CoverWednesday, November 9, 2011

Fresh off perceived victories in the Oct. 22 primary, Tea Party Republicans look to increase their influence in Lafayette Consolidated Government. But the centrists are fighting back. By Walter Pierce

The fundraisers last night — Tuesday, Nov. 8 — couldn’t have been more different. Over white linen at iMonelli Restaurant on Johnston Street, Jared Doise — fit, groomed and well-tailored — mingles with supporters. The holder of an MBA from UL and a chain of successful bars in Lafayette, Doise is fêted by the Hub City’s well-healed mainstream Republicans for his Nov. 19 runoff election for the City-Parish Council’s District 6 seat.

A stone’s throw up Johnston at Emmanuel Baptist Church in what harkens back to an old-fashioned pot-luck dinner, Andy Naquin, Doise’s bearded and grandfatherly runoff opponent, is the beneficiary of his own fundraiser. Tea Party supporters, still relishing their perceived success at the ballot box on Oct. 22, are on hand.

The contrast between the two fundraisers is stark, and deceptive. Campaign finance reports filed with the Louisiana Ethics Board suggest that while Naquin is waging the “grass roots,” Tea Party-style campaign, he is by bounds the better-financed candidate. Doise’s most recent report suggests he has loaned his campaign more than it has taken in. In the reporting period Oct. 3-30, which straddles the Oct. 22 general election, Naquin took in nearly $16,000 in campaign contributions. Almost a quarter of that haul was in donations from the Acadian Home Builders Association and private construction companies. (Naquin has sold building materials at Doug Ashy for two decades and has no doubt made a lot of connections and friendships within the industry, although a source says there’s likely more to the largesse from builders than mere business relationships. That source says the builders may be looking for an ally in the upcoming master planning process, someone to stymie stricter planning and zoning codes — “some influence as to how tight the restrictions can be or how loose they can be.”)

But the funding in this very local election may have changed over the last few days, and it could be a bellwether for Republican politics in Lafayette for the near term as the mainstream, old-line GOP presses back against an incursion of Tea Party influence.

Led by a trio of parishwide elected officials including the District 6 incumbent ousted in the primary, Lafayette’s mainstream Republicans, arguably the majority political bloc in the parish, began rallying behind Doise in an effort to check the Tea Party, although polling data don’t suggest that the Tea Party of Lafayette, which issued endorsements and took positions on parishwide referenda, galvanized voters or affected outcomes on Oct. 22.

The rally round Doise began this past Friday when City-Parish President Joey Durel, fresh off a resounding re-election victory, emailed supporters urging them to get behind Doise.

“If you are a supporter of mine and voted for me in this past election, please don’t send me another person that is simply ‘against,’” Durel writes in a not-so-shrouded dig at Tea Party council incumbents Jared Bellard (District 5) and William Theriot (District 9), both of whom narrowly won their re-election bids a couple of weeks ago and who have positioned themselves as the most fiscally conservative members of the CPC. “[S]end someone that will work with the other councilmen and I to help continue the momentum Lafayette has going for it right now.

Send us someone that truly understands what the private sector of our community needs to succeed.”

Friday’s letter was a remarkable gambit by Durel, who as best we know has never taken sides in an election pitting fellow members of the GOP. It was extraordinary on many levels, not the least of which is Durel’s lifelong albeit casual friendship with Naquin. “[I]t is a difficult thing that I do now,” Durel writes. “My friend has been campaigning against so many things that we have done and worked hard to accomplish, primarily against LUS.”

Then over the weekend, letters from Parish Assessor Conrad Comeaux, another moderate Republican and former parish councilman, began arriving in the mailboxes of supporters. “Friends, government can work most effectively with leaders like Jared who have management experience, who understand the importance of teamwork and who possess vision,” Comeaux writes. “Divisiveness without compromise has no place in government. Opportunities are missed, citizens go unserved and growth and economic development falter.”

