Reviewing Louisiana’s contests this fall for the Supreme Court and Public Service Commission, whether to act as a stealth Democrat and whether that will cost a candidate are questions that will be answered.
A growing trend in Louisiana, which first began in local contests in the northern part of the state but increasingly has become visible statewide, is for Democrats to run for office without a party label or as an independent, or even calling themselves Republicans. This way, they try not to turn off potential voters who increasingly register as Republicans that turn up their noses at any Democrat while using labelling or other means to signal to faithful remaining Democrats that they are safe to vote for.
In some places, that tactic is irrelevant. For the 7th Supreme Court District contest to replace retiring Democrat Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, which comprises Orleans and some of Jefferson Parish, with a large black and Democrat majority only a Democrat can win. It has three largely interchangeable black Democrat women jostling to replace Johnson – Appellate Judge Sandra Cabrina Jenkins, Orleans Civil Judge Piper Griffin, and Appellate Judge Teri Love.
The district all three have run in and won is Orleans Parish. Griffin has been the most controversial, having negated a New Orleans City Council decision to allow building of a new gas energy plant. Her convoluted decision that voided the decision on procedural grounds has been appealed to the court on which Jenkins and Love sit, although they aren’t involved in its hearing at present. This incident either could vault her to the front of the race, or push her to the back of the pack.
Such drama doesn’t exist for the 4th District seat, open by the sudden retirement of Republican Associate Justice Marcus Clark, even as the label positioning becomes extremely important. Wishing promotion from the 3rd Circuit is Judge Shannon Gremillion and from the 2nd Circuit Jay McCallum. Both run as Republicans – for the first time in their political lives.
McCallum last ran as an independent, and before his judicial career served in the House as a Democrat. Gremillion last ran as a Democrat. Both seem to recognize only a Republican can win in this district, and each profess conservatism. The winding district runs from southwest to northeast, and, besides who is the most genuine conservative of the two, one factor to decide the contest may be the different geographic bases of the pair, with Gremillion from the Calcasieu Parish area and McCallum from Lincoln/Ouachita.
Public Service Commission District 1 also has a former Democrat in the mix, John Schwegmann who held the seat nearly a quarter of a century ago, running without a party label this time to challenge incumbent Republican Commissioner Eric Skrmetta. Six years ago, Skrmetta ran an uninspiring campaign that nearly led to his defeat by an extreme environmentalist – who ran as a Republican, naturally.
Schwegmann’s probably past his shelf life, but, perhaps sensing some vulnerability, Skrmetta drew potentially a strong challenger genuinely from his own party: former state Rep. Kevin Pearson. Although he insists the deal the PSC negotiated would not have left state electricity ratepayers on the hook for a pie-in-the-sky wind power plan, Skrmetta’s vote for the plan – which fell apart when Texas regulators refused to go along with it – may come back to haunt him if Pearson makes it an issue.
Infighting among the three may open the door for the only Democrat, past failed Senate candidate lawyer and party stalwart Allen Borne, to make the runoff against likely either Skrmetta or Pearson. Borne holds standard leftist views on the environment, meaning a competent campaign by Pearson or Skrmetta should net either one the win.
But there is one guy running in a Republican-leaning district who will run unapologetically as a Democrat – incumbent PSC District 5 Commissioner Foster Campbell. And, given the nature of the times, he might well keep his seat.
A bit less than four years ago, Campbell looked to be in trouble for 2020. He was humiliated in the U.S. Senate race with Republican Sen. John Kennedy wiping him out by 22 points. His northern district increasingly was electing Republicans within its boundaries wherever districts without black majorities existed, now with hardly any Democrats representing those for state offices.
But then came the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, which vastly reduced opportunities for challengers to campaign sufficiently to raise awareness and money to knock off wealthy incumbents who can afford to finance their campaigns – and Campbell is very wealthy. By qualifying time, he drew just two Republican opponents, Ouachita Parish Police Juror Shane Smiley and Ouachita School Board member Scotty Waggoner.
Campbell has a history of casting some truly awful votes in his 18 years on the PSC (including for the wind power project), but neither Republican has a history of raising anything but a pittance of money or running very involved campaigns. Both skills will be needed to win a district of 20-plus parishes in size even if Campbell repeatedly has voted against the best interests of his district.