When most Louisianans with an interest in politics hear the name Treen, they think of David Treen, the first Republican to be elected to Congress and later governor in the 20th century.
But among people who are involved in the Republican Party, they more often think of his brother John, who remained involved in the GOP from the 1940’s until he drew his last breath.
Beyond being the sibling of the man recognized as the de facto father of the Louisiana Republican Party, John Treen also has the unenviable distinction of being the only person to ever lose a head-to-head election to David Duke.
While that ignominious defeat would be forever shackled to John Treen’s political identity, that loss would have far graver consequences for the Republican Party and Louisiana.
The seemingly obscure special election for a Metairie legislative seat in 1989 would serve as the springboard for Duke’s two competitive runs for statewide office, contribute to the defeat of Republican Governor Buddy Roemer, spur a primary presidential bid that would complicate then-President George Bush’s already star-crossed re-election campaign in 1992, and a handful of later attempts for office that would receive disproportionately heavy media coverage and be a maddening nuisance for Donald Trump and party leaders on the national and state levels.
Louisiana politics would be turned on its ear for years because John Treen finished a mere 228 votes shy of winning a state representative post.
But there was a third side to Treen that should be attached to his biography, a distinction of merit that will likely be untouched by anyone.
John Treen was involved in the Republican Party in eight decades.
Treen began his long engagement in politics as a young activist supporting the presidential campaign of New York Governor Tom Dewey, who also lost an “unlosable” bid.
Treen would remain involved in the Louisiana GOP though he would be overshadowed by his more affable brother, who joined the GOP after John.
While David was a sincere conservative, John Treen was an adamant moderate and vocal champion of the country-club wing of the GOP.
In 1980 Treen publicly supported George Bush over Ronald Reagan in the primaries.
Treen often clashed with the increasingly influential evangelical wing of state party, and in 1996 that led to a strange alliance of convenience between two very different factions.
In the 1996 primaries the evangelicals had lined up behind the presidential candidacy of Texas US Senator Phil Gramm in Louisiana’s Republican Caucuses.
The leading Republican candidate, Kansas US Senator Bob Dole, decided to skip the Bayou State contest to concentrate on Iowa though the Senate Majority Leader was concerned about a well-financed Gramm walking out of Louisiana with an early victory.
Thus Treen and his fellow pro-Dole establishment types adopted the spoiler candidacy of Pat Buchanan. The irregular alliance between the hard right and the country club paid dividends with Treen helping deliver the Republican bailiwick of Jefferson Parish for Buchanan and landing a fatal blow to Gramm’s candidacy.
Treen’s victory was short-lived as the evangelicals successfully dislodged him from his state committee seat that November.
Four years later Treen returned to the committee when Republican Governor Mike Foster set out to purge the state committee not so much for ideological reasons but to stock the State GOP with more “agreeable” Republicans.
In 2001 when an unexpected vacancy for chairman manifested, Treen made a bid to lead the Louisiana GOP but fell well-short of realizing his long harbored ambition.
Though the party committee had been “renewed” through the direct intervention of a Republican governor with whom he was closely aligned, Treen’s strong personality was likely too much for an administration that wanted a pliable ally and not a fighter at the top.
Furthermore the overwhelming rout of Treen’s adversaries in committee elections across the state had the ironic outcome of making him obsolete as there was nobody left to fight.
Treen managed to win another two terms on the committee that would once again be dominated by his adversaries before a concerted effort was made to knock him off the RSCC for good by a disparate coalition of party leaders who only agreed on one thing: beating Treen.
Handily defeated for re-election, Treen ran in a new district despite being in his 90’s, and lost again. At the time of his passing Treen was seeking re-election to a spot on the Jefferson Parish Republican Committee.
Removed from the fray but determined to remain engaged in the party in some capacity, Treen transitioned from a cantankerous pugilist to a respected senior figure.
A new generation of activists would pepper Treen with questions about the infamous “phone booth era” of political irrelevance that is now hard to even conceive in a state where Republicans hold so many offices.
The man who once treated eager young activists in a WC Fields-like dismissive manner was only to happy to share his experiences and stories from decades ago.
If David Treen was the historic figure through his trailblazing elections, John Treen through his longevity was the historian.
John Treen mostly lived in the political shadow of the Davids but finished his long political life in his own right.