Like Durel, Comeaux has serious misgivings about the Tea Party’s prerogatives. But the tax assessor is particularly put off by a paragraph in a fundraising letter Naquin mailed to supporters the week after the primary: “My opponent and his wife are just embarking on their life together, and have no children yet,” Naquin writes. “I sincerely hope they will be blessed with children and experience the joys and challenges of parenthood at some time in the future. We feel blessed to have had these experiences in raising our three daughters to adulthood.”

“You don’t do that. That’s wrong,” Comeaux says of Naquin’s reference to the Doises not having children. “Everything else in that letter, I can’t take issue with — that’s politics. But that, that crossed the line.” In his letter, Comeaux characterizes the Naquin paragraph as “going beyond anyone’s definition of decency. It is and was intended as a backhanded insult...”

The balance of Naquin’s Oct. 26 letter more or less makes the case in Tea Party talking points that he’s the anti-tax, small-government, fewer-regulations candidate while Doise is the “progressive,” a facsimile of how the Tea Party characterized District 6 incumbent Republican Sam Doré’s “agenda of new taxes without a vote of the people, more taxpayer funds for non-governmental purposes and increased government intervention in the economy.” (Doré placed third in the primary and will be out of office in January after one term.)

Lest we forget: Joey Durel is a Republican. Conrad Comeaux is a Republican. Sam Doré, Andy Naquin and Jared Doise, Republicans.

Increasingly, this is the new dynamic in the GOP, and we’re seeing it play out here in Lafayette: centrist Republicans versus the Tea Party, with all the branding and baggage that go along with it. Each side in the District 6 runoff is painting the opposition in broad, unflattering strokes, ignoring nuances in favor of ideological damnation. Naquin isn’t a member of the Tea Party of Lafayette but says he has a fidelity with many of its small-government, less taxes positions — the ideology of “against,” as Durel puts it. Doise, meanwhile, is a self-described “progressive Republican,” which in the Tea Party parlance Naquin is using against him is code for liberal.

“When you get right down to it, there’s a lot of people in the Tea Party who don’t want taxes period. But they want services,” Comeaux laments, adding that he believes the foothold gained in local politics by the Tea Party “puts the progress of Lafayette Parish perilously close to being stifled.”

In his Friday email, Durel cites Lafayette being named the sixth fastest-growing economy in the U.S. with the sixth fastest-growing middle class, urging supporters not to “elect someone that would jeopardize these kinds of accomplishments that this community is achieving.”

On Tuesday Doré joined Durel and Comeaux in endorsing Doise.?Doré says Doise “is much closer to the way I thought and acted the last four years,” although Doré is clearly still smarting from what he believes was a negative campaign waged by Naquin.


US VERSUS THEM

So how much influence did the Tea Party movement have on election outcomes in Lafayette on Oct. 22? Superficially, theirs was a convincing success: The school tax and deconsolidation, both of which the Tea Party of Lafayette opposed, went down in flames. Theriot and Bellard, both endorsed by TPL, won re-election to the council.

But sifting the finer grains of Oct. 22’s results, it’s hard to find evidence that voters were steeped in Tea Party sentiment. TPL-endorsed candidate Craig Spikes lost decisively in District 8 to Durel-aligned incumbent Republican Keith Patin, and incumbent Republican Don Bertrand in District 7 coasted to re-election over two candidates, one of whom, Joan Beduze, while not endorsed by TPL was more or less a Tea Party candidate. Moreover, Bellard and Theriot, as incumbents, had a built-in advantage over the political rookies who ran against them, and the school tax was doomed from the get-go.

Overall voter turnout in Lafayette Parish was 33.5 percent, slightly higher than the composite 32.9 percent turnout in precincts where Bellard, Spikes, Theriot and Andy Naquin ran the strongest. And the vote against the school tax was essentially the same overall in the parish and in those “Tea Party precincts.” Only the margin against deconsolidation, at 69.5 percent, was higher in the Tea Party precincts than it was overall in the parish at 63.3.

These are not figures to hang a three-cornered hat on.

