Wednesday, May 26, 2010
By Jeremy Alford
Photos by Robin May
With help from conservative Democrats and emphatic shareholders, the Louisiana Family Forum is advancing its policy agenda beyond the usual slaying of pro-choice advocates and undermining of same-sex couples — but not too much.
Outside the state Capitol, as many of us are well aware, there’s a statue of Huey P. Long. When the sun is situated just right, and even when it’s not, it casts an unmistakable shadow over the skyscraper’s 34 stories of Alabama limestone.
According to biographer T. Harry Williams, Long had a firm grasp on the state’s spiritual scruples, if nothing else. In fact, Williams chose to open his Pulitzer Prize-winning tome on the Kingfish with this anecdote: When Huey would campaign in south Louisiana, he would recount to audiences how he would awake early on Sunday mornings and put his old horse on the family buggy to bring his Catholic grandparents to Mass. When he was in the piney north, however, he retold how he hitched his old horse to the buggy, but only this time to bring his Baptist grandparents to church. A close campaign ally commented soon after that he had no idea Huey had Catholic grandparents. “Don’t be a damn fool,” Long replied. “We didn’t even have a horse.”
Religion still plays an important role in Louisiana politics, and nowhere is that more evident than about a dozen or so blocks south of where Long’s statue stands today. That’s where the Louisiana Family Forum has set up shop. Casually placed on the ground outside its headquarters are two stone tablets listing the Ten Commandments. They’re significantly smaller than the building itself, but like Long’s monument, they cast a long shadow over nearby political operations. And much like Long’s horse and buggy speech, LFF’s mission is easy to digest for most adhering to strict Christian teachings, whether they be Protestants, evangelicals or non-denominational Christians.
There’s another marble replica of the Big 10 inside LFF’s lobby. In case you haven’t caught it yet, there’s a theme building here, one of man and law and God, and it continues in the executive director’s office. To access this inner sanctum, you must pass by a small kitchenette where staffers grind coffee beans at 7:50 a.m. But once inside, you can probably guess what’s among the nicknacks, photos and books. Indeed, yet one more reproduction of the Ten Commandments sits behind the desk of Gene Mills, LFF’s official keeper of the faith and chief executive.
When state lawmakers are in session and Louisiana politicians are seeking office, it’s usually Mills who’s following them around with one tablet in each hand — metaphorically at least — reminding them of right and wrong, of redemption and reconciliation. But Mills, 46, doesn’t look much like Moses. Nor does he fit the stereotype of the Bible-thumping politico — that is to say, he isn’t flashy and doesn’t publicly condemn people to hell.
He’s part of a regime change that’s been swooping in across the nation, and everything from his choice of words to his clothing screams, “I’m not like the others! No sir. No fire and brimstone here.” In the latest of his many commentaries posted on YouTube from a program called Baton Rouge Today, Mills, an ordained minister, is sporting a loud, turquoise dress shirt with a criss-cross pattern, the same untucked kind that both hipster pastors wear while leading post-modern congregations and middle-aged men wear to the clubs.
On this morning, about two hours before the Legislature’s committees will gavel in their usual 9 a.m. meetings, Mills is slamming back a Red Bull and tooling around on his MacBook. He’s clean shaven, all smile and immediately engaging. But then he confesses to rarely giving interviews before eagerly handing over an 11-page guideline explaining how LFF reviews and scores legislation. It’s a simple enough formula and similar to how candidates are put to the test. It’s anchored by four themes: “traditional values,” “limited government,” “free enterprise” and “taxes.”
While Mills, an Opelousas native, might be media shy — or more to the point, possibly mistrustful of reporters — he is about as polished as a Louisiana lobbyist comes. He says folks just don’t understand the Louisiana Family Forum at the Capitol because it doesn’t have a corporate clientele like other special interests, but rather represents a Christian God and more specifically family values. “We don’t have a piece of the puzzle we’re trying to protect,” Mills says, referencing the almighty budget process while spinning an oversized yellow jack on his desk. Then he brings his glare up. “Our measures, the ones we care about, are talked about every day. We work on them every day. You just don’t hear about them much because we don’t grandstand. That’s not our style.”
