The Curious Campaign Of Hunt Downer (UPDATED)

It’s been an interesting weekend for the 3rd District Congressional race, in which Jeff Landry and Hunt Downer are fighting a runoff campaign for the right to take on Democrat Ravi Sangisetty in the general election Nov. 2.

Interesting, but not productive. In fact, after a poisonous first primary in which Landry fell just short of a majority, things have actually gotten worse. By the Oct. 2 runoff election, it might not even be a surprise if one of them called the other one a drug addict.

Oh, wait. That’s more or less what the Downer campaign was up to last week.

Sunday’s Thibodaux Daily Comet had an article about a 17-year old arrest on cocaine possession charges – not of Landry, but of one of his roommates at the time. Landry signed the search warrant for the St. Martin Parish sheriff’s department, of which he was a deputy at the time, to search a rent house he and several other employees of the department were living in. One of his roommates, Towaski James, was arrested after deputies found a substantial amount of cocaine under the house.

This was in 1993. Landry was never charged with anything, and maintains that he’s never been involved with drugs or even tried any. In fact, the district attorney in the matter has put out a letter declaring Landry had nothing to do with the Towaski James possession charge.

The article is the culmination of a week’s worth of rumor and innuendo about  “Landry’s cocaine charge” emanating from the Downer campaign, and represents a new low in what has been an awful example of political skullduggery in this race. Here at the Hayride, we’ve known about this business for several months but didn’t print anything about it. And our sources tell us that individuals associated with the Downer campaign approached third-place finisher Kristian Magar’s camp several weeks ago with the information, though Magar told the Hayride he wasn’t approached and already was aware of the story before the campaign got started. Magar, who is no friend of Landry’s but chose not to raise the incident in his primary campaign, said he thinks both remaining campaigns should “focus on what is truly important and leave this nonsense alone.”

I myself was approached by a Downer campaign supporter with the story last week.

There has been dirt on both sides of this campaign, and neither Landry nor Downer’s hands are particularly clean. But Landry’s campaign has attacked Downer’s record, not his person. And one’s political record is fair game. Even a disingenuous attack on a political record, of which it could certainly be argued Landry has been guilty in a couple of instances, is still more honorable than a personal attack – because personal attacks affect families and others who aren’t combatants in a campaign.

Downer’s campaign has been intensely personal in the dirt they’ve slung. This latest business with the roommate’s arrest is a new low, as mentioned above, but it’s of a piece with the “Landry is a liar and a crook” narrative they’ve been working from the start. In the primary, the trump card was a business dispute Landry was involved with several years ago, in which a judgement was entered against Landry for $30,000 – as Downer’s campaign alleges. But the attack is pretty disingenuous, since the dispute as a whole was ultimately resolved with a settlement of over $100,000 paid to Landry. If he’s such a crook and he defrauded the other side of the dispute, how come he collected money in a resolution of the issue? As a smoking gun to prove Landry’s a shyster, this was a bit less than advertised.

And the cocaine thing wasn’t even the latest. Yesterday we ran a release from the Downer campaign which essentially accused most of the state’s Republican Party apparatus of corruption. It was a breathtaking shot at the parish GOP organizations which endorsed Landry, not to mention the state party. The Downer camp essentially said the Landry endorsements were illegitimate because only two – Lafourche and Jefferson Parishes’ executive committees – made endorsements off an official vote, and it accused Landry’s campaign manager Philip Joffrion of using his connections as the state GOP’s political director to push the state party into Landry’s camp.

It should be noted that Downer may have received the Jefferson PEC’s endorsement, but Landry beat Downer in Jefferson Parish in the primary Aug. 28 by a margin of 60 percent to 29 percent. Landry beat Downer in Lafourche as well, 46-43, and did so with the PEC’s endorsement there. In fact, Landry won every parish but Terrebonne, Downer’s home parish, and in 10 of the 13 he did so with 58 percent or more. The idea that Landry’s endorsements were “bought,” or somehow illegitimately won, is a peculiar one in the face of the actual votes in those parishes. Regardless of the endorsement process with which the Downer camp is quibbling, the support for Landry among those nine parish GOP organizations is genuine and reflects the GOP voters in those parishes.

The actual quote from Downer’s campaign manager Buddy Boe is amazing…

“Jeff Landry hired anyone he could to get this endorsement. Jeff’s campaign manager is the former political director of the LAGOP, his regional director is the Chairmen of the Iberia PEC (of which Jeff is a member), and another Landry regional director is on the Republican State Central Committee. One of the PECs didn’t even exist until they sat around a table to endorse Jeff without speaking to us, two PECs have one member, and several failed to contact the other campaigns and follow a fair and open endorsement process. It must have been a pretty tense argument for the one member of the St. James and Assumption Parish PECs over who to endorse. The state party’s eight member committee just undermined their own closed primary system they fought diligently to have, hold, and protect.  This supposedly elite group of party insiders thinks they can handpick the Republican nominee. Jeff has touted himself as a ‘man of the people’ but he just became the handpicked, back room establishment candidate,” said Buddy Boe, Downer’s campaign manager.

If the Downer campaign wants to scream about how Landry has hired folks like Joffrion, it must be remembered that it takes two parties to make a hire. For Joffrion to leave a job as the state party’s political director to work for Landry must be an indication he thinks Landry’s a good candidate, no?

Let’s also bear in mind that the state GOP made no endorsement of any candidates until the primary results were in and it became obvious Landry will ultimately win this race. The party did what you’re supposed to do – let the primary sort itself out – until it became very apparent that a runoff would be a waste of time and money given how close he was to a majority on Aug. 28 and the 14-point lead he had on Downer in the primary. The state party is trying to push Downer out of the race not because they don’t like him or because they’re bought, but because it makes more sense to spend resources running against Sangisetty for the next month than to continue having a mudslinging contest between Landry and Downer. After all, what’s important for the state GOP is to flip the seat from Democrat to Republican, and it’s not smart to take that possibility for granted regardless of how likely that might be.

