Dardenne, Villere, and a Short History of the LA GOP

I want to start off by saying that I have always admired Scott’s hard work to make The Hayride successful, and I’m proud to have contributed to it in its earlier stages when the success it has now was only a dream.  As such, I have too much respect for Scott and for this site to try to turn it into a forum for my personal feelings, which is why I haven’t previously written any posts on the Lieutenant Governor’s race, though I’ve certainly made those feelings known in the comments.

John Robert Butler’s recent post labeling Roger Villere as part of the “GOP establishment,” however, is simply too much for me to bear.  The truth must be told, and telling it properly will require me to say some things that have largely been secret.  I sincerely hope that none of my friends take offense, but this election is too important to stay silent.  It’s time to reopen some old wounds.

(Disclaimer:  I helped Roger Villere get elected as GOP Chairman in 2004 and was paid for some of my efforts.  I was also hired as the Victory ’04 Director and worked for Roger then — though the reality of that situation was more complicated.)

Even though President Eisenhower carried Louisiana in 1956, the Republican Party of Louisiana (LAGOP) was largely nonexistent until the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater.  Many young people like Morton Blackwell were inspired by Goldwater’s conservative message and worked hard to grow the GOP in Louisiana, but success was largely elusive until Dave Treen’s successful 1979 campaign for governor.  The 1980’s were difficult for the party, as Treen lost his bid for re-election, Rep. Henson Moore lost a heartbreaking vote to John Breaux in the 1986 U.S. Senate race, and Congressman Bob Livingston narrowly missed the runoff for governor in 1987.

As bad as the 80’s were, things got even worse when Governor Roemer switched to the GOP and then vetoed an anti-abortion bill and installed riverboat casinos and video poker machines across the state, angering social conservatives who then worked to make Clyde Holloway the endorsed GOP candidate in the 1991 election.  Compounding the problems, of course, was David Duke, whose 1990 run for U.S. Senate and 1991 run for governor left the GOP looking ridiculous in every way.  In 1990, sensing that he would finish well back, the GOP-endorsed candidate, State Senator Ben Bagert, actually withdrew from the race and endorsed the highly liberal J. Bennett Johnston.  In 1991, Clyde Holloway got 5% of the vote — just enough GOP support to keep Roemer from making the runoff and ensuring that Louisiana would become the nation’s laughingstock with bumper stickers that said “Vote for the Crook.”  To top things off, LAGOP Chairman Billy Nungesser (father of the current Plaquemines Parish President) endorsed Pat Buchanan in his primary challenge to President George H.W. Bush.

It is hard for those who weren’t in Louisiana at the time to understand just how pathetic and ridiculed the LAGOP was.  Because of this, true conservatives ran for the Republican State Central Committee across the state and were successful in installing former Lafayette Mayor Dud Lastrapes as GOP Chairman.  One of those leading that effort was a young political consultant named Rhett Davis.  Lastrapes was succeeded in 1994 by his Finance Chairman, Mike Francis.  In 1996, Roger Villere was elected as RNC Committeeman and worked closely with Francis on the LAGOP Executive Committee.

I came to LSU in 1991 and was actively volunteering for the LAGOP by 1993.  In 1994, I was hired part time and in 1995 I became a full-time employee of the party.  In 1995, the party was still in turmoil and had different groups supporting State Rep. Quentin Dastugue and former Governor Roemer for governor.  Because of that, the LAGOP decided to target the State Senate.  We labeled a group of Democratic state senators as “The Dirty Dozen” and focused all our efforts that year into removing them.

We immediately got objections from then State Senator Jay Dardenne and other members of the Republican Legislative Delegation, who actively opposed our campaign.   Since there were only six Republicans in the state senate at the time, they needed to work closely with Democrats in order to get support for their pet projects and associated pork.  Naturally, those Democrats wanted Dardenne and the others to try to get our attacks stopped.  In spite of the outright opposition from Dardenne and much of the Delegation, we (with a little help from FBI gambling investigations) managed to increase the number of Republicans in the senate to fourteen, while removing corrupt liberals like Sammy Nunez, Armand Brinkhaus, and Sixty Rayburn and replacing them with conservative Republicans (Tommy Casanova being the most notable of these).  Much of the reform associated with the Foster administration is really due to the fact that the Louisiana Senate became much more conservative.

It’s impossible to overstate the vitriol that the moderates spewed out during this time.  One of their leaders, John Treen (brother of the late governor), filed numerous frivolous lawsuits against the party and against Rhett Davis.  One of his lawsuits against the party was filed just nine days before the 1995 general election.  These actions and others meant that money that should have gone to aid GOP candidates was instead spent on lawyers and legal fees.

The LAGOP also had to spend money on legal fees to defend itself from attempts by Dardenne and the Republican Delegation to take over the committee by passing new laws.  SB818 from 1997 was one example, where Dardenne and others tried to allow the governor to automatically appoint a member of the committee.  These laws were, of course, un-Constitutional, since the LAGOP is not a government entity and has the freedom of association to govern itself.