LFF, though, has garnered a reputation for its hard-nosed, in-your-face approach in recent years. Still, its operations are viewed with some political ambiguity. They’re a mystery to most not watching it unfold firsthand in Baton Rouge and elsewhere. Ethics laws and a nonprofit status have kept it from having to file campaign finance reports, although the group does indirectly get involved in the election process. LFF was formed in 1998 but only recently started filing paperwork as a lobbying entity, due chiefly to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ethics reform session of 2008.
Its tactics are unconventional, if not brutally effective. Bottom line: It may just be the most influential lobby in Louisiana that you know the least about. What exactly is the group up to? Well, on its Web site and in its promotional literature, LFF proclaims that it’s already “writing the next chapter in Louisiana history.” While that might be a stretch for God’s favorite Bayou State advocacy group, Mills and his troops sure seem hellbent on trying.
The way Rep. Bubba Chaney tells it, he was “ambushed” by Mills’ outfit last month when he presented legislation to House Education Committee that would have changed the panel process for selecting textbooks for public schools. It’s a hot-button topic for Christian conservatives, especially when it comes to evolution and other biological sciences, so Chaney shouldn’t have been surprised to see the group’s cavalry in force that morning of April 21. But he was.
Mills had lined up his heavy hitters — Darrell White, a former judge and conservative lawyer, and Michelle Ghetti, a law professor from Southern University in Baton Rouge. Chaney, D-Rayville, who had filed the bill several weeks prior to the hearing, had no idea there was even opposition to his House Bill 50. “If we had an opportunity to talk to these folks, we could have worked it out,” he says.
Whether it was strategy, several committee members say they were contacted by the advocacy group, even if the bill’s author was not. “They did contact me ahead of time,” says Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe. Regardless, the bill died that day in committee, clearly overwhelmed, or rather surprised, by the opposition.
Later, Mills says politics can be like war, “And you don’t go to a gunfight with a knife in your hand.”
Despite such flexing, a wide spectrum of lawmakers seem to at least respect the group’s style — even when they loathe what it stands for at times. They consider Family Forum just another lobbying outfit, albeit one with considerable influence, but the tinfoil-hat and fringe status that dominates Internet chatter, conversations with Democratic operatives and defectors in general doesn’t appear to stick deep inside Huey’s House.
Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans, has faced off against Mills and Co. just about as much as any other lawmaker. LaFonta represents the French Quarter and is consistent in his push for equal rights for same-sex couples. This also makes him a consistent target for Mills, but the two appear to have a surprising relationship. For what it’s worth, LaFonta has some of the loosest lips in the Legislature and isn’t one to hold back. “They’re very professional,” he says. “I’ve never had a concern with them. Seriously. And it’s not just these kinds of bills. Family Forum is beginning to get involved in other issues, too.”
As a 501(c)3, LFF was not originally created to lobby the Legislature in this fashion, which is why another related entity — Louisiana Family Forum Action, a 501(c)4 — was formed in 2004. According to records on file with the state Board of Ethics, Mills is the only lobbyist identified to represent the LFFA, which has spent nearly $29,000 since January 2009 hosting, entertaining, meeting with and otherwise influencing lawmakers. Most recently, LFFA dropped about $930 on a late April gathering for the House and Senate at the lieutenant governor’s residence during the ongoing regular session. The group also sponsored a $24,000 “legislative awards banquet” in September 2009.
As for where LFF and LFFA get their funding, Mills is tight-lipped but says individuals, churches and businesses give to the groups like they would any nonprofit, although grants are practically nonexistent.
To be certain, the Louisiana Family Forum’s reach is growing by the day, and a great deal of that growth is directly linked to its past. LFF was created 12 years ago by former state Rep. Tony Perkins and others. Today, Perkins heads up the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., which promotes “traditional values,” like LFF but on a bigger scale. It’s a political offshoot of Focus on the Family, James Dobson’s well-known vehicle. Perkins, for his part, stays close to his Louisiana roots and was back home last week giving a speech to the Baton Rouge Press Club on why Elena Kagan is unfit to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Perkins also keeps in close contact with Mills, his successor as of 2003, which affords Mills close proximity to political power on the far right and LFF some added influence it wouldn’t otherwise have. But to truly understand LFF’s pull, you have to understand its structure. It has created a handful of resource councils throughout the state linking shareholders such as pastors and attorneys. That foundation has empowered LFF to build an enviable grassroots structure of Christian conservatives, the same base Jindal can credit with his landmark 2007 victory and the same voter segment that is carrying U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, through and above his own prostitution scandal.
