Inheriting the Wind
For several years in a row, the best annual show of the Louisiana legislative session was when the state Senate Education Committee performed its hilarious routine on the theory of evolution. Clips from those meetings have been viewed online more times than anything else that’s occurred inside the House that Huey Built. This includes Hurricane Chris’ 2009 live performance of “Halle Berry (She’s Fine),” the Shreveport rapper’s crudely misogynistic tribute to the Academy Award-winning actress, from the floor of the House chambers after his aunt, former state Rep. Barbara Norton, took a point of personal privilege and then handed him the mic.
Hurricane Chris, a.k.a. Christopher Jerron Dooley, was back in the news recently. He’s currently awaiting trial after being indicted for second-degree murder.
The business of the legislature usually doesn’t make for compelling, must-see TV, so breakaway stars and viral videos are rare.
The annual discussion about evolution involved one of two proposals. On at least two occasions, state Sen. Dan Claitor, a moderate Republican from Baton Rouge, tried to convince his colleagues to finally repeal—officially— the so-called “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act,” a law enacted in 1981 during the administration of Republican Gov. Dave Treen and struck down as unconstitutional six years later by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Edwards v. Aguillard. But nearly three decades after the decision, Claitor’s fellow Republicans were still unwilling to acknowledge the fact that the Balanced Treatment Act was, in fact, dead-letter law. As the Court reminded Louisiana in 1987, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment “forbids the enactment of any law ‘respecting an establishment of religion.'”
More ambitiously, state Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson, a liberal Democrat from New Orleans, made multiple attempts to repeal a more recent law, the Orwellian-titled “Louisiana Science Education Act,” that allows for the teaching of new earth creationism (rebranded as “intelligent design”) in the science classroom. The committee hearings on Carter-Peterson’s bills were especially ripe with material.
One year, former state Sen. Elbert Guillory explained his support for the law by sharing a bizarre story about receiving a medical diagnosis from a “half-naked” witch doctor he met while traveling abroad. His “logic,” if you can even call it that, was that when students are taught to distinguish between actual science and religious mythology— witchcraft, for example—they are less likely to trust healthcare advice from a guy in a loincloth throwing animal bones on the ground. And that would be such a shame, Guillory claimed, because it’s a really fun experience.
Of course, Guillory, the first and only Black Republican to serve in the legislature since Reconstruction, was already well-known for his eccentricities and comedic performances, including a memorable appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, during which he promoted the sport of “chicken boxing” in response to Louisiana becoming the final state in the nation to ban cockfighting.
But the real star of the education committee’s adaptation of Inherit the Wind was former state Sen. Mike Walsworth, a veteran Republican legislator from West Monroe.
In 2012, while Darlene Reaves, a high school science teacher from St. Francisville, testified about the importance of teaching science in science class, Walsworth, apparently believing that he had a “gotcha” question, asked her whether there were classroom experiments that could be conducted in support of evolution. As a matter of fact, Reaves told him, there’s an experiment involving the observation of E. coli bacteria.
After freezing the bacteria in different intervals, Reaves explained, “you can take all of them over time and compare them. You can see how the E. coli have changed over time and how they’ve evolved.”
“They evolved into a person?” Walsworth deadpanned.
One of the main reasons the committee’s discussions about evolution and creationism made for great theater was because of how completely outmatched the law’s defenders were by its opponents, led by then-17-year-old Zack Kopplin. As a part of his senior project at Baton Rouge Magnet, Kopplin launched a campaign to repeal the law, collecting endorsements from over 80 Nobel laureate scientists, more Nobel Prize winners than any other campaign has amassed since the first medals were awarded in 1901. Kopplin, by the way, is also responsible for making Mike Walsworth into a viral video star. Nearly a year after the committee meeting, he uploaded a clip of the state senator’s exchange with Darlene Reaves onto YouTube. It quickly racked up more than a half of a million views.
By then, the amiable but frequently befuddled Walsworth had been elevated to committee chairman. He may have been unconvinced by the evidence of evolution, but proof of the Peter Principle was indisputable.
