Jeff Landry holds up a “Drilling = Jobs” sign during President Obama’s speech on the economy in front of a joint session of Congress in September of 2011.

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I’M WORSE AT WHAT I DO BEST

When Jeff Landry made his first bid for Congress in 2010, his opponent in the Republican primary was an actual general, former Louisiana Speaker of the House Maj. Gen. Hunt Downer, a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army and the state National Guard. Remember, Landry had also served in the National Guard. He joined when he was a high school student, took a year off of college when he was called up for active duty, and was discharged in 1998.

The race between the two men was unusually nasty, even for Louisiana. The 39-year-old Landry, who, at that point, had been active in local Republican politics for more than a decade and had recently lost a bruising campaign for the state senate, fashioned himself as a Tea Party upstart and painted Downer, who like nearly every Republican from South Louisiana (including Landry’s mentors Charles Fuselier and Craig Romero), had previously been a registered Democrat, as a radical liberal.

During the campaign, Landry caught criticism for claiming to be a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. It was technically true, but it had the effect of leaving many, including some in the media, with the mistaken impression that he had served overseas. In fact, he was stationed in Ft. Hood, Texas, reportedly working as a driver for a general.

Landry refused to acknowledge the obvious rhetorical puffery. “The only reason I didn’t go (to the Persian Gulf) is because the war ended so quickly,” he said. “I certainly never tried not to go.” 

But Landry wasn’t content to leave it at that, opting to borrow a page out of Karl Rove’s playbook: Attack your opponent’s strength.

Hunt Downer, he said, had “us[ed] political connections and rank to get promotions while the rest of us sweated it out in Fort Hood.” He falsely claimed Downer had only spent 24 hours in Saudi Arabia (he was there for 17 days) and mocked one of his medals, the Kuwait Liberation Medal, as a “political prize.”

“He is a disgrace to the uniform,” Landry said of the man who studied at the U.S. Army War College and had received “more than 30 other military awards, including the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Global War on Terrorism Medal,” according to Jeremy Alford of LaPolitics.

“I spent 35 years in public service and served with honor and integrity,” Downer said. “Mr. Landry spent his entire campaign trying to destroy that. If you look at his background, it further calls to question his integrity.”

Hunt Downer’s campaign criticized Landry for overstating his military record and questioned the arrest of one of his roommates, more than a decade ago, for possession of cocaine. At the time, both Landry and his roommate worked as deputies in the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Department. When investigators noticed 100 grams of cocaine was missing from evidence, they eventually followed the trail to the home the two men shared. Landry’s roommate concealed the contraband underneath the floorboards. Landry was never considered a suspect, and years later, the former roommate defended Landry when the attacks resurfaced in his 2015 campaign for attorney general, claiming Landry helped save his life by ensuring he received treatment for addiction.

“A common thread emerges from looking at all the races Landry has been involved with: They’ve all turned negative, and they’ve all been personal,” noted the Independent Weekly in an October 2010 cover story about Landry titled “Seeing Red.”

The attacks against Downer worked. Landry clobbered him on Election Day, winning 65% of the vote and then coasting to victory in the general election a month later over Democrat Ravi Sangisetty. Downer carried only one of the district’s 13 parishes, his native Terrebonne Parish.

Unfortunately, Landry’s victory only seemed to reinforce his belief in a kind of scorched earth and viciously partisan style of politics, a style he would carry with him to Capitol Hill.

Landry’s two years in Congress were otherwise unremarkable except for the doltish and seemingly racist disrespect he exhibited toward President Barack Obama. He’s perhaps most remembered for his decision to hold up a sign that read “Drilling = Jobs” during Obama’s address on the economy to a joint session of Congress. It wasn’t just churlish; it was also intended to reinforce a bogus claim that became central to Landry’s political identity: That the Obama administration had effectively eliminated tens of thousands of jobs when it placed a temporary moratorium on the issuance of new deepwater drilling permits in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. But while the nation may remember Landry’s lack of decorum as his most defining action as a member of Congress, political observers in Louisiana were even more repulsed by his decision to snub an invitation to the White House, a decision that he believed had made him appear to be principled but actually made him appear small and crude, a man incapable of demonstrating the dignity and civility that had been expected by voters who entrusted him to be their representative in Congress.

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In 2012, as a result of reapportionment, his district was redrawn and consolidated with the district held by Charles Boustany, a moderate Republican and physician from one of the region’s most prominent political families; his first cousin is Vicki Kennedy, the widow of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. The newly-drawn district gave Boustany a distinct advantage, but although he finished 15 points ahead in the jungle primary, Boustany was still five points short of an outright win, which meant the two incumbents would face one another in a runoff.

Boustany would hang onto the seat. It wasn’t even close.

But despite his loss, no one believed Landry was finished with political life, even if he had proven that he wasn’t quite ready for prime time. After all, he’d lost before, in 2007, in his bid for Romero’s seat in the Louisiana state Senate. No, the question wasn’t whether or not he’d run again; it was about what he’d run for.

Truth be told, despite his job title, Landry’s never really had to practice law. He may be the least experienced person to hold the position of attorney general in contemporary Louisiana history. When he auditioned for the job in 2015, the only law firm that had employed him as an attorney donated to his opponent. His campaign website describes his courtroom experience succinctly: “He has argued cases in front of judges in South Louisiana.” There are hundreds, if not thousands, of convicted felons who could make the same claim.

His credentials weren’t exactly confidence-inspiring, but the decision to run for attorney general had nothing to do with a genuine desire to practice law; it was because it was the race that offered him the best chances of winning.

Ironically, Landry’s victory in that race is attributable to his decision to broker a deal with supporters of John Bel Edwards. On the eve of the runoff election, political operatives in Orleans Parish littered the neutral ground with signs that encouraged voters to support Edwards for governor and Landry for attorney general. In fact, one of those operatives is currently suing Landry for $250,000, alleging that Landry failed to pay him for the work he agreed to perform for his 2015 campaign. It’s also worth noting that after securing a spot in the runoff against incumbent Buddy Caldwell, Landry somehow earned the endorsement of third-place finisher, Geri Baloney, an African American Democrat from Garyville, Louisiana. Shortly after taking office, Landry hired Baloney’s daughter, a woman who, despite previously pleading guilty to three felony counts of fraud, had been assigned by Landry to his office’s fraud division. (In 2019, Landry easily won re-election against a largely unknown opponent who spent less than $5,000 on his campaign).

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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.