I’ve been getting releases like these out of the Downer campaign for months, though, and it’s been puzzling. Because Downer has been around for a long time and he’s generally been regarded as a good guy, an honorable man and a respected public servant. Everybody I’ve talked to with the Landry campaign has said they’d be OK with supporting Downer if he got the party nomination; there’s no ill will toward him there.

In fact, Downer had an easy message to follow, and it’s amazing his campaign hasn’t followed it from the start. He could have touted the fact he’s been a pillar of the South Louisiana community for practically as long as Landry and Magar have been alive, the fact that as a major general in the Louisiana National Guard he’s demonstrated leadership and character which are sorely lacking in Washington and the fact that as a state legislator and former Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives he’s got legislative experience which would be immediately useful to the 3rd District if he made it to Congress.

Have we heard any of that from the Downer campaign? Not really. Instead, what we’ve heard is that Landry is a scumbag.

This isn’t a typical campaign for Downer, who has run seven political races – six successful ones for the state legislature from 1975-2000, and one unsuccessful one for governor in 2003 – in his career. Prior to this cycle he didn’t have a reputation as a gutter politician. It’s a shame he’s likely to finish his political career with one thanks to this race.

So if this is an outlier for Downer, how did it happen? Well, one clue comes to us from Facebook…

Boe is 25 years old. He graduated from Jesuit High School in New Orleans in 2003 and got a political science degree from Tulane in 2008. After a stint in purchasing at Cargill for four months in 2007, he caught on in the St. John Parish President’s office and held several jobs – Public Information Officer, Communications Director, Acting Chief Administrative Officer and Transition Coordinator. But in September of 2009, when St. John Parish President Bill Hubbard resigned and pled guilty to soliciting $20,000 in bribes from parish contractors to fund a car purchase for a friend, Boe decided to run for Hubbard’s office. He came in third, just 47 votes short of the runoff, and polled 21 percent as the only Republican in a five-person race on March 27.

In that St. John Parish race eventually won by Democrat Natalie Robottom, things got pretty ugly. Boe made a big deal over the fact that Robottom took a campaign contribution from the wife of former St. John president Lester Millet, Jr., who was convicted in 1995 of extorting money from a partner selling land to the Formosa Plastics company in advance of a plant proposed to be built in St. John Parish. Boe used that contribution as grist for a charge that Robottom, who ran on “changing the culture of corruption,” was living in a glass house.

 “Mrs. Robottom has gone against her own campaign theme of “ending the culture of corruption” and “trust” by taking money from a twice convicted felon and then changing her finance report by swapping names.” said Boe at the time.

Robottom’s response was pretty rough…

“Mr. Boe, not Natalie Robottom, is a large part of the reason why our parish must hold this special election to replace a corrupt parish president,” Robottom said in a statement. “Instead of challenging me, he should return the money he received from working in a convicted felon’s campaign and according to him, single-handedly getting Mr. Hubbard elected to office.”

In other words, we don’t really see a pattern of nasty campaigning and attacks based on innuendo from Downer’s history, but we do see one from Boe’s. It’s a reasonable inference that the reason Downer’s campaign has chosen the path it’s on is its 25-year old campaign manager, fresh off a losing mudslinging campaign of his own, has decided to pursue an approach similar to the one which didn’t work for him back in March.

Don’t forget this Boe quote from the Daily Comet article…

“Jeff can try to divert attention from the issue at hand,” Boe said, “but the issue isn’t his attempt to distort my relationship with the press, it’s Jeff’s possible connection and history with cocaine.”

The smart thing for Downer to do at this point, as we said a week ago and weren’t alone in doing so, would be to get out of the race. If he’s going to stay in it, the smartest thing he could do would be to dump his youthful and, it appears, misguided and immature campaign manager and try a new approach along the lines of what Magar recommends – namely, give the voters of the 3rd District a legitimate, positive choice between two quality candidates and let them decide on that basis rather than who can best tear down whom.

Because if he’s not able to switch gears, Downer is going to be remembered for how his political career ended – and an otherwise honorable record will be tainted by a slimy, fruitless and poorly-run effort which hurts everyone involved.

UPDATE: The letter from the District Attorney’s office in question can be found here.

UPDATE #2: The Downer campaign is continuing to press on the cocaine story. A Landry campaign mailer from some time ago had noted that “working as a Sheriff’s Deputy, Jeff signed the order allowing a roommate to be searched and arrested for drugs…a tough decision.” From that phrase comes this quote from our favorite 25-year old campaign manager, who was in third grade when the incident in question occurred…

“In his campaign materials, Jeff tried to fool the voters that this incident was a tough decision to turn his roommate in, but after a reporter asked about it, he now says he just happened to answer the door that day. The facts are simple: there was an investigation, cocaine was under his house, he only cooperated with law enforcement when they knocked on his door, and then he ‘voluntarily resigned’ from the Sheriff’s office. If the situation was so innocent, why the spin? Jeff’s own inconsistent statements raise serious questions about his involvement in this incident. The issue now is Jeff’s ever changing story and his repeated attempts to mislead the voters,” said Buddy Boe.

Has Landry’s story changed? And is this really what a campaign for U.S. Congress is about?

UPDATE #3: To shed some more light on whether Landry changed his story, we’ve picked up a copy of the mailer itself. Judge for yourself if it represents a change in Landry’s story:

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