkable regime that attempted to force non-commercial traffic arriving from Interstates 10 and 20 into a check-in area (in the case of I-20, the area was located nearly five miles from the state border).
“Texas Governor lifts the quarantine of Louisiana citizens entering his state, but our LA Governor keeps us locked down,” Hewitt declared, misapprehending a “stay at home order” as an order preventing citizens from traveling anywhere. The Slidell lawmaker also failed to appreciate the justification Abbott provided for eliminating the requirement, which had been widely seen as an act of political theater.
“Louisiana has done a good job of corralling the coronavirus and because their increased rate of new coronavirus cases is less than what we have in the state of Texas now, it’s important for these people who either have families who live across the Louisiana border, or they may be living in Louisiana but working in the state of Texas, or they may need to come to the state of Texas for doing business — whatever the case may be — it was determined by the doctors and the data that it was fine at this time for people to be able to come into the state of Texas from Louisiana,” Abbott said.
While Abbott announced he would also let Texas’s statewide “stay at home order” lapse on Thursday, his directive is phased approach, and, like Edwards’s order, it follows the guidelines set out by the White House. 200 of 254 of Texas’s counties report no deaths as a result of the virus, compared with only 10 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes.
Although Texas’s population is 6.1 times larger, Louisiana has reported more than three times the number of Covid-19 fatalities than the Lone Star State.