In this year’s legislative session, which convened on April 12 and is set to adjourn “no later than 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 10, 2021,” although the routine on evolution is no longer in rotation, there’s no shortage of opportunities for legislators interested in becoming the star of a humiliating viral video.
Today, while the rest of the country continues to take inventory of the collateral damage inflicted by a former president who made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims during his four years in office and who unapologetically operated in the parallel dystopia of “alternative facts,” those of us in Louisiana have long been accustomed to a political landscape dominated by denialism and dominionism.
Bobby Jindal’s Political Extinction
Bobby Jindal, the fast-talking former wunderkind who spent his undergraduate years performing unsanctioned exorcisms and studying biology at Brown University, ultimately deserves blame for the creationism law that garnered international ridicule, earned the opprobrium of the entire scientific community, and gave far-right Christian dominionists a green light to violate the Establishment Clause and commit educational malpractice against an entire generation of public school students.
Fortunately, the LSEA has since been removed from state curricula guidelines, and although there have been isolated reports about the teaching of creationism (which, in and of itself, is perfectly fine, provided it’s not taught as science), Louisiana public school science teachers respected their students far more than the right-wing grifters who sold the Book of Genesis for campaign cash.
Following Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney, the same Bobby Jindal had some tough words for his fellow Republicans: “We must stop looking backward,” he said in January 2013, during his keynote address at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting. “Nostalgia about the good old days is heart-warming, but the battle of ideas must be waged in the future.” To be sure, there wasn’t anything especially innovative about Jindal’s proposed arsenal for the back to the future brawl, just the typical tropes about states being the laboratories of democracy and a handful of edits he recommended making to the standard talking points (“We must not become the party of austerity. We must be the party of growth”).
He also included at least one serving of his signature dish, whitewashed word salad dressed with a confusing condemnation of any politics that recognizes racial identity. “We must reject the notion that demography is destiny, the pathetic and simplistic notion that skin pigmentation dictates voter behavior,” Jindal declared. Translation: We must accept the fact that demography is destiny and do a better job of appealing to minorities and younger voters.
Jindal’s vision of a post-racial America skips the chapters on truth and reconciliation and jumps directly to absolution. But this opens up an entirely new can of worms, and as I learned a few years ago, sometimes, a picture of a portrait is worth a thousand words.
More than anything else, Jindal’s speech to the RNC was a repudiation of Mitt Romney, who, in Jindal’s estimation, lost the 2012 presidential election by running as a wealthy elitist willing to ignore “47%” of voters.
But Jindal’s most memorable line wasn’t directed toward Romney. It was instead intended as a coded criticism of candidates like Todd Akin, the one-term, virulently anti-abortion Missouri congressman who self-sabotaged his campaign for the Senate in a single sentence. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” Akin said, arguing that victims of “legitimate rape” are less likely to get pregnant.
“We must stop being the ‘stupid party,'” Jindal urged in response.
During his final year as Louisiana governor, after announcing a campaign for the White House in a bizarre digital ad that featured secretly-recorded footage of him revealing his plans to his three kids, who were far more interested in the turtle they spotted in the backyard of the Governor’s Mansion, the historically unpopular Jindal packed up and moved to Iowa. It ended up being a perfect metaphor for his lackluster campaign: No one was listening to Bobby Jindal.
Had he not spent every last dime on a quixotic quest to recruit an army of home-school activists in Iowa, the self-styled “evangelical Catholic” may have been able to gain traction with his blistering critique of the Stupid Party’s new frontrunner.
“Donald Trump is an unstable narcissist,” Jindal said, accurately. “You know why he hasn’t read the Bible? Because he’s not in it.”
But Bobby Jindal’s campaign fizzled out before the Iowa caucuses, and the Stupid Party nominated a wealthy, out-of-touch elitist with a habit of making outrageously offensive and racist remarks and who, only a few years before, had been recorded boasting that “when you’re a star,” women will “let you” sexually assault them. “You can do anything,” he said. “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Despite warning Republican primary voters that Donald Trump was uniquely unqualified for the presidency, Jindal voted for him. It was a decision that neatly encapsulates the cautionary tale of the political prodigy who debuted in Louisiana as a 24-year-old boy wonder promising bold disruptions as he led the state’s healthcare and education systems into the new millennium. Indeed, Jindal’s mere presence—the Indian-American son of immigrants—had once been heralded as a powerful message about the future of a party that only four years before his arrival had been led by David Duke.
