BAYHAM: RIP Mike Foster, Louisiana’s Unlikeliest GOP Governor

If the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial election was the “Race from Hell,” then what followed the traumatic Edwin Edwards-David Duke contest resembled something out of a “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

The electoral scramble commenced when Edwards announced he would not seek a fifth term after having previously declared he would do so, putting an exclamation point on it by hanging a banner up inside the governor’s mansion.

To give you an idea of how many politicians jumped at the chance of leading the state in the post-EWE era consider this list of publicly declared interested figures: US Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, ex-Governor.Dave Treen, Congressman Bill Jefferson, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, and Jefferson State Representative Quentin Dastugue.

An impressive list of political heavyweights yet none of them actually ended up qualifying.

Those who did file included ex-Governor Buddy Roemer and Treasurer Mary Landrieu (the two early favorites), Lieutenant Governor Melinda Schwegmann, businessman Phil Preis, State Representative Robert Adley, and Congressman Cleo Fields.

Far from being in the spotlight was a stocky, moustachioed state senator from St Mary Parish named Mike Foster.

The legislature was not the best springboard to the Fourth Floor of the State Capitol.

In fact the last State Senator to make that leap was Murphy Foster (the candidate’s grandfather) in 1892.

The Foster campaign started off with a series of newspaper advertisements written as opinion columns where the candidate broke down his platform and candidacy on a weekly basis.

Granted this was supplemented with a major tv ad buy produced by Roy Fletcher that famously featured Foster driving a tractor, welding, and engaged in other activities that underscored his tongue-in-cheek “not just a pretty face” image.

Initially running as a very conservative Democrat (Louisiana voters had sent only a single member of the GOP to the governor’s mansion in over a century), Foster qualified as a Republican once it became apparent that the party’s official nominee (Dastugue) lacked the funds to continue his candidacy.

With Roemer still haunted by his abortion bill vetoes, Foster collected endorsements from conservative leaders across the state and plowed his way to a plurality in the primary.

Fields successfully consolidated enough of the black vote in a badly fractured Democratic field to become the first African-American to make a statewide runoff.

However the white Democratic establishment never forgave Fields’ “spoiler” candidacy and withheld support to him in the second round, making the runoff a fait accompli for Foster.

With Edwards not seeking a return as governor, Foster benefited from being able to focus on governance without constantly glancing over his shoulder as Treen and Roemer did.

One of Foster’s most lasting visible legacies was the consolidation of the state bureaucracy into a Capitol area campus.

Previously state departments were stuffed into out-of-date, if not toxic, vacated retail buildings scattered all over Baton Rouge.  For example, the Department of Revenue once operated out of an old Sears far removed from the State Capitol.

And what proved to be a prescient move pre-9-11, Foster had a security wall constructed around the governor’s mansion. Previously anyone could drive up to the front door. Foster caught hell from the press for the expenditure, though in time would show it to be necessary.

Perhaps one of the ironies of the Foster political legacy was becoming the state’s first two-term Republican governor, easily cruising to a re-election over “Dollar Bill” Jefferson.

It was Foster’s grandfather who had essentially eliminated Louisiana’s still-viable GOP in the 1890’s after the controversial election of 1896.

But like grandfather, like grandson – Foster would end up breaking the State GOP.

There had been a series of fallings-out between Foster and the Louisiana Republican Party leadership, and doubtlessly cognizant of how the party had essentially slashed the wrists of Roemer’s re-election in 1991, Foster sought to “renew” the State GOP by converting his re-election campaign directly into a party purge operation.

The litmus test for being targeted was support for the 2000 presidential caucuses.

Foster backed George W. Bush’s candidacy and as the Texas governor had put all his eggs in the Iowa caucuses, an early Louisiana contest benefitting someone else was not helpful.

Heads rolled in the party committee elections, claiming the sitting chairman and national committeeman, and dozens of their allies.

When the “renewed” Republican State Committee convened, Foster’s handpicked officers were elected sans opposition, the only time in 25 years every leadership post went uncontested.

But as Foster’s Administration became less conservative, particularly regarding taxes, the governor’s allies were stuck having to either support his agenda or not opposing it, which gave the previous party regime an opening to return from exile.

By that point Foster was more focused on the elevation of his wunderkind protege Bobby Jindal, which was delayed by four years.

Ironically Foster’s primary political legacy was ending the mindset that a Republican was not viable for high office in Louisiana, which plagued both 1986 US Senate candidate Henson Moore and 1987 gubernatorial candidate Bob Livingston.

Furthermore geography became less of a hang-up in Louisiana balloting.

Though hailing from Bayou Country, Foster attracted as much support in the northern parishes as he did in his bailiwick along the Gulf of Mexico.

Foster’s broad support in a state where not being Catholic and residing north of Baton Rouge determined a gubernatorial candidate’s fortunes transformed the state’s political dynamics and led to him becoming the most popular governor in recent history.

If the election of Edwin Edwards in 1972 marked Louisiana’s transition out of the old Long v. anti-Long era, Foster’s two terms marked the beginning of the post-EWE era and Louisiana’s move towards becoming a solidly Republican state, even if it were an unintended consequence.



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