Until last week, the U.S. Senate had more black Republicans in it – Sem. Tim Scott – than did all of the states’ (50 if we include Nebraska’s unicameral body) upper chambers combined. Now they’re even up, thanks to Louisiana’s state Sen. Elbert Guillory making the switch back from Democrat of six years ago to the party in whose governance body he once served.
On the one hand, it’s just a label. Guillory’s overall voting record since his election in 2007 to the state House and then special election to the state Senate in 2008, according to the Louisiana Legislature Log voting index (where 100 means all votes in a year were of the conservative/reform variety) gives him an average of just 56 – exactly the overall average of the entire Legislature over those five years putting him a shade on the side of Republicans who typically espouse conservatism and reform ideas. His one year in the House and first in the Senate were much lower – a 32.5 compared to nearly 72 in the next three years, going from a district 58 percent black and 69 percent Democrats to one 54 percent black and 63 percent Democrats. The district now is 55 percent black, 61 percent Democrats.
On the other hand, the symbolism carries import politically both positive and negative. No group in America even is close to the loyalty that blacks display to Democrat candidates of any color, but at the national level black Democrat candidates score slightly better support. Whether that gets scrambled by having a black Republican candidate is another matter. Guillory has joined an extremely small group; while current data is difficult to come by, a decade ago only a half dozen black Republicans sat in state legislatures, and every one of them represented a majority white district. Possibly no black Republican ever has won election to a state legislative spot in a majority-minority black district since the 19th century.
These daunting historical odds means one of three things must have shaped Guillory’s thinking on this. First, it could be a prelude to an attempt for higher office. But there seems to be nothing obvious in the area or state for which he could run that does not have a Republican incumbent or other announced quality candidate that he could consider a promotion. Second, it could be he’s thinking of retirement, as he will be 71 by the end of his term and wants to go out on his own terms. Or, he could be considering defying history and actually running for a final Senate term now under this label. At first blush, harboring such ambitions may seem far-fetched, but there are two considerations that make such a move less than fanciful.
For one, until the past two decades party identification didn’t mean all that much in Louisiana state and local politics. Being part of the American south long dominated until recent years by the Democrats as a legacy of the Civil War eroded to some degree the meaningfulness of a party label, but something else was a factor beyond this one shared by its neighbors in the region. The state’s political culture, more than any other state’s, developed to focus on individuals, where the populist impulse shied away from trusting institutions and instead taking chances with individual politicians. Even to this day, Louisianans generally emphasize more the personal aspects of a candidate, and consequentially less his partisanship or ideology, than citizens of other states when it comes to voting decisions.
In Guillory’s case, this is reinforced by another reason, the peculiarities of his district. That area in and around St. Landry Parish politically was dominated by the Cravins family for two decades, and in time Guillory partly maneuvered into becoming and partly found himself assigned to being the standard bearer for anti-Cravins forces. When he won the Senate seat he defeated one of them to succeed her son, and then for reelection defeated her husband trying to reclaim the seat. Thus, it could be that this cleavage in area politics so overrides other considerations, added to the personalistic nature of Louisiana campaigns, that the switch will not change that many voters’ minds that have given Guillory recent majorities.
Regardless of that dynamic, it’s clear if a reelection campaign transpires, local and state Democrats will pull out all of the stops to deny him, judging from the visceral and venomous reactions they evinced upon learning of the change – issues about which they seemed perfectly content to keep silent as long as he termed himself a Democrat. And here’s why they are so upset, from his evaluation of his former party in the Opelousas Daily World:
Guillory said that “one of the biggest disappointments has been that party’s role in the breakdown of our families, their support of dependency over self-reliance, of everything but traditional marriage, of abortion on demand. Their policies have encouraged the high teen birth rate, the high school dropout rates, high incarceration rates. Children are encouraged to get something they call a ‘crazy check’ (urban slang for Social Security payments for people deemed mentally incapable of working).”
If only for the sake of good political theater, much less to support the purveyance of wise public policy, let’s hope he goes for four more years.