Jindal owes his extraordinary rise in Louisiana politics to the unrealized promise he once represented, but make no mistake: his eventual downfall and his subsequent irrelevance were entirely of his own making. Despite his indignant bluster about the failures of the Republican Party, Jindal didn’t just fail to confront the most retrograde and divisive aspects of radical right, he empowered them.
The Stupid Party became the scaffolding that surrounded the peculiar brand of “conservatism” he constructed.
More than five years after Jindal’s departure from office, his legacy remains in tatters, and his political brand continues to be toxic, even among Republicans. Last year, during the runoff campaign for the Fifth Congressional District between Republican state Rep. Lance Harris and the eventual victor, Republican Luke Letlow (who sadly lost his life to Covid-19 before being sworn into office), Harris attacked Letlow for, among other things, previously working for Bobby Jindal.
Obviously, the attack didn’t work, but the fact that it was made at all—particularly by a politician who served as chair of the Republican legislative caucus during Jindal’s second term—is remarkable nonetheless. It also highlights a disconnect over accountability that persists as the most important animating force in state politics: The same white Republicans who enabled and promoted and, in many ways, defined Jindal’s failures as governor have not only avoided scrutiny, they’ve nurtured an even more virulent and extreme brand of factionalism—one that was doubtlessly accelerated by the presidency of Donald Trump— that now possesses an even tighter grip on the state legislature.
The idiocy of creationists may appear quaint in comparison to the dangers posed by the current crop of anti-vaxxer covid and climate science deniers who continue to embrace the seditious Big Lie that resulted in the violent insurrection on Jan. 6 and who want to impose sanctions against the teaching of critical race theory, restrict and constrain the right to vote, prohibit social media companies from “discriminating” against those peddling baseless conspiracy theories or white supremacist, anti-Semitic political propaganda, and mandate the singing of the National Anthem at all sporting events, from the local Under-7 youth soccer league to the televised spectacle of Monday Night Football. This is what passes for patriotism in today’s Louisiana Republican Party.
But to understand how we have arrived at this particularly perilous moment, it’s important to distinguish between the truth about the origins of the Louisiana Republican Party and the creation myth that is told on the campaign trail.
And the Creation Myth of the Louisiana Republican Party
In Louisiana, the Grand Old Party is neither especially grand nor particularly old. While it’s understandable that Louisiana Republicans occasionally attempt to trace their party’s provenance back to Honest Abe, the Party of Lincoln left Louisiana around the same time President Rutherford B. Hayes recalled federal troops from the state, officially signaling the end of Reconstruction. April 24, 1877, to be precise.
Aside from the name, today’s Louisiana Republican Party doesn’t have much in common with the party that championed civil rights and promoted newly-emancipated slaves into positions of prominence.
For most of the 20th century, Louisiana was a one-party state. “From 1900 to the 1950s the Louisiana Republicans did not offer even token opposition to the entrenched Democrats,” Philip Uzee, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Nicholls State University, wrote in his 1971 essay “The Beginnings of the Louisiana Republican Party.” Uzee had reason to believe that after decades of irrelevance, the party was poised for a comeback. In 1971, out of the hundreds of elected offices in Louisiana, he noted, a total of 15 were occupied by a registered Republican, a sign he considered promising.
The Louisiana Republican Party is still a relatively new phenomenon, whereas the iteration that operated in Louisiana after the Civil War was a relatively brief phenomenon. “The Republicans were in power for eight years,” Uzee wrote. “The stormy era was characterized by some progress in education and civil and political rights for Negroes, some economic rehabilitation for the state as well as fraud, corruption and violence. The party’s control of Louisiana was buttressed by the favor of the Grant administration and the presence of federal troops. When these essential props were removed there followed the events of April 24, 1877, and the collapse of the Republican regime.”
