20101006-cover-0101Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Jeff Landry is riding a wave of conservative unrest into the 3rd Congressional District’s general election, and making a few enemies along the way. By Nathan Stubbs Photos by Robin May

It’s a warm Sunday afternoon in New Iberia. Along the Winn Dixie parking lot, trailers decorated with stalks of sugar cane, trucks with hay bale seats in the back bed and tractors line up in preparation of their annual procession down Main Street. Parents and children alike dress as farmers and proudly sport stickers printed with the festival catch phrase “Hi Sugar.”

The highlight of the country promenade, especially in an election year, is the slew of political candidates on hand to ride on floats plastered with their campaign signs, press the flesh, and kiss as many babies as possible. Blaring hip hop and dance music, the political floats go right along with the party atmosphere. Where else will you find a trailer full of rowdy supporters for straight edge candidates like Jeff Landry and David Vitter getting down to songs like Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad”?

The connection between the sugar cane industry and politics is long and storied in Louisiana, and the Sunday parade of the New Iberia Sugar Cane Festival is one of the essential stops for any would-be elected official. Landry and his top staff all don the same uniform: Wrangler jeans, buttoned-up fishing shirts embroidered with “Jeff Landry for Congress,” camouflage visors and sunglasses. “We’re up front,” Landry says, noting his float’s place in line. “That’s where we want to stay.”

“Hunt Downer’s way behind,” he adds, motioning further down Main Street. “That’s where we want him to stay.” The order of the political floats in the parade is generally reflective of the local political pecking order of the day. On that basis, the most influential candidates running for office in Iberia Parish are, in order: Sen. David Vitter, Jeff Landry, and lieutenant governor candidate and current Secretary of State Jay Dardenne.

Despite never having held office, Landry has waged the kind of well-funded, well-organized campaign indicative of an incumbent and, following the Oct. 2 election, the St. Martinville native is now the clear frontrunner going into a Nov. 2 general election against Democrat Ravi Sangisetty.

“I think you would have to say this is Jeff Landry’s race to lose,” says UL Monroe political science professor Joshua Stockley, who until recently taught in the 3rd District at Nicholls State University. “There’s a very anti-incumbent climate right now. The bad thing for Sangisetty is even though he’s not an incumbent, he’s a Democrat, and he’s going to have to convince voters that he’s not Obama and he’s not Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. That’s going to be a very tough sell this year.”

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After defeating Hunt Downer by an almost 2-to-1 margin
in the Oct. 2 Republican Primary runoff, Landry is now
the clear frontrunner heading into the Nov. 2
general election.
On a national level, Republicans have targeted the 3rd District as a likely pickup in their bid to regain control of the House of Representatives. Therefore, Landry can expect to see plenty of big money and endorsements flowing down from the national party. Already, there’s an Oct. 9 fundraiser scheduled for Landry hosted by former Gov. Mike Foster, Baton Rouge Congressman Bill Cassidy and former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

In the Republican primary runoff against Downer on Oct. 2, Landry carried 12 of the 13 parishes, dominating by more than a 5-to-1 margin in his home parish of St. Martin, and downing Downer more than 3-to-1 in neighboring Iberia and St. Mary. Landry also was helped significantly by connections in Lafayette, where he collected a sizable share of his campaign warchest.

Landry’s likely ascent to Congress would represent a power shift of sorts for the 3rd District, which has in recent decades been represented by congressmen hailing from the more coastal parishes along its southeastern side (Melancon is from Napoleonville in Assumption Parish; the district’s previous congressman, Billy Tauzin, was from Chackbay in Lafourche Parish). You have to go all the way back to 1970 and Patrick T. Caffery of New Iberia to find the last time a candidate from the western side of the 3rd District got elected to Congress.

Tracking along both sides of Highway 90 from St. Martin Parish through the Houma-Thibodaux area all the way east to St. Bernard, the district includes small fishing towns like Venice and Grand Isle, as well as small towns along the Atchafalaya Basin: from Henderson and Charenton to Donaldsonville. It is arguably the most distinctly Cajun district in the state and, like the coastal communities on the front lines of coastal erosion, it is in danger of being wiped off the map.

