Fighting back against GOP control in Louisiana, one seat at a time

Like most other southern states, Louisiana has gone from a longtime Democratic stronghold to majority Republican at both the local and national level. But the Bayou has never been a straightforward traditional Dixie state, instead existing as a unique multicultural marshland, so its political transformation has not entirely traveled the path laid out by the Nixon Southern Strategy.

Sure, Louisiana’s own shift was in part reflective of the national political realignment political, but that only set conditions for potential changes; it took several distinct events to actually put the forces in motion. Lamar Jackson, the progressive journalist and publisher of the Bayou Brief, outlined those events in a recent conversation with Progressives Everywhere, and first pointed to the Jungle Primary system put in place by Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards.

Edwards’s goal was to cut off opposition in partisan primaries, protecting what was then a Democratic majority. The then-governor did not see the political winds starting to change around him and he certainly did not see two decades into the future, when Republicans would push for constitutional changes that would further weaponize the new primary system.

Before he became infamous for his particular tastes in DC, David Vitter was a crusading state senator who successfully pushed for term limits in the legislature. After a three-term limit was enacted in 1997, the clock began ticking on long-time Democratic incumbents. By the mid-aughts, as some Democrats were seeing their careers expire, Vitter teamed with deep-pocketed donors to pick off others who still had some time left in office. He formed Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, a big-money PAC devoted to buying Baton Rouge, and threw his weight around.

“They poured millions of dollars into this and they went to vulnerable, incumbent Democrats who were not yet term-limited, and they said to them, ‘If you switch parties, we will gladly not interfere with your reelection campaign. And if you don’t, we’re gonna spend $100,000 running a candidate against you,’” Jackson explained. “And so they peeled off a number of people in the State House and the State Senate that way.”

Republicans took over the legislature in 2011 and with the help of Gov. Bobby Jindal (remember him?) they gerrymandered the hell out of the state. It has largely been a decade and a half of disastrous Republican control, save for some positives that have come out of the first term of current Gov. John Bel Edwards, like Medicaid expansion. The state is ranked dead last or damn near that in just about every traditional measure of income inequality, with 20% of its people living at or beneath the poverty line, 49th in the nation in food insecurity, and dead last in gender income inequality.

The Louisiana Democratic Party has been in a bit of disarray, but given the national climate and Edwards’ popularity, they’re hoping for an upswing in this November’s elections. While Vitter’s old PAC (now known as Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority) is run by Attorney General Jeff Landry and just as brutal as ever, there’s finally some energy on the Democratic side there, as well. They’ve identified at least two dozen flippable seats and it could grow from there.

Democrats have a shot at getting an early start on the blue wave on February 23rd, when a special election is being held for a number of legislative districts in each chamber. Most of the seats are solidly controlled by one party of the other, but the Baton Rouge-area 62nd, up for grabs after the exit of longtime Rep. Kenny Havard, is a swing district.

Due to the Jungle Primary, there are several candidates running as Democrats for the seat, which is both encouraging from an energy standpoint and potentially damaging from a sheer strategy point of view. One of the candidates, Jerel Giarrusso, has spent much of her career working for the State of Louisiana in communications and public information (though she also spent time in the private sector), so her knowledge of the district and government makes her a dependable choice to actually deliver for the district. Giarrusso spoke with Progressives Everywhere this week about her life, campaign, and where she stands on important issues.

Let’s start by talking about your district and your connection to it.

I’m originally from New Orleans and I’ve made in the Baton Rouge area home for 40 years. I’ve lived in this district for 34 years. I live in Zachary. It’s a largely rural district that encompasses most of two parishes, the largest municipality is Zachary and only half of it is in the district. The other communities in the district are very small villages.

You couldn’t be political while you worked for the government, so why jump in now, after retirement?

I was kept from having any sort of political activity during those 27 years in the government, but I come from a political family in New Orleans. A number of my family members, uncles and my father, were public servants in one form or another. My father ran for political office one time and did not win, but his two brothers retired as chiefs of police in the city of New Orleans. And after retirement they both started elected office. One became a city councilman and became the mayor pro tem for 18 years. The other one became a juvenile judge. My father was a civic leader. It’s just a family tradition to serve the public in one way or another.

I worked with legislators on and off during my entire career and while state employees are not allowed to lobby, they’re often required to give information and testify on committees and sit through endless hearings and provide information to governor appointees for budget committees and other committees in the legislature. So I know how the game is played. I know how it works and while it may not be pretty, I think I’m experienced enough and tough enough to have to play the game for the betterment of my district and citizens of the state.

So having worked in state government for so long, which issues are you planned to focus on? Which matter for your district?

The largest industry in east Louisiana is state institutions. There are several institutions. There’s a large mental health hospital that’s been there for well over 100 years. There’s a large prison and there are three or four other smaller institutions, and they really do constitute the largest industry in the states. During the Jindal years, he cut the budget to the bone. A lot of people were laid off, lost their jobs, several other operations within those institutions with privatized.

That was disastrous. You paid more money for poor service. So I’m [focused on] protecting those jobs because those institutions aren’t going away. Bobby Jindal might have threatened to close things and he did close institutions in other parts the state and cut back a great deal on mental health, but they’re still there.

Those jobs need to be protected for two reasons. The employees need the jobs, but more importantly, the citizens need those services. You know, protecting, protecting those institutions is vital.

Another problem in that area is infrastructure — roads, bridges, they absolutely need to be kept up. The logging industry is huge up there and huge trucks are going over those roadways all the time. They need to pay their fair share of road tax. It’s a big industry and there’s a lot of money in the logging industry and I respect that, but they need to pay their fair share because we can see that a lot of the highways are just crumbling. Some of them were dangerous. There are two lanes when they need to be four lanes.

Medicaid was expanded in Louisiana and it has massively expanded healthcare, but Gov. Edwards has said he’d think about working with the GOP on work requirements. 

I don’t think that’s appropriate. Work is an important thing. I’ve worked my whole life and most of us have, but not everybody’s in a position to get a good paying job. There are not a lot of good paying jobs available in some areas and we should respect that. And you should not deny someone basic healthcare because there’s not a good job available to them. That’s a problem everywhere and it’s certainly a problem in our district.

Louisiana is now at the center of the abortion debate, with a case on limits to abortion access that could reach the Supreme Court. Where do you stand on that?

I’m embarrassed by it. I am what is called a pro-life Democrat. By that I mean, I personally would never choose to. And of course I’m beyond that these days, but I would never personally had an abortion in my first pregnancy. In my first pregnancy, in the trimester, I was exposed to some dreadful disease that could have damaged my growing fetus to my doctor. And the first thing she says was “are you willing to have an abortion?” And I said absolutely not and I wouldn’t trade my 37-year-old son for anything.

But I will also go to the mat for every woman’s right to choose. It is absolutely not my business what another woman does with her body. And I think it’s perfectly outrageous, men telling women what to do and how to live. It’s nobody’s business how we practice birth control, whether we choose to have an abortion or carrying a pregnancy to term and I will absolutely go to my death to fight for a woman’s right to choose.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Jerel Giarrusso and donate to her campaign!

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