Uzee’s instincts would prove to be prescient. In 1972, only months after losing his campaign for Louisiana governor to then-Congressman Edwin Edwards, Dave Treen, a lawyer from suburban New Orleans who had made three unsuccessful bids for Congress in 1962, 1964, and 1968, became the state’s first Republican elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since Reconstruction, winning the seat for the Third District by defeating Democrat Louis Watkins, Jr., 54% to 46%.
Two years later, Treen breezed into another term, along with Republican Henson Moore, whose narrow, 14-vote win over Democrat Jeff LaCaze had to be held a second time, thanks to malfunctioning equipment. The rematch wasn’t even close. Moore won the seat for the Sixth Congressional District by slightly more than 10,000 votes, and a couple of years after that, Republican Bob Livingston beat Democrat Ron Faucheux in the state’s First Congressional District. Within the span of only five years, Louisiana’s federal delegation had tripled its Republican membership. By the end of the decade and with Edwin Edwards constitutionally prohibited from running for a third conservative term, Congressman Treen’s eyes were once again on the state’s biggest prize.
The 1979 Louisiana gubernatorial election was a classic, and it’s a story worth telling. It’s also a seminal moment in the history of the Louisiana Republican Party that helps to explain some of the issues it would use and the divisions it would exploit in becoming a competitive, credible political institution.
Nine candidates qualified in total, but because three of them were either obscure or perennial candidates, it was, for all intents and purposes, a six-person race, featuring Sonny Mouton, president pro-tem of the state Senate; Speaker of the state House Bubba Henry; Louis Lambert, chairman of the state’s powerful Public Service Commission; the 37-year-old Secretary of State, Paul Hardy; the outgoing Lieutenant Governor, Jimmy Fitzmorris, and the Republican congressman, Dave Treen.
The first and arguably the most important thing to understand about the 1979 election is that it was only the second gubernatorial contest under the state’s now-legendary jungle primary system and the first to be decided in a runoff. For those unfamiliar, the jungle primary (or majority-vote primary) requires that all candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, compete against one another; political parties in Louisiana do not select nominees in separate elections. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, then the first and second place finishers face one another in a runoff.
In 1975, during the first of his four terms in office, Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards enacted the new system, believing that it was not only more elegant and democratic (lower case d), but also that it would only further marginalize candidates who belonged to the already marginal and severely outnumbered Republican Party. As an added benefit, the system promised to save the state money, because Democrats (upper case D) were so dominant that general elections rarely, if ever, were actually competitive.
The 1979 race featured another x-factor, because that year, in an attempt to catch the reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello engaging in some good ol’ fashioned political corruption, two FBI agents and an informant named Joseph Hauser, a recently convicted insurance fraudster, flew down to Louisiana and pretended to be big-shot insurance brokers who wanted to partner with Marcello on a plan they claimed would save the state a ton of money. With Edwards on his way out, the FBI instead began sending sizable campaign donations to the men running to take his place, hoping that at least one of them would agree to sign a portion of the state’s insurance business over to them as a gesture of their gratitude.
Somehow, they’d gotten Charles Roemer, the outgoing Commissioner of Administration, father of future Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, and campaign treasurer for Sonny Mouton, stupidly wrapped into their scheme. Roemer wouldn’t make any commitments, but he was happy to accept the $25,000 donation to the Mouton campaign, seemingly unbeknownst to the candidate and, at least initially, nowhere to be found on his campaign finance reports. Roemer ended up spending time in jail for his role in the conspiracy. Louis Lambert outsmarted the agents; their contribution to his campaign was actually for the purchase of tickets, keeping him in compliance with financial disclosure requirements and ensuring that Uncle Sam knew he had received something of value in consideration for the cash. And while they never pursued any charges against him, the FBI was breathing down Jimmy Fitzmorris’ neck for months.
At the time, the 1979 Louisiana gubernatorial election was the most expensive non-presidential contest in American history, “a $20 million extravaganza that is keeping advertisements for car dealers and deodorants off the television stations,” the New York Times reported. Fittingly, the Federal Bureau of Investigations was one of the year’s most generous campaign donors.
Perhaps it’s not too surprising that the results of the Oct. 27 jungle primary were challenged in court and plagued by a cloud of suspicion. There was never much doubt over whether Dave Treen would survive the first round; polls showed he was “unquestionably” the frontrunner. The real battle, as is often the case in Louisiana, was for second place.