Due to Louisiana’s post Hurricane Katrina population loss, the state stands to lose a congressional district next year following the 2010 Census. The state Legislature will be charged with redrawing the congressional district boundaries based on the updated population numbers, and most indications are that the 3rd District will end up being altered the most. The most likely scenario is that New Orleans’ 2nd Congressional District will be extended west into the eastern part of the 3rd District, and that the western end of the 3rd District ends up joining Lafayette and Lake Charles in the 7th District. Such an outcome could set up a showdown between Landry and current 7th District U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany in 2012.

“There is a great possibility that Boustany and Landry will have to run against each other,” Stockley says. For his part, Landry declines to speculate that far ahead. “It’ll be interesting how the Legislature draws this district up,” he says. “I certainly support trying to keep this district in its current form as much as possible.”

At a tea party candidate forum last week at the Carmel Inn in Thibodaux, in a room filled with photos from the nearby John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University, Jeff Landry is the only candidate in attendance (Downer and Ravi Sangisetty, the Democrat still in the race, were not invited). At the door, attendees are given a card listing all the Tea Party of Louisiana’s recommended candidates. They include Jeff Landry, Roger Villere for lieutenant governor, David Vitter for the U.S. Senate and Bill Cassidy for the 6th Congressional District.

The gathering frequently resembles what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently termed the “tea kettle party” — a support group of sorts for angry, government frustrated residents in need of blowing off steam. Questions came more in the form of rants — against the drilling moratorium, federal government interference in schools, the plethora of tsars Obama has employed. One woman, who serves as a local organizer for the Landry campaign, stood up to decry the “tyranny” of the federal government, citing airport security checks, automated answering services that allow callers to opt for the Spanish language, and the teaching of global warming and recycling in public schools as her main examples. In this room, the most despised politicians are, in order: President Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Charlie Melancon and Hunt Downer.

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Hunt Downer says Jeff Landry spent his entire campaign
trying to smear his 35 years of distinguished public service.
It’s widely believed that part of the reason Melancon opted to run for U.S. Senate this year was he recognized that, as a Democrat, he had little chance of winning re-election in the 3rd District this year. “Charlie’s been a terrible disappointment,” says Barry Hugghins, a member of the Tea Party of Louisiana’s board of directors. Hugghins adds that he considers Melancon a personal friend, and that he even went door to door for the congressman in his 1987 run for the state House of Representative. However, Melancon has since “voted consistently with Speaker Pelosi and with President Obama,” Hugghins says. “We believe Charlie’s gone to Washington and represented the Democratic Party’s point of view, not the 3rd District’s point of view.”

While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1, the district has turned increasingly red — Obama got just 37 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election. Landry has also benefited from the fact that the more than 90,0000 registered Republicans in the district — the only ones allowed to vote in this year’s closed GOP primary — are the most hardline conservative voters.

Retired Maj. Gen. Hunt Downer is a conservative Democrat turned Republican who, like former Louisiana U.S. Sens. John Breaux and Bennett Johnston, prides himself on an ability to work across the political party aisle toward common sense goals. Downer spent a distinguished 35 years in the military, 29 years in the state Legislature, served as Speaker of the House from 1996 to 2000, was assistant adjutant general for the Louisiana National Guard, served as the state’s first secretary of Veterans Affairs and as a legislative liaison under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. All of which is to say, that in today’s political climate, in a closed Republican primary, Hunt Downer probably couldn’t get elected dog catcher in most parts of the 3rd Congressional District.

Downer’s campaign stumbled out of the gate. He waited till June, six months after the other candidates had already been raising money and coalescing support, to get into the race. He then quickly learned that he would have to wear his past affiliation with the Democratic Party like a scarlet letter. “We looked at the primary, and we didn’t endorse a candidate,” says Bob Reid, events chairman for the Tea Party of Louisiana. “But we made one position: We were against Downer. We knew his past record; we knew exactly who he is, and he is establishment. And so we took a very strong position that we were against Downer. He is not the type of conservative Republican that we want in office to change what’s going on in America.”