But Durel et al aren’t taking chances. The Tea Party faction on the CPC — Bellard and Theriot — has been a thorn in Durel’s side for nearly four years, voting against purchasing the horse farm and funding the comprehensive plan, and generally cool if not antipathetic to LUS and especially LUS Fiber. The moderates see Naquin as an extension of that “against” impulse.

Naquin, of course, sees it differently.

“He’s looking for a yes man, and I’m not a yes man,” Naquin says of the city-parish president, adding that he wasn’t surprised by Durel’s email endorsing Doise. “I’m not going to walk in there with a pre-set vote because somebody wants me to vote a certain way.”

In the campaign leading up to the primary, Naquin framed Doré as a Durel “yes man,” a proxy for an administration that has favored tax increment financing districts — “a tax without a vote of the people,” as Naquin’s Tea Party talking point goes — and funding non-governmental organizations. It’s a mantle the Naquin campaign is aggressively placing on Doise, who isn’t running from it.

“It’s so awesome,” Doise says of his newfound support among the Republican establishment. “I’ve been the underdog from day one in this race, and for those kind of folks — wonderful, well-respected folks like Conrad Comeaux, Joey Durel, the chamber — to all endorse me, it’s humbling, but at the same time it’s wonderful.” Doise’s pride in getting the endorsement of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce — a lightning rod for the Tea Party and the embodiment of Lafayette’s center-right politics — is perhaps the most telling sign that the Nov. 19 runoff, for the mainstream GOP, is an inter-party contest of “us against them.” For Durel and Comeaux, Doise is “us” and Naquin is “them.”

“It’s rather funny to hear that considering how liberal the chamber is regarding taxes,” Naquin says. “As far as the Tea Party, I’m not a member, but I don’t think it hurts me because they’re for smaller government, less taxes, more efficiency, more responsibility. Name me one thing that’s bad in that regard.”

“I think it’s a shame that the Tea Party first attacked the incumbent and now they’re attacking me and my wife,” Doise adds. “I was hoping that this campaign could be run based on merit and who was the best educated and the best candidate; who has created the most jobs and who would be the most effective in the District 6 seat.”

How would the moderate Doré have fared against Naquin had Doise not been in the primary? Probably better. He may have even won. Some politicos have observed that Doré took the race for granted, assuming that Lafayette’s relatively strong economic showing and his alignment with Durel, who sailed to re-election on Oct. 22, would carry the day. Conventional wisdom says the presence of another moderate Republican siphoned votes from Doré.

“Absolutely all Tea Party,” Doré says when asked to characterize Naquin’s primary campaign. “I never voted for a tax. [Naquin] said I voted for every tax that came my way. Well, that’s technically true because I never voted for one; none ever came my way.”

So it’s us against them on Nov. 19, a frame that mostly fits the portraits of the candidates: Naquin is opposed to LCG funding of NGOs and thinks the comprehensive master plan can be done internally without the projected expense, although he says he strongly favors the horse farm deal.

But the nuances in this race are many. Doise isn’t a pro-tax liberal and Naquin isn’t a hard-line teabagger. Yet the narrative is established — center-right versus hard right — and each side appears ready to embrace his role.

“I feel like they’re standing for what I’m standing for,” Naquin says about the Tea Party of Lafayette. “Have we seen openness in government in the last eight years? Just ask the people on Sunbeam Lane what they think about openness.”

coverstory2When you get right down to it, there’s a lot of people in the Tea Party who don’t want taxes period. But they want services.
— Assessor Conrad Comeaux



coverstory1If you are a supporter of mine and voted for me in this past election, please don’t send me another person that is simply “against.”
— City-Parish President Joey Durel

 
NUMBER CRUNCH:
 
555 - Combined margin of victory in votes for Tea Party-backed incumbent councilmen Jared Bellard (District 5) and William Theriot (District 9) on Oct. 22 out of a total of 10,235 votes cast

1,600 - Margin of victory in votes for incumbent District 8 Councilman Keith Patin over Tea Party-backed challenger Craig Spikes out of 7,040 votes cast

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