The sun sets over Lake Martin in Louisiana’s St. Martin Parish. Source: Shuttterstock.

II.

FROM BEAUSOLEIL TO THE MOON

As history has shown us, if you peel back the layers of the pastoral and the genteel in the American South, you sometimes find shameful, haunting reminders of the past. Murders, secrets, lies. All buried in a world gone by. As I would learn, St. Martinville is a whole different world.”
— Gilbert King, The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South
A cypress tree drips with Spanish moss in Lake Martin in Louisiana’s St. Martin Parish. Credit: Shutterstock.

FOUR

IT’S FUN TO LOSE AND TO PRETEND

Jeffery Martin Landry is a native son of St. Martinville, le petit Paris, a small town on the banks of Bayou Teche in between Breaux Bridge and New Iberia, the Mecca of Acadiana and the site of the Evangeline Oak, where the eponymous heroine of Longfellow’s classic poem awaits the return of her lover Gabriel.

Like most people who were born and raised along the shores of Bayou Teche, Landry speaks with a distinctly Cajun dialect: Emphasis is placed on the second or third syllable; vowels are often nasal-sounding; consonants like “h” at the beginning of a word or “r” at the end of one are not pronounced at all.

When the opportunity presents itself, especially on the campaign trail, he will weave in a few conversational phrases in French. Comment ça se plume? Several years ago, the American Community Survey estimated that 27.4% of St. Martin Parish residents speak French, the highest proportion of any county (in Louisiana, they’re parishes) in the nation.

Through his maternal grandmother Rhena, Landry is a descendant of François Brossard (now spelled “Broussard”), the Genghis Khan and progenitor of the most prolific of all Cajun families, father of the legendary brothers Joseph and Alexandre Brossard dit Beausoleil, the Great Sun, leaders of the Acadian people during the Grand Dérangement, resistance fighters who had battled to protect their homeland from British occupation and ultimately sailed into exile to their new home, deep within the swamps of South Louisiana. Both brothers were called by the name Beausoleil in their time, but history would stick the name with the younger brother Joseph; Landry’s family descends from Alexandre’s branch. (Incidentally, this makes Landry a sixth cousin of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter. Recently, Shane Guidry, a GOP mega-donor and Landry’s most generous supporter, claimed, rather absurdly, that Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z offered him $16 million for his chateau-du-nouveau-riche in Metairie).

Today, Landry lives in the town of Broussard, a suburb of Lafayette, purchasing a “plantation-inspired home” (a compound, really) inside of the gated community of Vintage Park— a neighborhood featuring streets with names like Opus One Drive, Reidel Private Road, Petrus Drive— for $1.325 million in 2013 (the sixth most expensive home sale that year in Acadiana).

Through his maternal grandfather, Marcel “Blackie” Bienvenu, Landry belongs to one of Louisiana’s most notable families of newspapermen, the only to ever have three of its members serve as president of the Louisiana Press Association. His great-uncle Ralph Bienvenu ran the the paper in Abbeville, the Meridional; another great-uncle, Louis Bienvenu, “Uncle Shorty” to his family, worked as a part-time correspondent for the Times-Picayune and the Beaumont Enterprise. And his grandfather Blackie published his hometown newspaper, St. Martinville’s Teche News, which was founded in 1886 by Landry’s maternal great-granduncle, Albert, and Albert’s younger brother—Landry’s maternal great-grandfather— Laizaire Bienvenu. Then known as The Weekly Messenger, the Bienvenu brothers affixed the paper’s motto at the bottom of its masthead: “Justice to All.”

Much of the future attorney general’s childhood was chronicled in the editorial pages of Teche News by his doting grandfather: Christmas presents and hunting trips, the time he finished in third place at the Children’s Carnival “Spirits of ’76” costume contest or when he served as a page in the royal court of the local Rotary Club’s Mardi Gras Ball. Occasionally, Blackie would publish short columns about the latest news from the local elementary school under the byline “Jeff Landry, Student Reporter.” By the time he turned nine, his name had appeared on at least 25 different occasions in the pages of his grandfather’s paper.

During his 2010 campaign for Congress, every time he was handed a microphone, he made sure to mention that his first job after high school had been working in the sugarcane fields of St. Martin Parish; it’s included in his biographies on both his PAC and his campaign websites. One of four children, his family was decidedly middle-class; his mother Edna was a school teacher, and his father Al worked as the architect and buildings coordinator for the local Catholic diocese.

While the St. Martinville of Landry’s childhood may have been idyllic for him and although the town of around 7,000 people has promoted a romanticized retelling of its past, the full story of St. Martinville is one of racial terror, as chronicled by Gilbert King in his book The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South.

“The Cajuns have a word for it,” King writes of St. Martinville. “Corrompre. Corrupt. ‘It was a dirty town,’ I’d been told.”

In truth, the slogan “Justice to All” didn’t apply to the town’s Black residents. It still doesn’t. Although in recent years the politics of Acadiana have plunged into a deep red abyss, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the region was decidedly more liberal.

Not St. Martin Parish, though. Sure, everyone may have been registered Democrats, but don’t let that fool you.

When he was 31, Landry married Sharon LeBlanc, daughter of Tommy LeBlanc, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur and founder of Service Tool Company, the nation’s largest distributor of hand tools. The LeBlancs also own Regal Developers and Harrier Enterprises, a real estate holding company that, in the past, has purchased tax delinquent homes in Orleans Parish at auction, a controversial practice many believe to be particularly predatory in cities like New Orleans. “Frequently, the properties at auction are the homes of elderly African Americans that, after their deaths, are passed down to their elderly children, many of whom simply do not have the financial wherewithal to settle the tax debt,” explained an Orleans Parish lawyer who works on cases involving tax auction disputes.