The week before the August primary, the Tea Party of Louisiana launched a “Down with Downer” campaign. It featured a TV ad that quotes The Bible’s book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” The ad goes on to call Downer a RINO — Republican in name only — before listing his ties to Gov. Blanco and former President Clinton and concluding, “Stop Hunt Downer from going to Washington. Down with Downer.”

Landry piled on, with an ad calling Downer a “liberal in a conservative’s clothing.”

For the Republican primary runoff — between Downer and Landry — the Tea Party of Louisiana endorsed Landry and actively campaigned for him and against Downer. Downer managed just 35 percent of the vote.

At the Thibodaux Tea Party forum, Landry has a friendly crowd. When a school teacher complains of federal regulations in schools, the young Republican plays to the crowd. “I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in Washington,” Landry says, before noting that he has taken three trips to the nation’s capital already this year. On one of those trips, he visited the Department of Education, which he describes as a massive, four building complex.

“I can’t tell you how many people are in those four buildings,” Landry says, his rural St. Martinville accent laying on thick now. “I can’t tell you what it is that they do. But I challenge anyone to show me where in the Constitution Congress has the right to interfere with our education.”

Over loud applause, he declares, “that is a state and local issue.”

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The other issue Hunt Downer didn’t anticipate was the force of nature that is the Jeff Landry campaign. By all accounts, Landry is a tireless, hustling campaigner. After announcing his decision to run last December, Landry began working day and night to raise money and make the appropriate house calls throughout the district. By January, he had more than $100,000 in the bank.

At age 39, Landry has boyish looks, with slightly thinning hair cut short and neatly parted to the side, beady eyes and a winning grin. Raised in a middle class, Catholic family in St. Martinville — his father an architect and his mom a school teacher — Landry grew up with both a strong work ethic and an early political education.

He worked his way through some seven years of college at UL Lafayette — with one year off for active service in the Louisiana National Guard. During that time, he also worked as a police officer in the village of Parks and as a sheriff’s deputy in St. Martin Parish for family friend Sheriff Charles Fuselier. Landry established roots in Iberia Parish when he married Sharon LeBlanc of the prominent LeBlanc family in New Iberia.

In working with Fuselier and others, Landry was drawn to politics.

For years, he worked as an aide to longtime Iberia Parish state Sen. Craig Romero. As a political operative, he also got involved in the unsuccessful 2003 campaign for St. Martin Parish sheriff’s candidate Beckett Breaux and later ran Romero’s unsuccessful 2006 campaign for Congress in the 3rd District. In 2008, Landry made his first run for office, a bid for Romero’s old state Senate seat. After leading in the primary, Landry lost a bitterly fought runoff election to Troy Hebert by 568 votes.

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. Part of that comes with the territory of politics in places like Iberia and St. Martin parishes. But Landry clearly has a knack for getting under the skin of his opponents, and bringing out the worst in them.

Contacted for this article, state Sen. Troy Hebert declined comment, other than to say he thought Landry would make a better congressman than state senator.

Asked before the runoff about the major difference between him and Jeff Landry, Hunt Downer answers, “trustworthiness.”

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

20101006-cover-0106The background Downer is referring to involves two incidents in Landry’s past — allegations first dredged up in Landry’s state Senate race. One involves a 1993 drug bust of one of Landry’s college roommates, where more than 100 grams of cocaine were found and confiscated under their house. Landry professes that he had no knowledge of the drugs, was working for the sheriff’s office at the time, and even signed the search warrant that led to the arrest. The other incident amounts to a contract dispute between Landry and a former business partner from Shreveport.

Those allegations may have helped Hebert, but when Downer recycled them — without any new information — he began to appear desperate.

