Republican Jay Dardenne’s break with party ranks Thursday to endorse Democrat John Bel Edwards for governor brought back a time 36 years ago when the same thing happened.
In 1979, four unsuccessful Democratic candidates for governor jumped onto Republican Dave Treen’s runoff campaign team — snubbing Louis Lambert, the Democratic Party candidate who had made it into the general election.
Back then, Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris, Secretary of State Paul Hardy, Louisiana House Speaker E.L. “Bubba” Henry and state Sen. Edgar “Sonny” Mouton incurred the wrath of the state Democratic Party, much as Lt. Gov. Dardenne did among GOP brass on Thursday by favoring the Democrat over Republican David Vitter.
Henry and Mouton ended up being censured by the state Democratic Party, which almost four decades ago dominated Louisiana’s politics like the GOP has for the past decade.
“You’ve got to have standards of loyalty in the party,” longtime Democratic Party Chairman Jesse Bankston chastised at the time.
On Wednesday, state GOP chairman Roger Villere called Dardenne the Nick Saban of Louisiana politics, tying the former LSU student body president to the LSU football coach reviled for going to Alabama.
Treen won the general election in 1979 by less than 10,000 votes to become the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Fitzmorris, Henry, Hardy and Mouton all got jobs in the Treen administration.
Henry became Treen’s commissioner of administration; Hardy, his transportation secretary; Mouton, executive counsel; and Fitzmorris, special assistant for industrial development. The men said the offers came after the election.
The open primary contest had been tumultuous and bitter, with Lambert and Fitzmorris fighting for the runoff spot against Treen. Fitzmorris, who finished a close third, contested the results in a prolonged legal battle that included allegations of election fraud. Lambert survived.
Henry, who finished fifth, stepped out first to endorse Treen, then, one by one the other Democratic contenders did as well.
“The Democratic Party censured me, but I thought he was the best candidate. The people who had supported me, they were entitled to know what I thought,” Henry recalled Thursday, a couple of hours after Dardenne’s announcement. He is a Baton Rouge lawyer and lobbyist.
Henry said he had grown to respect Treen during the campaign. “There was a big difference in the two candidates,” he said.
At the time, Henry said he believed the state had to look beyond party lines for much-needed leadership.
Until then, Henry — a country lawyer from Jonesboro — had never voted for a Republican.
“I had always said there were three things I would never do, leave my wife, leave my church or leave my party,” Henry said. He said he heard his own words thrown back at him by the Democrats during the runoff. “I had been a loyal Democrat. I learned when there’s a big difference in the individuals, I need to be a little more flexible.”
Lambert, who was Public Service Commission chairman, said he does not know to this day why the four Democratic candidates opted for Treen.
“It’s water under the bridge,” said Lambert, a Prairieville lawyer.
He said he has no hard feelings. “We were all in the same arena and riding a different bull,” he said.
But Lambert said having just one of the Democrats would have made a difference in the election, which he lost by what amounted to 1.5 votes per precinct.
Lambert said Thursday Dardenne’s endorsement will help Edwards “because Jay Dardenne is highly respected.”
It’s hard to compare the 1979 election circumstance with the current day, Lambert said. “Back then, the Reagan Revolution was in full swing,” he said.
When Treen beat Lambert, the Republican entered politically charged territory. All the statewide elected officials other than himself were Democrats. There were few Republicans in the Louisiana Legislature.
Treen lost a 1983 re-election bid to Democrat Edwin Edwards, who had to sit out the 1979 election because of term limits.
Today, all the statewide elected officials are Republican and a majority of both the House and Senate are too, as Democrat John Bel Edwards seeks to be in Treen’s shoes decades later.
Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage from the State Capitol, follow Louisiana politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.