Initially, it appeared that Lt. Gov. Fitzmorris, who had been polling in a “strong second” to Treen and who boasted the endorsement of Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, New Orleans’ first Black mayor, had survived the jungle, but three days after polls closed, “major changes in voting returns” showed that Lambert had captured the second place spot, besting Fitzmorris by a margin of only 2,296 votes.
Things quickly got even uglier. Fitzmorris filed suit, citing “widespread allegations of election irregularities, including vote buying, voting machine manipulation and polling commissioners entering voting machines illegally with voters.” Machines in at least three parishes had not been sealed prior to the official count, as required by law, and in a sworn affidavit, one witness claimed that there were 1,670 more votes in the governor’s race in East Baton Rouge Parish than there were voters who signed the precinct books on Election Day. But Fitzmorris’ lawsuit was quickly dismissed, largely due to the state Election Code’s requirement that a challenge be filed within five days of an election and prohibiting the introduction of any evidence not specifically alleged in the written pleadings.
Lambert failed to receive the endorsements of any of his Democratic primary opponents. In fact, Fitzmorris and the three other leading Democrats would publicly announce their support for Treen, who had already made his commitment to personal integrity and honesty the centerpiece of his campaign. Shortly thereafter, the Louisiana Democratic Party narrowly passed resolutions to censure both state Sen. Sonny Mouton and state Rep. Bubba Henry.
“To hell with them all,” Mouton said in response. “I’ve spent half my life being a staunch Democrat. And those sons-of-bitches censured me? I’ll put Treen’s integrity and credibility over Lambert’s any day of the week. It’s like telling me I have to endorse Lucifer over God because Lucifer’s a Democrat.”
(Lambert suspected that his four fellow Democrats who endorsed Dave Treen had each been promised something in return, an allegation that Treen denied at the time. But once in office, Treen found jobs for all four men in his administration. Henry was named Commissioner of Administration, the second-most powerful position in state government. Mouton became Treen’s Executive Counsel. Hardy was his Secretary of Transportation, and Fitzmorris was given the title of Special Assistant for Industrial Development).
Even though all of the stars seemed to be aligning for Dave Treen, his victory was by no means a foregone conclusion. In the days leading up to the election, his campaign prepared themselves and the public for the very real possibility of a contested election, suggesting that if Lambert were to win, it would probably be the result of some sort of mischief or manipulation. Ultimately though, Treen prevailed in the Dec. 8 runoff by fewer than 10,000 votes, becoming the state’s first Republican governor in 102 years.
There had been some speculation that Treen, once in office, would move to dismantle the jungle primary, but the election had persuaded him against messing with his success. Because Lambert faced stiff opposition from other Democrats—opposition that only grew after he made the runoff— he could not claim to be his party’s de facto nominee, whereas Treen, as the sole Republican in the race, could. Because of the jungle primary, Republicans, as long as they were disciplined and well-organized, could use the fact that they were vastly outnumbered to their advantage.
For this reason, Edwin Edwards is sometimes facetiously referred to as “the father of the Louisiana Republican Party.”
But make no mistake: Things didn’t change overnight, and it’d take awhile before Republicans were convinced the jungle primary was a good thing. Four years after Treen’s historic victory, Edwin Edwards would return to the Governor’s Mansion, beating Treen (for the second time) in a landslide, and Democrats continued to dominate Louisiana for the next quarter century. It would take another lawyer from Metairie named Dave to usher in the era of Republican dominance.
As a state representative, David Vitter championed the passage of a law creating legislative term limits, which promised to deprive Democrats across the state the advantage of incumbency. For Democrats who weren’t at risk due to term limits, particularly those representing competitive districts, Vitter found another way to threaten their political futures, launching a new organization, the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, to pressure members to either switch parties or take their chances against a well-funded Republican opponent. The one-two punch of term limits and the LCRM delivered the final devastating blow.
In 2004, 32 years after Dave Treen became the state’s first Republican elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since Reconstruction, Louisiana finally elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate. His name? David Bruce Vitter.