One veteran lobbyist with decades of experience working the Louisiana Legislature says LFF has tapped into a gold mine that even money and press coverage can’t trump. Over the past dozen years, it has built up a massive contact list of supporters who are always ready to go in the name of their religion. “They are extremely powerful because they have this extensive e-mail list of people they can easily mobilize, and they’ve carefully branded themselves and wrapped themselves in the American flag,” says the lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They’re a subset of the Republican Party and are in close with Jindal and Vitter. Some people may have not taken Family Forum seriously in the beginning, but they better now. They got stroke.”
Precisely what kind of stroke was made clear in September 2007, when Vitter inserted a $100,000 earmark in a finance bill for LFF to “develop a plan to promote better science education.” Moreover, Vitter has deep ties to the organization. Former state Rep. Dan Richey of Baton Rouge is a key grassroots consultant for LFF and has previously served in a similar capacity for Vitter. Others who have worked for Vitter in the past have also moved through LFF’s ranks.
Despite the public humiliation and dead madam — Deborah Jeane Palfrey died of an apparent suicide in 2008 — Mills says he still supports Vitter and that his “very serious sin,” as the senator himself put it, doesn’t conflict with LFF’s call for traditional family values. After all, a big part of being a Christian is about forgiveness, he says during a quiet rant that sounds a touch rehearsed. “I get asked that all the time,” he says.
But to claim the Louisiana Family Forum is serving as a puppet for the state GOP is one of many misnomers, says Mills, laughing. When asked during his interview if he was a Republican, Mills was quick on the draw. “I am,” he says. “For now.” He adds that pressure has been building in recent years for LFF to join other Louisiana Republicans under the big tent, something Mills says he has fought against. “I get criticized a lot,” he says. “But I don’t want to be a surrogate for the party.”
Mills is also quick to add that LFFA has found itself sitting beside an unlikely partner this year, a pairing that either means hell is freezing over or the bill they’re railing against is a real stinker. As lawmakers have considered withdrawing from a national ID card program, Mills has aligned himself with the American Civil Liberties Union to support the move. House Bill 870 is about protecting privacy, Mills says, but his supporters shouldn’t read too much into his newfound relationship with the ACLU. “Even a broken clock gets the time right twice a day,” he quips.
WHILE THE LION’S SHARE of legislators embraced their incumbency last fall, a battle was brewing down the bayou in Senate District 20, then an open seat covering Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. It was a classic partisan showdown that pitted now-Sen. Norby Chabert, D-Houma, against former Lafourche Parish Councilman Brent Callais, a Republican from Cut Off. All the usual party players coalesced behind their candidate, and Callais told at least one reporter early in the contest that he had been endorsed by the Louisiana Family Forum.
LFF staffers jumped to attention and squashed the inaccuracy with haste, largely because such nods are no-nos for nonprofits. The endorsement probably came from Mills personally, staffers mused and Callais confirmed at the time, although Mills now says he isn’t sure how the misunderstanding even came about in the first place.
Confusion aside, the incident offers an inside peak at how LFF gets involved in the election process without overstepping legal boundaries. In this case, Mills serves as a surrogate for the very organization with which he’s employed. Over the years, Mills has endorsed several candidate in his own name this way, which inarguably carries as much weight as a tap from LFF itself, and he’s even donated money to lawmakers like Sens. John Smith of Leesville and Nick Gautreaux of Abbeville. Both men are Democrats.
LFFA, meanwhile, prepares an annual scorecard grading members of the House and Senate on key Christian-conservative issues. Coincidentally, perhaps, Smith and Nick Gautreaux were the only two Democratic senators to score 100 percent.
Dr. Pearson Cross, a UL political science professor, says the scorecard, which is distributed through direct mail and churches, not to mention free media like newspaper reports, reminds lawmakers that LFF is watching, which is one way the group has been able to increase its profile.