The LeBlancs would help underwrite their son-in-law’s start in politics and subsidize his livelihood for more than a decade, according to campaign finance and personal financial disclosure documents filed by Landry.

Incidentally, the Landry, LeBlanc, and Broussard families have been marrying into each other since at least the mid-18th century, and the three surnames are among the most common in Louisiana’s Cajun Country.

According to his 2010 financial disclosure report, which covers the year during which he campaigned for Congress, Landry arrived on Capitol Hill saddled with between $15,000 to $50,000 in credit card debt, which he had carried since 1999, and between $80,000 to $200,000 in student loan debt.

That year, he reported that his spouse, who he listed as a “housewife,” earned between $100,001 to $1,000,000 from her father’s company. As for the newly-elected congressman? He claimed to have earned a grand total of $12,000, from the consulting company he later used to apply for a trademark that conflated the celebration of Jesus’ birth with a politician who promised to ban Muslims and make Mexico pay for a border wall.

Notably, in Landry’s long-winded response to The Advocate‘s report about his company’s alleged exploitation of a federal visa program, he claims that his financial disclosure reports date back to 2011. In fact, while this report may have been filed in 2011, it actually covers his earnings in 2010.

U.S. Rep. Jeffrey Martin Landry Personal Financial Disclosure 2010. Filed May 2011. Later in the document, Landry lists income from Service Tool Co. as between $100,001-$1,000,000.

There’s no question Landry’s station in life was dramatically improved after becoming Sharon LeBlanc’s husband and Tommy LeBlanc’s son-in-law, but it’s worth recalling who Landry’s longtime friend identified as his three most important political mentors and how they, more than anyone else, helped to shape his public persona.

Charles Fuselier, the longtime sheriff of St. Martin Parish and a family friend of Landry’s parents, was the first to take an interest in mentoring the young Landry. After graduating from St. Martinville High School in 1988, Landry had been an intermittent college student; it’d take him 11 years before he earned his degree from University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). Partly, this is because he’d signed up for the National Guard when he was 17 and spent much of 1990 and 1991 away in Texas on active duty, but it’s also because Landry enrolled as a part-time student while working as a law enforcement officer, first as a policeman in the tiny village of Parks and then as a deputy under Sheriff Fuselier.

Fuselier, who would later abruptly resign from office in the midst of a federal investigation into allegations of civil rights abuses, gave Landry an unusual and arguably unethical assignment. Hoping to give the local state senator, Craig Romero of Iberville Parish, a boost among voters in St. Martin Parish during his reelection campaign, Fuselier told his young deputy to drive over to the state senator’s home.

“The funniest thing that happened in my political life was when Jeff knocked on my door,” Romero recalled to The Daily Iberian in 2018. “I go to the door and I see a St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s car in my driveway in Iberia Parish and there is a uniformed deputy. He said, ‘Mr. Romero, I am Jeff Landry and the sheriff told me to come here and take you around St. Martin Parish.’ I said, ‘I tell you what Mr. Landry. You go back home and put some street clothes and find an unmarked police car and we will go ride then.'”

Prior to enrolling in law school, Landry spent a year working for the St. Martin Parish Economic Development Authority. During his tenure, parish and state officials gave millions of tax incentives and abatements to convince Baker Hughes to build a new regional headquarters on the edge of the border between St. Martin and Lafayette Parishes. The project became mired in a dispute with the Town of Broussard, which paid to extend water and sewerage lines to the property.

If Fuselier, Romero, or Landry ever had concerns that the use of public funds in support of a politician’s reelection may have violated state campaign finance and ethics laws, they never expressed them in public.

During his final year of college, Landry was hired as the Executive Director of the newly-created St. Martin Parish Economic Development Authority. At the same time, he continued to serve as an aide to state Sen. Romero, who would become perhaps his most significant political mentor. The two worked together to lure the oil and gas conglomerate Baker Hughes to build its new regional headquarters in St. Martin Parish by cobbling together millions of dollars in tax incentives and abatements. Shortly after the deal was finalized, Landry, then in his late twenties, announced he was resigning from his taxpayer-funded job to pursue work in the private sector. Around the same time, he enrolled in Southern University Law Center’s part-time program.

He was 33 when he graduated from law school in 2004*, after transferring into Loyola Law in New Orleans. By then, though, he’d decided he wasn’t interested in actually practicing law. He only took the bar examination, he’d later recall, because of his wife’s insistence.

That said, even after he was admitted to the Louisiana Bar, Landry didn’t seem to be exactly enthusiastic about lawyering for a living.

He would later claim that he worked for one of the state’s “top ten law firms” from 2005 to 2015, both before and after his term in Congress, but according to financial disclosure reports filed with the Clerk of Congress in 2010, 2011, and 2012 and with the Louisiana Ethics Administration in 2015, Landry claimed no affiliation or income from the firm, later identified as Galloway, Johnson, Tompkins, Burr, and Smith. Indeed, there appears to be only one contemporaneous reference to Landry’s work with Galloway: Minutes from a meeting of the St. Mary Parish Police Jury in which Landry and another Galloway attorney appeared as representatives of the firm when it competed for a professional services contract.

He seemed far more interested in politics. In 2002 and then again in 2004, he managed Romero’s two unsuccessful campaigns for Congress, and when term limits prevented Romero from running again for the state senate in 2007, Landry, his heir apparent, ran for the seat himself.

And despite being hobbled by rumors involving Romero’s work as an insurance agent, he almost won.

Next page: I’M WORSE AT WHAT I DO BEST.

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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.