The “new” Louisiana Republican Party, however, wasn’t born in 1972 or 1979 or even 2004; it was born on May 17, 1954, the day the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregation of public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional, thereby overturning more than a half of a century of precedent established in Plessy v. Ferguson.
To be sure, there are legitimate arguments that the party was actually born in the aftermath of the 1948 Democratic National Convention, which featured an impassioned speech on civil rights by an LSU graduate named Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr., prompting delegates from Alabama and Mississippi to walk out in protest. 1948 was also the year President Truman ordered the integration of the military, and the year that Strom Thurmond, the right-wing, white supremacist Democratic governor of South Carolina, would challenge Truman’s reelection from a new “segregationist” political party, the States’ Rights Democratic Party, supporters of which became better known as Dixiecrats. Thurmond carried four states: South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Newspaper reports of Dewey’s win over Truman were greatly exaggerated.
Others claim July 2, 1964, the day President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and, upon doing so, reportedly quipped, “There goes the South for a generation.” And yes, it is also true that Charlie and Virginia deGravelles, the husband/wife duo who are sometimes credited as being the “founders of the modern Louisiana Republican Party,” joined the GOP in 1941, becoming the first two white Republicans registered in Lafayette Parish. But LBJ was merely acknowledging a foregone conclusion. (1964 was also the year that U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party for good and became a Republican). And while the deGravelles, who were well-respected organizational leaders, were indeed two of the first members of a “modern” Louisiana Republican Party, they were also two of the last members of Wendell Willkie’s Republican Party.
Brown v. Board of Education signaled the beginning of the end of the so-called “Solid South” and the moment that Southern Democrats understood that their party was irreparably split. The Court’s decision would also serve as the animating force that drove whites—down Eisenhower’s newly-paved interstate highways—into the red-lined cul-de-sacs of suburbia, turning the capital and the commerce of downtowns into the windowless colossus of the shopping mall and constructing brand-new schools where white students wouldn’t have to confront the dismantling of the Jim Crow order that their parents and grandparents had fought to preserve.
In a sign of the times, during the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, members of the Louisiana Democratic Party’s Central Committee voted to oust their National Committeeman, Alexandria lawyer Camille Gravel, after Gravel publicly declared his support for the nascent civil rights movement, arguing that “segregation is immoral.” The Democratic National Committee overruled their white supremacist members down in Louisiana and promptly reinstated Gravel. The story made headlines across the planet, earning Gravel, a devout Catholic, induction into the Order of St. Gregory by Pope Pius XII. (Incidentally, 20 years later, Gravel would serve as the Executive Counsel to Gov. Edwin Edwards, who tasked him with drafting the state statute creating the jungle primary).
In most respects, the story of the Louisiana Republican Party isn’t any different than the story of the GOP in any other Southern state, except that the concentration of Blacks in New Orleans provided Democrats with a more durable firewall than they had in other, more rural states.
No doubt, there will be Louisiana Republicans who vehemently disagree with the notion that theirs is the party of segregation, not the party of Lincoln. But this assessment does not deny the existence of those whose affiliation with the party is informed by a principled belief in traditional American conservatism: Limited, decentralized government, a libertarian approach toward most social issues, an emphasis on the private-sector, and a preference for judicial restraint. I may personally find some of these beliefs to be objectionable or specious, yet there’s no denying that the dialectic between liberalism and conservatism or federalism and anti-federalism has defined American government since the very beginning.
But it’d be inapt to characterize today’s Louisiana Republican Party and the Trumpian faction of the national party as “conservatives,” even if they pay lip-service to conservatism. They are instead the latest incarnation of another persistent presence in our politics: An isolationist, protectionist, and ethnonationalist ideology that governs by chaos and occasionally displays a proclivity for proto-fascism. And that’s why its origins in the politics of racial segregation remain relevant.
Edwin Edwards once said that one of his biggest regrets in life was making Dave Treen, who he came to deeply admire and respect, the punchline of his classic zinger, “He’s so slow he takes an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.” But for all of Treen’s virtues, the truth is that he got his start in politics in 1959 after joining Louisiana’s segregationist States’ Rights Party and then striking up an alliance with the state’s most notorious white supremacists, Willie Rainach and Leander Perez. Later, Treen would attempt to distance himself from the brazenly racist movement, arguing, unconvincingly, that he had been “motivated by constitutional principle, not race,” repeating the same tired line many other Republicans of his era used to excuse their opposition to integration, as if they were merely engaging in a thought exercise or an abstract philosophical debate (one that is premised, by the way, on the notion that Black lives don’t matter).
