Stateline Story

Louisiana Election Looks Like No Contest For Governor

Louisiana voters go to the polls on Saturday to begin the process of electing a governor. No one in Louisiana seriously doubts that incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Foster will be re-elected this fall.

The only real question is whether Foster will lock up the election in this Saturday's primary or be pushed into a Nov. 20 runoff with his main opponent, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.

With less than four days remaining before voters go to the polls, Foster appears headed for a primary victory. One of the two newest pre-election polls shows him getting 55 percent of the vote. The other has him winning 60.9 percent.

Louisiana has a unique open primary election system. All candidates run together on the same ballot in the primary, regardless of party affiliation. Voters are allowed to vote for whomever they wish. Republicans can vote for Democrats. Democrats can vote for Republicans, and Louisiana's growing number of independent, unaligned voters can pick their favorite on the ballot. If no one wins a majority of the vote on election day, the top two vote-getters meet in a runoff on the general election day.Foster is enormously popular with Louisiana's generally conservative electorate. Since taking office in 1996, he has an impressive record of accomplishments, particularly on the education front.

In campaign appearances, Foster is quick to boast about:

  • Boosting annual funding for teacher pay by $218.7 million since 1996, increasing average teacher pay by about $5,000 per teacher in the process.
  • Increasing college faculty salaries by about 15 percent, or $77.6 million, over 1995-96 levels.
  • Increasing state support for higher education by about $187 million over 1995-96 levels.
  • Putting $77.6 million in extra funds into improving classroom technology.
  • Putting $70 million more into reading and math instruction for primary grades.

Foster also brags that he supported reduced taxes, increased highway maintenance and construction and cracked down on what he said is lawsuit abuse.

Foster might have been vulnerable to the right opponent, but the right opponent didn't surface. Most of his opponents are fringe candidates.

For example, Belinda Alexandrenko is running as a Reform Party candidate and trying to make an appeal to women voters. But,Alexandrenko got less than one percent of the vote when she ran for governor in 1995.

Foster's most formidable challenger is Jefferson, who represents a New Orleans district in the U.S. House of Representatives. A veteran of nearly two decades on the political scene, he is the Democrats' anointed candidate.

Born in the impoverished delta region of northeast Louisiana, Jefferson grew up on a small farm and remembers picking cotton to help pay for the college educations of some of his nine brothers and sisters. Jefferson, who graduated from predominantly black Southern University in Baton Rouge and received his law degree from the Harvard Law School, was first elected to the state Senate in 1979.

Generally considered an ally of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, he was a capable legislator who preferred to work quietly behind the scenes. During his last years in the state Senate, Jefferson was a key player in restructuring state budget practices and setting up procedures that yielded much more financial stability for state government.

In his bid for governor, Jefferson has the backing of the Louisiana Democratic Party's State Central Committee, the state AFL-CIO's political action arm and Louisiana's two U.S. senators, John Breaux and Mary Landrieu.

Jefferson also has the support of President Bill Clinton, who recently visited New Orleans and helped him raise $1 million in campaign money.

But, that may not help much - Jefferson is black, and would be in trouble demographically if he gets into a runoff with Foster. In Louisiana, black voters make up about 29 percent of the electorate. If Jefferson got every black vote on election day, he would still need about a third of the white vote to get the majority needed for election. And, that's not likely to happen -- Louisiana is a state still plagued by racial polarity.

State Sen. Tom Greene, R-Maringouin, and attorney Phil Preis, D-Baton Rouge, are also trying to mount a threat to Foster. But neither has had much success raising money to get their messages out.

Greene jumped into the race at the last minute no statewide campaign organization. He is pushing a platform that promises parents more control over their children's educations, including instituting state-funded education vouchers; eliminating state dependence on gambling; finding a balance between industry and the environment; and bringing greater disclosure to special interest influence of government.

Preis is a wealthy corporate lawyer who specializes in mergers and acquisitions. He has never held public office and is making his second try at the state's top elected post. Preis ran for governor in 1995, finishing fifth in a 16-person field.

Preis' chief campaign plank is to push a $1.5-billion a year processing tax on oil and natural gas handled in the state. He wants to use the money to help local school systems rebuild and replace dilapidated schools and build a new international airport and seaport in south Louisiana.

Foster's friends and allies include many of the same people who supported and helped controversial former Gov. Edwin Edwards during Edwards' years in power. But, Jefferson can't attack Foster on that front since Jefferson was an ally of Edwards himself.

Foster also is very well funded compared to his opponents. As of early October, he had raised nearly $4 million.

Jefferson logged $2.1 million as of early October, including $650,000 from the state Democratic Party and party-affiliated organizations, and Preis and Greene were at less than $200,000 each.

A recent Foster fund-raising effort was an motorcycle ride that started an hour south of Baton Rouge and wound up at the Governor's Mansion for a barbecue.

The ride attracted more than 300 middle and upper income motorcycle enthusiasts and raised more than $35,000 for the governor's campaign kitty. Foster, an avid biker, led the way on his blue Harley Davidson, with first lady Alice riding behind him.

While popular politically, Foster has his weaknesses and his detractors. He has spent much of his administration pushing a softening of the state's liability laws so businesses would have less to fear from lawsuits. He won changes that provide that individuals and businesses pay only their share of damages in an accident, repealing a long-standing practice of allowing courts to hit deep-pocketed businesses for more than their fair share.

Foster maintains he was only trying to protect businesses to keep jobs in the state, but trial lawyers and environmental activists pointed to the governor's tort reform agenda as an indication that he favors big business at the expense of the average citizen.

Foster also has raised the ire of anti-gambling activists. He took office as an anti-gambling governor, but has not been vigorous in eliminating gaming. Early in his term, he pushed for a statewide vote on casino and video poker gambling, but backed away when it became apparent he couldn't get the votes in the Legislature to put a general gambling proposition on the statewide ballot.

In May, before the election season began and before Foster officially declared his intention to seek re-election, leaks from a federal grand jury investigating ex-Ku Klux Klansman David Duke pointed to a tantalizing link between Foster and Duke.

In the wake of those leaks, Foster admitted that in the heat of the 1995 governor's race, he struck a $152,000 deal with Duke to purchase a computerized list of Duke supporters for use in the 1995 race and in the 1999 race. Foster, who says he never used the list, did not declare the transactions on his campaign finance reports and made a veiled reference to half of the transaction on a personal financial disclosure report filed in 1998.

Although Foster's critics and media made a big deal of him doing business with the arch-racist Duke, the event barely caused a ripple in his popularity with voters. Foster eventually signed a consent agreement with the state Board of Ethics admitting to a technical violation of the ethics code.