Carpetbaggers & Scalawags

Prior to joining the Opelousas Police Department, Higgins was a sales manager with Sterling Automotive. Source: The Daily Advertiser; March 23, 2003.

Clay Higgins claimed that God called him to run against Scott Angelle for Congress. In reality, the call came from a local Republican operative.

Angelle, a former lieutenant governor who was then serving on the Louisiana Public Service Commission, the elected body in charge of regulating the private utilities market, had seemed like a shoo-in. He was only a year removed from his campaign for governor, and although he’d finished in third place, his aggressive and colorful campaign against David Vitter had won him the newfound respect of moderates and independents. He also benefitted from the savvy campaign operation that had engineered Bobby Jindal’s two landslide gubernatorial victories, and although Jindal was, at that point, the least popular governor in Louisiana history, his campaign machinery—at least in Louisiana—was still running on all cylinders.

But perhaps most importantly, Angelle was definitively a man of Acadiana. He spoke with a thick Cajun accent; his family was well-known and well-liked, and he’d spent the bulk of his career in politics bulldozing through environmental regulations in service to the oil and gas industry, which is, frustratingly, seen as a good thing, despite the industry’s direct role in creating an existential environmental catastrophe in South Louisiana. It also meant that Angelle would have no problem raising more money than he possibly could have needed.

Ironically (or perhaps, fittingly), Clay Higgins isn’t originally from the area. He was born in New Orleans and grew up in Covington, which are both a world away from St. Landry Parish. “I like Cajuns, and I love John Wayne. But I’m neither one,” the so-called “Cajun John Wayne” once told the Washington Post. “I’m an Irish boy from New Orleans.”

When Higgins decided to run for Louisiana’s Third Congressional District in 2016, he was actually a resident of the Fifth District. This, however, was only a technicality. If you’re a resident of Louisiana, you can qualify for any of the state’s six congressional seats, and besides, Higgins lived in Port Barre, spitting distance from the district border.

Although it may have seemed entirely implausible only a few months before the race kicked off, Scott Angelle was about to get his ass kicked. He’d end up with only 44% of the vote in the runoff. (Today, he works as the director of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement in the Department of the Interior, a job he had spent most of his career proving himself to be uniquely capable of sabotaging, which made him an obvious pick for the Trump administration).

In fairness to Angelle, with the exception of overplaying their hand on the story about Higgins and child support, his campaign for Congress had been fairly well-run. His loss has less to do with any mistakes that he made and much more to do with the fact that his opponent was a celebrity.

After Higgins won, I sometimes would refer to him as the very first Trumpian member of Congress. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who came to this conclusion. The two men, after all, were both elected in 2016; they were both political neophytes (though Higgins had been previously elected to a district-level constable seat, which managed to earn exactly one mention in the local press at the time); they were both reality television stars who built a loyal and intense following on social media, and they both campaigned as unconventional outsiders.

But I now believe that the characterization of Higgins as a Trumpian or proto-Trumpian politician isn’t entirely apt; at least it wasn’t apt at the time of the election. There were two significant differences between the two men: Trump, of course, professes to be a billionaire, whereas Higgins brandishes himself as a member of the “common class.” Perhaps more importantly, though, at the time of his first election in 2016, Higgins was, for the most part, well-liked if not genuinely admired, even by those who disagreed with his quirky “Constitutionalist” politics and fact-free version of America as a country founded by a group of ordinary, salt-of-the-earth guys just like him and not a small collection of extraordinarily well-educated white men, nearly all of whom were born into wealth that they then inherited and most of whom owned slaves. (Alexander Hamilton, as we all now know, was the striking exception to this rule).

Higgins may have played the “bad cop” on television, but occasionally, he’d temper his message with comments that made audiences believe he was truly a good guy. Even though his record was far more problematic than most people realized, his opponents, especially Angelle, wouldn’t go there. Maybe they felt as if they couldn’t go there.

In the overwhelmingly white and conservative third district, criticizing law enforcement was effectively political suicide, and Clay Higgins, despite his resignation from the St. Landry Sheriff’s Department, had built his campaign and his entire “persona” from the reserves of goodwill that most Americans, regardless of their party, have for the men and women who sign up to serve and protect their communities against crime.

The law enforcement community isn’t just a powerful political force; it’s also a powerful cultural force. When it is at its best, this is an undeniably good thing, but as Americans have been reminded too frequently in recent years, when law enforcement leaders fail to root out corruption within their own ranks, when they treat justified protests against brutality and an enforcement agenda that disproportionately targets, dehumanizes, and then institutionalizes minorities as somehow an attack against those who truly and honorably protect and serve the communities they call home, that culture becomes calcified and toxic.

There’s a reason, for example, that Higgins continues to refer to himself as a present-day law enforcement officer, even though he turned in his badge for the second time more than four years ago. Shortly after his resignation, then-Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope, arguably the most brazenly corrupt Louisiana public official since former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin earned himself an extended vacation at the federal penitentiary in Texarkana, named Higgins as one of his deputies. (Unlike Nagin, Pope managed to get locked up while he was still in office). The appointment was entirely ceremonial; a year before, Pope gave basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal the same title. But while it couldn’t save Higgins’s chances of scoring a reality television show, it did manage to have one important benefit: It allowed Higgins to stay in costume and in character during his campaign for Congress.

His appointment would be ordinarily be considered harmless honorifics, but for Higgins, unlike Shaq, it came with immense personal and political value. Just ask Steven Seagal, who managed to exploit the ceremonial title that the late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee provided into an insipid, ethically questionable, but popular reality television show, Steven Seagal: Lawman.

To be fair, Higgins would have had a far more legitimate claim on the title “lawman” than Seagal, if he were to ever score the TV show he’s always wanted. Who cares it’s already the name of another show?

For some, it may be easy to dismiss all of this as light entertainment. But the phony appointments, the desire for fame, the Uncly Clay line of attire he sold for newborns and toddlers and the Captain Higgins shot glasses and beer mugs he hocked to those old enough to share his appreciation of a stiff drink or a flavorless, mass-produced domestic lager, the courtship of anti-government militia groups, the refusal to acknowledge the scientific evidence that policymakers must understand in order to steer Americans out from the worst public health pandemic in over a century, THE PERSONA that preaches redemption, and the politician who practices rage and division—all of it begs the question: With all due respect to Sheriff Guidroz, how on earth did anyone think Clay Higgins could be a good spokesperson for law enforcement?

But wait, it gets worse.

Next page: Captain Clay and His Homeboy Dave

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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.