Three days after Bill Cassidy won his first election to Congress, ousting Democratic incumbent Don Cazayoux in Louisiana’s Sixth District, he took a break from his day job to grab a cup of coffee with the person who, more than anyone else, made his victory possible.
Cassidy, a physician who entered political life only two years prior after wining a special election to the Louisiana state Senate, showed up at Perks, a funky local coffeeshop in Baton Rouge’s Garden District, at around four in the afternoon. Even though he was the new Congressman-elect, Cassidy was still relatively unknown, even less recognizable when he wore his scrubs.
It was 2008. The iPhone debuted only a year before, and it’d be another eight months before he reserved @BillCassidy on Twitter. People weren’t yet as accustomed to the omnipresence of social media.
Unbeknownst to Cassidy, an LSU student with a laptop, a smart phone, and a keen understanding of local politics had camped out at Perks that afternoon. It was far away enough from campus to ensure you wouldn’t have to worry about competing for an open table and quiet enough that you could study without interruption.
The student immediately recognized Cassidy, but it wasn’t until he saw the other man, Cassidy’s coffee date, that he decided to furtively snap a few photos, knowing he somehow had stumbled into a legitimate scoop.
Who was the African American fellow sharing a table and some java with the newly-minted Republican congressman?
That’d be state Rep. Michael Jackson, a Democrat who had recently decided to become an independent in order to make another run for Congress.
That year, for the first time in three decades, the state held closed party primaries for federal elections, and when Jackson ran for the seat as a Democrat months before, he’d lost in the primary to Don Cazayoux, who would go onto win the general election against Republican Woody Jenkins. But that election only determined who would fill the unexpired term of outgoing Rep. Richard Baker, who abruptly resigned in January to take a lobbying job.
With Cazayoux now the incumbent, Democrats had little appetite for a second primary run by Jackson; they were focused on protecting a hard-fought victory.
However, Lane Grigsby, a Republican mega-donor, was keen on the prospect of Jackson running as a third-party candidate. Jackson, he figured, could be expected to carry a sizable number of Black voters, thereby making Cassidy’s pathway to victory significantly easier. He wouldn’t need to win a majority of voters, just a plurality.
On the campaign trail, Jackson emphasized his support for Barack Obama and criticized Cazayoux for not embracing the Democratic presidential nominee as enthusiastically as he was. Voters were largely unaware that Jackson’s campaign was being propped up by the same Republican benefactor who many believe was responsible for launching Bill Cassidy’a political career.
In 2006, Cassidy, a political neophyte, prevailed over three-term state Rep. William Daniel in a special election for the state Senate, largely thanks to the financial support of Lane Grigsby.
Two years later, Grigsby spent approximately $320,000 to support Cassidy over Cazayoux, including a pair of maximum donations the Cazayoux campaign claimed were illegal. (Cassidy argued that the second donation was allowable because he used the money to repay campaign debt).
All told, Grigsby funded nearly half of Jackson’s campaign, and in the end, his gambit paid off: Bill Cassidy defeated Don Cazayoux, 48-40. Jackson took 12% with slightly more than 36,000 votes. If Jackson hadn’t been in the race, Don Cazayoux would have almost certainly won a full term in office.
Last year, Grigsby became the subject of intense criticism after it was revealed he attempted to rig an election for the Louisiana state Senate by pledging future financial support for one of the candidates if he dropped out of the contest. At the time, the race appeared to be headed toward a three-person runoff after a preliminary recount showed two Republicans had received the same exact number of votes in the primary.
“I am a kingmaker,” he defiantly boasted to a reporter with the Baton Rouge Business Report. “I talk from the throne.”
It’s unclear what Bill Cassidy and Michael Jackson spoke about that afternoon, but it’s obvious that both men were happy the how things turned out.
Unholy alliances are not uncommon in Louisiana politics, but the way in which Cassidy secured a seat in Congress—with his political “kingmaker” brazenly bankrolling a third-party spoiler who could be counted on to split Black voters away from the Democratic incumbent—is especially sleazy and cynical, even for Louisiana.