Republican apologists continue to claim that their parry’s exponential growth in the Deep South has nothing to do with race. Instead, they say, voters gravitated toward the party because of its positions on economic issues. But in a 2018 paper in The American Economic Review by Princeton University’s Ilyana Kuziemko and Yale University’s Ebonya Washington, “Why Did the Democrats Lose the South? Bringing New Data to an Old Debate,” the claim is thoroughly debunked.
“The exodus of Southern whites from the Democratic Party is one of the most transformative, and controversial, political developments in twentieth-century American history,” they write. “Using newly available data, we conclude that defection among racially conservative whites just after Democrats introduce sweeping Civil Rights legislation explains virtually all of the party’s losses in the region. We find essentially no role for either income growth in the region or (non-race-related) policy preferences in explaining why Democrats ‘lost’ the South” (emphasis added).
For what it’s worth, Kuziemko and Washington posit a different date for the pivotal shift:
“[A]nalyzing contemporaneous media and survey data, we identify instead the Spring of 1963, when Democratic President John F. Kennedy first proposed legislation barring discrimination in public accommodations, as the critical moment when Civil Rights is, for the first time, an issue of great salience to the majority of Americans and an issue clearly associated with the Democratic Party.”
There are several state lawmakers who could illustrate how this dynamic continues to operate in Louisiana, but few are as transparently Machiavellian and or as mendacious as Republican state Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell. And perhaps more than anyone else, Hewitt also unwittingly provides insight into the future of the Louisiana Republican Party.
The Grand Marshal of the Parade of Fools
The day before the Capitol Insurrection, Louisiana state Sens. Beth Mizell, Heather Cloud, and Sharon Hewitt decided to coordinate their outfits for a photograph that would accompany their letter to the Republican men who represent Louisiana on Capitol Hill. In complementary black and herringbone-patterned businesswear, the three stand shoulder-to-shoulder, maskless during a pandemic that was still awaiting the rollout of vaccines. Mizell and Cloud awkwardly hold up a print-out of the letter in front of Hewitt, who appears limbless in between her two colleagues.
Maybe it was inadvertent, but the Southern Republicans, in their matching gray suits, seem to be making a subtle nod to the Confederate gray uniforms of the Civil War.
The three women definitely believe that they are fighting a battle.
“Dear Senators and Congressmen,” they write. “In the United States, the lifeblood of our Republic is our free and fair elections. Today, that bedrock off our society faces challenges like never before. We contend that if the American people lose faith and hope in our election process, our freedom, way of life and collective future will suffer.”
They then quote from Ronald Reagan’s 1967 inaugural speech as California governor. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” he famously said at a time in which the Cold War was a daily reality of American life.
“It is for this reason that we are writing to urge you to stand firm and call into question the electors from the states of Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin when congress meets on January 6, 2021,” they explain.
They’re full of shit, all three of them, amplifying the dangerous, delusional, and discredited Big Lie that would, less than 24 hours later, incite a mob of Trump-supporting seditionists, white supremacists, militia members, Qanon conspiracists, and right-wing extremists to storm the Capitol in an act of insurrection, murdering a police officer, injuring more than 100 other members of law enforcement, and resulting in the deaths of at least four others.
Mizell, Cloud, and Hewitt dressed their letter up in the hyperbole and vapid consultant-speak of phony outrage and even phonier patriotism. They probably didn’t write the letter. Last year, during the beginning of the pandemic, the Bayou Brief published a talking points memo that Hewitt had been circulating among her fellow Republicans. It attempted to redefine the public health crisis as nothing more than an act of economic sabotage committed by the state’s Democratic governor. The memo was written by Jay Connaughton, a Republican political consultant from Mandeville who had previously worked for Trump.
