BAYHAM: Is Garret Graves The Cajun Paul Ryan?

Back in 2001 I put in a call to then US Representative Billy Tauzin’s Washington office to complain about some federal matters affecting my community. The line got transferred to a young legislative assistant named Garret Graves who dutifully jotted down all my grievances and promised to check into resolving the problems.

To my shock, I received a phone call a few days later from the same congressional aide who ran through every issue I had raised and outlined all of the departments that needed to be contacted. I was impressed by his professionalism and assumed he would one day move up to chief of staff.

And had Charlie Melancon not upset the Tauzin family succession plan in the Third Congressional seat in 2004, I suspect he would have ended up with that position.

Instead, Graves’s time on Capitol Hill got diverted to US Senator David Vitter’s office. After Bobby Jindal’s election as governor in 2007, Graves returned to Louisiana and had a relatively long tenure as “coastal czar” in a Jindal Administration notorious for its high turnover rate in personnel.

The guy I once figured to end up one day as a top aide for a congressman is now seeking a spot in the Congress.

Graves is the Louisiana equivalent of Wisconsin US Representative and Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a youthful policy “know it all” who went from congressional staffer to congressman.

Like Ryan, Graves is young, knowledgeable about the ways of Capitol Hill, able to hit the ground running on day one and if he stays in Washington long enough, likely to end up in a committee chairmanship or leadership position faster than anyone else elected in the 2014 congressional class.

If successful Graves would be the first career staffer from Louisiana to get elected to the US House of Representatives since Jim McCrery pulled off the relatively rare political feat in 1988. For the most part, Louisiana sends state legislators and doctors up to DC.

Prior to McCrery’s victory, Breaux had made the leap in 1972, succeeding Governor-elect Edwin Edwards in the Seventh Congressional District in southwest Louisiana.

If there was a standardized test for US Representative, there’s little doubt Graves would be walking into the Baton Rouge-centric seat in Congress. But there isn’t and voters do not fall in love with resumes, even one that is impressive as Graves’.

If they did, George Bush would have soundly defeated Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980.

For the uber-qualified Graves, his immediate concern is creating an angle and political identity beyond his extensive government background and his close association with a Jindal Administration, whose popularity has tumbled.

Baton Rouge State Senator Daniel Claitor has a constituency that has voted for him in a 2009 special election and was returned without opposition in 2011.

And though he does not hold public office, 28 year old entrepreneur Paul Dietzel has a “purple and gold” football lineage in a district where LSU is king and has made an aggressive play for evangelical conservatives and his fellow millennial voters.

Graves’ situation was not helped with the recent entry of Houma State Representative Lenar Whitney, who hails from the same area of the district where Graves had developed contacts and relationships during his time working in Billy Tauzin’s office.

Perhaps the biggest impediment Graves faces is the presence of Edwards in the race.

As the polling data indicates, the former governor will act as a sponge to Democrats who might otherwise be impressed with Graves’s coastal background but can’t bring themselves to vote for a Republican in this hyper-partisan era.

Edwards is almost certain to be the lead candidate in the primary, thus occupying one of the two coveted spots in the December general election. Graves’s challenge isn’t winning a runoff but making the runoff.

Are there enough voters leftover for Graves to make a play for in a crowded field after Edwards, Dietzel, Claitor and Whitney’s have grabbed their respective geographical, partisan and demographic slices of the electoral pie?

The odds would have been better for Graves had there not been a competitive US Senate race taking place simultaneously increasing voter turnout and adding to the importance of name recognition (to the benefit of Edwards, Claitor and by proxy of his late grandfather, Dietzel).

However, the political novice/policy wonk’s endeavor has won over many of the state’s prominent political funders and a number of politicians he has worked with over the years.

There is no doubt Graves has the talent and the skills to do the job.

The great unknown for Garret Graves is whether he can transcend “parochial constituency politics” to win.

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