It’s a tactic that other powerful lobbies, like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, have found effective. “It shows that they’re paying attention. They’re letting lawmakers know they will be graded,” Cross says. “Coupled with the group’s relationship with the governor, I just can’t see how they could be more influential. I think they’ve really hit a peak.”
Without a doubt, that success would not be had if it weren’t for conservative Democrats like Nick Gautreaux and Sen. Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge, who have been unlikely but key players for Mills and LFF. Gautreaux, whom Mills refers to as “scrappy,” helped navigate a religious freedoms bill through a narrowly divided Senate last year. Although the constitutional amendment eventually got snared in the final steps of the negotiation process, it was a coming of age moment for LFF and Gautreaux, who ascended to chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee shortly after the 2009 session.
Broome carried the banner just last week when she moved legislation through the Senate that would force women to obtain an ultrasound before they’re granted an abortion. From the Senate floor, she mimicked some of the same talking points Mills had been throwing around days prior. “This gives women a real choice,” she says. “They can decide.”
As Senate Bill 528 got hammered with questions from hesitant lawmakers seeking exclusions for cases of incest and rape, Nick Gautreaux urged lawmakers to expand the bill so that young fathers would have to view the ultrasound. “It may change a young man’s life,” he says.
On the same day last week, another LFFA-backed bill from Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, advanced. Like Gautreaux’s 2009 measure, Senate Bill 606 seeks to protect religious freedom. And like Mills’ ACLU experience, he found himself on the same side of the proverbial table as the Louisiana Alliance of Wiccans. Again, either hell is freezing over or maybe that bill deserves a second look.
The biggest splash made recently by LFFA, however, came earlier this year when the group paired up with another Democrat, Sen. Elbert Guillory of Opelousas, to push a state Senate redistricting plan. It calls for three new majority black districts from the New Orleans delegation, the birthplace of the Legislature’s last, remaining true liberals. While that might sound like heaven to Family Forum supporters, it’s something different for Guillory. “This is an issue of fairness and equity,” he said when the plan was released. “It’s time for other areas in the state to have an opportunity for black representation.”
Even though several senators were consulted on the plan, more than a few were infuriated that LFFA advanced the agenda so early in the process. “This is an example of religious intervention in government, and that’s not what our forefathers intended. They intended the exact opposite,” Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, said at the time. “The Louisiana Family Forum doesn’t have any business in redistricting. They have no more business directing legislation than we have in legislating religion.”
Redistricting will probably begin on the legislative level early next year, and LFFA’s plans will likely be rehashed then. Another senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity says the state is already strongly trending Republican, and the drawing of lines will become an issue that crosses traditional majority-minority barriers. “That Family Forum plan targets white Democrats, too,” the senator says. “You just watch how this thing unfolds.”
The state Senate plan followed on the heels of a congressional plan. As for a state House plan to finish things out, Mills says that’s not in the stars, and it has nothing to do with the reaction of miffed senators (some of the districts proposed to be eliminated in the LFFA plan include the seat of Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan). “It would be very difficult to do a House version,” says Mills. “I wouldn’t even know how to do 104 seats.”
He says the current power structure in New Orleans, even after the Katrina-fueled population shift, inspired LFF to move forward with the Senate redistricting plan. “We just felt like the tail has been wagging the dog for too long,” Mills says.
On the horizon, don’t expect Team Mills to stray too far from the bread-and-butter issues of same-sex marriage and abortion. But you can anticipate hearing them on non-traditional matters like the budget. For instance, Mills says he has serious concerns about lawmakers raiding the so-called rainy day fund to balance the forecasted two-year, $3 billion shortfall. He says LFFA is also ready to rumble to keep the Legislature from calling a constitutional convention. At the end of the day, though, what business does a Christian-conservative advocacy group have with these topics? “We have a moral responsibility,” Mills says. “Our founders believed in limited government because you had to covet something that was not yours to grow government.”
That’s Mills. The guy has an answer for everything and a trust-me smile to back it all up. From his position in the political landscape, it must get heady at times, and the lure of public office must never be far from his mind. Would he ever consider abandoning the Louisiana Family Forum to strike out on his own as a candidate? “That’s another question I’ve been asked thousands of times,” he says before pausing and unleashing a Cheshire Cat grin. “But I won’t rule it out.”Jeremy Alford can be reached at