None of the three state lawmakers have acknowledged their complicity in spreading a baseless and fraudulent scam that aimed to disenfranchise millions of legal votes only in swing states that were carried by President Joe Biden. Among the men in the state’s federal delegation to whom they addressed their letter, only one, Louisiana’s senior U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, refused to play along with the Big Liars. Even U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, who had previously exhibited signs of living in the “reality-based community,” voted against ratifying the already-certified electoral votes from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, though, given the tortuous, 1,100-word explanation he sent to constituents, it was clear he immediately regretted his decision.
During this year’s state legislative session, Heather Cloud hopes to ban the use of ballot drop boxes and allow election officials to scrub voters from the rolls based on a review of their utility bills. Beth Mizell wants to prevent transgender girls from participating in girl’s sporting competitions. Sharon Hewitt proposes making everyone sing the National Anthem, dammit.
Actually, that’s selling Sharon short. She wants to do a few things this year.
After single-handedly sabotaging the state’s contract to purchase new and badly-needed voting machines from Dominion Voting Systems (gee, I wonder why), only to ensure that the state continues to use the outmoded machines manufactured by ::checks notes:: Dominion Voting Systems, Hewitt is now proposing the creation of a convoluted bureaucracy of “experts” responsible for ensuring the quality control of voting machine procurement practices, which she has christened as “the Voting System Technology Commission.” (It’s reminiscent of the former office of the Commissioner of Voting Machines, which Governing Magazine once described as “the most ridiculous elective office in American state government”).
The legislation is not only a solution in search of a problem that only delusional conspiracy theorists believed to exist, it also reads like a ham-handed effort to prove her newly-found expertise on the subject of voting machine procurement by copying and pasting the language from the existing Request for Proposals document. (Again, legislators like Hewitt aren’t guided by conservatism; the only thing consistent about their political ideology is its chaotic appeals to the radical fringe).
On Tuesday, the bill advanced out of the Senate Committee on Senate and Governmental Affairs, but not before being subjected to a nearly two-hour long discussion by a parade of white Republicans who came armed with conspiracy theories and complaints about not being already named to Hewitt’s hypothetical commission. Former state Rep. Lenar Whitney, who served as the Louisiana Republican Party’s National Committeewoman at the 2020 RNC, fought back tears while expressing her opposition to the bill, primarily because she wanted to stack the proposed commission with like-minded people from the “grassroots.” The lunatics would like to run the asylum, thank you very much. (The 2020 election was the most secure election in American history, by the way. That’s not the opinion of liberal journalists or Democratic operatives; it’s the conclusion reached by the Trump administration’s own officials).
Hewitt’s most potentially consequential and revealing proposal this year is her bill to end the jungle primary system for congressional elections, an experiment Louisiana already tried out less than a decade ago. Hewitt has pretended for at least a year to be officially studying the idea of doing away with the jungle primary, and even though the current proposal only calls for changing the way the state conducts congressional elections, it’s obvious the ultimate aim is to overhaul state contests as well, something that sounds appealing to another far-right extremist, state attorney general Jeff Landry.
Already, it appears as if the proposal is dead on arrival. Why? Well, for one thing, it has revealed significant divisions between moderate Republicans and those on the far-right, divisions that could threaten the durability and sustainability of the party itself. Moderates recognize that they benefit from a system that incentivizes candidates with “crossover appeal.” The zealots would prefer that voters allow members of their club the ability to sort out their differences with those who think ideologically impure thoughts.
But there’s another, more fundamental concern. While the number of registered Republicans in Louisiana now exceeds one million voters, lagging behind the number of registered Democrats by approximately 224,000 (or 7% of the total electorate), the Louisiana Republican Party is nearly 94% white. Put another way, in a state in which Blacks make up slightly more than 32% of the population, only 2% of registered Republicans are Black.
Reverting back to a closed primary system would effectively be a return to the whites-only primary system that persisted in various iterations across the South until at least 1948.
It would put into stark relief the disconnect between the composition of the state and the composition of the political party that controls every statewide office with the exception of governor and commands a super-majority in one legislative chamber and a near-super-majority in the other. And it would also prominently illustrate the unsettling truth about a party founded on and animated by the politics of racial segregation.