Although Mike Foster had been a reliable vote in the Louisiana Senate for Edwin Edwards and had only switched to the Republican Party when he qualified, we were nonetheless eager to meet him and work with him after his election.  I’ll never forget the day that Foster finally invited us to the 4th floor of the Capitol to meet with him.  He had talked about possibly using some of his leftover campaign funds (he didn’t need all of them to beat Cleo Fields in the runoff) on a public campaign to persuade others to switch parties and register as Republicans, so you can imagine our shock when we discovered that the true purpose of the meeting was for Foster to persuade us to endorse his plan to raise taxes.  He was tired of Louisiana being last in everything, he said, and we were going to stay last unless we “got the penny back” (i.e. raised the sales tax by one cent) so that the government would have more money to spend (on roads, I think).  It sounds ridiculous now, but Governor Foster expected the LAGOP to officially endorse his plan to raise taxes.

Not at all mindful of my rightful place low on the totem pole in that meeting, I informed the governor that endorsing a tax increase would cost Mike Francis the support of most of the members of the State Central Committee.  He got very angry, went into a long rant, and we were all but thrown out of his office.  From that point onward, Governor Foster worked against the state party and tried to take it over so that it could rubber-stamp his plans for bigger government.

The irony of all this was that the moderates, with the help of their friends in the liberal media, tried to portray the conflict as being about social issues like abortion.  Ed Anderson of the Times-Picayune, for example, couldn’t write a story about the party until 2000 without referring to the conservatives as the “Christian Coalition wing” of the GOP, despite the fact that the Christian Coalition had been basically defunct for years by that time and had never controlled the LAGOP in any way, shape, or form.  In fact, Governor Foster was very socially conservative, pushing through concealed-carry laws for guns, establishing the Governor’s Program on Abstinence to tell teenagers not to have sex, etc.  If the conflict had been about social issues, Foster would have been on our side.  Instead, he sided with Dardenne and the other big-government Republicans in the legislature.

Despite the contentious relationship, Governor Foster invited Francis and Davis in 1999 to meet Texas Governor George W. Bush, who was running for President and the presumed frontrunner.  The implication of that meeting, as I understand it, was very tempting:  endorse Bush and Governor Foster would stop trying to take over the party.  Unfortunately, the “compassionate conservatism” that Bush was selling didn’t seem very conservative, so Davis and Francis decided they couldn’t do that in good conscience.  Davis signed on with the Steve Forbes campaign and helped me get hired as the Louisiana Director, and Villere also decided to support Forbes.  We all believed that lowering taxes to one flat rate would dramatically shrink government and end a lot of corruption.

Of course, Governor Foster then used his own campaign funds to support the moderate slate in the State Central Committee elections in 2000, with the result that he took over the party as he wanted.  During the next four years, of course, the GOP lost the U.S. Senate race in 2002 (when Suzie Terrell should have beaten Landrieu) and the governor’s race in 2003 (when Jindal should have beaten Blanco).  In both cases, the GOP used resources poorly and was ineffectual.  If my memory is correct, the GOP actually lost seats in the legislature in 2003.  [Thanks for the correction, guys].

In 2004, Roger Villere was elected as LAGOP Chairman, and I was privileged to cast one of those votes.  Now Roger had supported then-Congressman Vitter over Treen back in 1999 because Vitter was the more conservative candidate, and in 2004 we enthusiastically jumped behind Vitter again.  When Governor Roemer talked about entering the race, Roger let him know that the party was already committed to Vitter.

It’s useful to understand that David Vitter, at this point, was anything but “establishment” in Louisiana politics.  As a state representative, Vitter had blown the lid off the Tulane scholarship scandal and had angered and embarrassed many of his GOP colleagues.  While much of the public saw Vitter as a reformer unafraid to take on the establishment, the Delegation saw him as a grandstanding, opportunistic backstabber out only for himself.  Though they really didn’t have any choice in 2004, the establishment wasn’t eager to support him.

When I became Director of the Victory ’04 effort in May of that year, I inherited an organization that saw itself as an extension of the Bush campaign, but Roger and I worked hard to get it focused on electing Vitter and Republican congresssmen, since we could see that President Bush would carry the state easily.  This wasn’t easy, as the RNC was convinced that there would be a runoff in the Senate race and didn’t want to spend money in the primary.  Roger’s reward for this effort was to have Vitter attempt to take over the party after the election.

I need hardly tell you how Roger kept the field clear for Bobby Jindal in 2007, or how he believed in Joseph Cao’s campaign against Bill Jefferson when almost no one else did and played a huge role in that victory.  Roger’s record of success as GOP Chairman wasn’t an accident — it was the result of complete dedication to the conservative cause.  As a result, Roger was re-elected as chairman in 2008 without opposition.  The vicious and bitter fights inside the party were finally over.

In 2009, Roger strongly supported Ken Blackwell for RNC Chairman.  We had both met Blackwell back when he was Ohio Secretary of State and the Chairman of Steve Forbes’s 2000 campaign.  Of the five candidates for chairman, Blackwell was easily the most conservative, which is why he didn’t win.  The RNC is a very liberal group of Republicans, as you can easily see if you visit my www.dumpsteele.com website.  Both Michael Steele and Jindal were clients of consultant Curt Anderson, and supporting Steele would have been the easy thing for Roger to do, but not the conservative thing to do.  From my Dumpsteele efforts, I can tell you that much of the RNC regards Roger as someone on the extreme right wing.  Fortunately, I expect Tea Party efforts across the country to ultimately replace many of these liberal RNC members.

So if anyone wants to pretend that Roger Villere is “establishment” and Jay Dardenne is “conservative,” they are welcome to ride the little red trolley to the land of make-believe.  People can believe what they want and say what they like, and the truth remains unchanged.  And the truth is important.



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