As Republicans piled on Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu for racially tinged comments they claimed insulted the people of Louisiana, black elected officials and others Friday said Landrieu simply stated the obvious.
At issue was Landrieu’s response Thursday to an NBC News interviewer who asked her why the Louisiana electorate is so hostile to Barack Obama, a Democrat who is the nation’s first African-American president.
Landrieu, who is seeking re-election Tuesday in a hard-fought campaign against a strong Republican challenger, at first pointed to Obama’s opposition to the pro-energy policies that she and other Louisianians favor.
Then she said, “I’ll be very, very honest with you: The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans. It’s been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.”
It didn’t take long for Republicans to pounce.
“Senator Landrieu’s comments are remarkably divisive. She appears to be living in a different century,” Gov. Bobby Jindal tweeted from his Twitter account.
Jindal said Obama is unpopular in Louisiana and much of the rest of the country because of his flawed policies, not his race.
Landrieu implied otherwise, Jindal said, and “That is a major insult by Senator Landrieu to the people of Louisiana and I flatly reject it,” he tweeted.
Bill Cassidy, the Baton Rouge congressman who is Landrieu’s best-financed Republican challenger, also took issue with Landrieu. In an interview Friday on Fox News, Cassidy said, “We’re not racist; we just all have common sense.”
Republican Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel from Madisonville trailing Landrieu and Cassidy in polling for the Senate election, also joined in. “Quite frankly, Sen. Landrieu owes the people of Louisiana an apology for relegating them to nothing but racists and sexists,” he said in a prepared statement. (Landrieu also suggested the South, as a conservative region, was a challenging environment for women to get ahead in, as well.)
Landrieu stood her ground Friday, releasing a statement that cited Obama’s energy policies as the main reason for opposition to him in Louisiana.
“In addition,” the statement continued, “the South has not always been the friendliest or easiest place for African-Americans to advance, and it’s been a difficult place for women to be recognized as the leaders we are. Everyone knows this is the truth, and I will continue to speak the truth even as some would twist my words seeking political advantage.”
In defense of Landrieu, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond said, “I think it would be great if we lived in a post-racial society, but we don’t.” A New Orleans Democrat, Richmond is the only black member of the state’s delegation in Congress.
“The only way we can get to a post-racial society is by recognizing that we still have some work to do to get there,” he said.
As for Landrieu’s implication that Obama’s race played a role in the opposition to him, Richmond said, “She was just speaking to the reality of some of the challenges that this president has faced that others have not.
“At some point,” he said, “we have to at least look at the disrespect level of this president compared to other presidents.”
State Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said Landrieu simply “stated the obvious” in her NBC interview. “Did she make a statement that wasn’t historically accurate? No.”
Former Democratic state Rep. Al Ater, a white farmer and cotton merchant from outside Ferriday, also said Landrieu was telling it like it is — “and that’s not calling Louisiana a racist state.”
“Unfortunately, you can go into any country store in the South and find somebody who will say derogatory remarks about the race of the president,” Ater said.
“I hear it every single day of my life — a very inflammatory word, describing that you-know-what president, and that is a hard, cold fact.
“I am not proud of it, and I love my state. And you can go to Washington, D.C., or Massachusetts and hear the same thing, and that in itself shows we still have a long way to go in America.”
African-American voters are the most reliable source of support for Democrats in general and Landrieu in particular. A key to her re-election will be her ability to motivate black voters to cast their ballots for her in a year without a presidential contest generating interest and excitement. Polls indicate that she and Cassidy will run 1-2 Tuesday, but both will fall short of a majority, forcing a head-to-head Dec. 6 runoff in which he currently polls as the winner.
“Whether we like it or not, there’s clearly a racial element to partisan and political support in Louisiana today,” said Pearson Cross, a white political scientist at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette who has studied the impact of race on politics.
“Race is a very volatile issue, and it has a visceral impact on people.”
The Republican Party in Louisiana is basically the white party, Cross said: Less than 3 percent of the state’s 813,000 registered Republicans are black. Black voters make up a slight majority — 53 percent — of the state’s 1.4 million registered Democrats.
In the 2012 presidential election, when Democrats accounted for just under half of all voters in the state, exit polls show Obama drew 14 percent of the white vote, Cross said.
“Perhaps that is explained by disagreement with his policies,” Cross said, “but sometimes it feels like, to people who live here, that there’s another element in there. And that element sometimes feels like race.”
Follow Gregory Roberts of The Advocate Washington bureau on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.