From the outset of the campaign, Landry labeled Downer liberal. He also hit the proud major general where it stung most, calling him “a disgrace to the uniform” who used “politician connections and rank to get promotions while the rest of us sweated it out in Fort Hood.” Landry also attacked Downer for having what he labeled a “pro gay voting record.”

Landry claims there’s nothing personal in his attacks. “I think the Senate campaign taught me,” he says, “that what voters care about is the issues, and someone who’s served in public office, their record is certainly fair game. And if they’re out they’re campaigning, saying one thing, but yet their record reflects something else, then I think it is the responsibility of the candidate to call those into question.”

Downer isn’t the only one feeling burned by Landry in the congressional race. Kristian Magar is the libertarian-leaning political newcomer whose grassroots conservative campaign caught on with voters across the district. Despite having virtually no money, Magar picked up 14 percent of the vote in the August Republican primary. His campaign was endorsed by the Tea Party of South Louisiana and the head of the Bayou Towns Tea Party. Following the primary, Magar surprised many when, instead of backing Landry, the race’s other Tea Party favorite, Magar took to Facebook to list 10 reasons why he was voting for Downer. Nearly all the reasons involved Magar’s distaste for Landry’s campaign.

Both Downer and Magar insist that Landry’s campaign specialized in securing backroom endorsements from small, friendly Republican organizations that shut out the other two candidates. Magar’s list also levies accusations that Landry’s campaign stole his supporters’ yard signs, recorded and plagiarized his speeches, and consistently pressured him to get out of the race and support Landry.

Magar even alleges that Landry personally called him at one point to issue a threat that things were “about to get tough” on his family. Magar says that he never felt physically threatened, and declines to explain what Landry might have been insinuating. The speculation in Iberia Parish is that Landry threatened to block Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent nomination of Magar’s brother to a state advisory board. Magar’s response to the speculation? “No comment.”

“All of those reasons that I listed,” Magar adds, “if you take one or two of them and look at it individually, so what, that kind of stuff happens all the time in politics, right? Really, what I was trying to illustrate is that, for me, it was about the character of the person. Now that I’m having to decide on who I’m going to vote for, what type of character does that person have?”

Landry called Magar’s accusations false and the act of a bitter candidate. He told The Daily Iberian, “It’s unfortunate that Magar has made these comments because it is a betrayal of the voters and the issues that he and I campaigned on. He’s chosen to express to voters his willingness to vote for someone who has raised taxes and supported pro abortion candidates and liberal Democrats.”

Landry has always been an unabashed conservative, something that has endeared him to his party’s base. “You heard what Jeff said,” says Tea Party official Bob Hugghins following last week’s forum. “He said that he prayed for humility, and I think we need more of that in our elected officials. We don’t need to have people who are over us who talk down to us who tell us what to do. This is a representative republic, and we need representatives who will go and present our point of view, not go to Washington and come back and tell us what Washington’s point of view is that we have to conform to.”

Ruth Ulrich, a Republican National Committee representative for Louisiana who drove down to Thibodaux from Monroe for the forum, endorsed Landry in the primary. “What has happened is we have people that are running as though they’re Ronald Reagan and then they vote like they’re Jimmy Carter,” Ulrich explains. “At this point in our history, it is imperative that we send people that are going to stand by the principles and the platform of the Republican Party.”

Magar, who says it comes down to the honesty and integrity of the candidate, is not sure who he will vote for, Landry or Sangisetty. Magar says he feels Landry has been short on specifics when it comes to the issues. “I know a lot of people thought we were close on the issues,” he says, “but I never was convinced of that.”

Magar says that if Landry is elected, he hopes the congressman will prove his assessment wrong. “I hope that everything I’ve come to know about the man, I’m completely off base,” Magar says. “Because we can’t afford to be wrong right now.”

“Our country’s in trouble,” he adds, “and we got in this predicament because we didn’t pay attention as citizens and evaluate and effectively vet our candidates. We’re in big trouble, and we’ve got to get this right.”

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