Judge Brady.jpg

United States District Judge James J. Brady poses for a portrait in the courtroom

ADVOCATE PHOTO BY Anna Ivantsiva

Tears welled in the eyes of Senior U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon as he remembered his old friend, Senior U.S. District Judge James Brady.

Melancon was in town last week from Santa Fe after Brady died. Certainly, Brady will be most remembered for his work on the federal trial bench — he ended the Baton Rouge school desegregation lawsuit that had lingered for 47 years, for instance.

But Melancon mostly recalls how years before the federal bench they were just two young lawyers forging a friendship during long drives on narrow Louisiana highways in the 1980s.

“I don’t know how many miles we drove together. We visited every Democratic committee in the state,” Melancon said. “We didn’t have an organized Democratic Party at that time.”

Cooped up in a car, sometimes a small plane, they talked of all sorts things, love and life, but particularly politics. They were, at Brady’s insistence, personally visiting every local official in the state to persuade them that it was time to move the Democratic Party into the next phase.

Melancon said Brady’s willingness to look people in the eye and ask about their families altered the atmosphere in local politics as well as, later, in the courthouses.

Since the 1830s when the party came to Louisiana and represented the interests of American planters against the descendants of French and Spanish colonizers, the party had evolved. By the mid-1970s, President Lyndon Johnson’s famous prophecy upon signing the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964 started becoming true and Democrats were quickly losing the South.

During the 1970s, Louisiana Republicans built a substantial party organization with staff and lots of money. They built databases, ran voter registration drives, pressed conservative Democratic officials to switch parties.

And Republicans were making progress. In 1960, not a single Republican served in either chamber of the Louisiana Legislature, the state’s congressional delegation, any of the offices elected statewide, and few local posts.

By the mid-1980s, when Brady was elected chairman of the state party and Melancon was elected a member of the Democratic National Committee, Republicans had elected two congressmen — Henson Moore of Baton Rouge and Clyde Holloway of Forest Hill — and a couple dozen state legislators.

All across the South — at the urging of a popular GOP president, Ronald Reagan — conservative Democratic officials were switching parties and Southern elections were going more often to Republicans.

“Jim recognized that being a Democrat was no longer enough. He was the one who realized that the party needed to be organized, modernized,” Melancon recalled.

Brady stabilized the financial base, bought new computers, built a statewide voter database and hired a professional staff.

One of the first hires was Jim Nickel, now a Baton Rouge lobbyist. Each parish had an executive committee back then, he recalls: “They were just there; no purpose; no leadership.” Democratic Party candidates operated independently.

Brady, as party chairman, introduced coordinated campaigning, which allowed candidates to share polling, grass roots operations and messaging. He also brought elected officials into the state’s central committee, which gave them more buy-in to the party’s success.

Brady was more than a hail-fellow well-met – most politicians are. He also did what most politicians don’t: He followed up gregarious greetings with genuine concern about people on an individual level – personal notes and calls remembering birthdays and anniversaries, sympathizing with losses and tragedies.

A lot of the people attending Brady’s memorial service will be constables, marshals, aldermen and other low-profile officials from around the state who remember that personal connection, Nickels predicted. Brady’s memorial service is 2 p.m. Sunday at the University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.

“Brady came at a moment of change. He knew we’d better organize. He absolutely is the father of the modern Democratic Party in Louisiana,” Nickel said.

And now, 30 years later, with the Republicans dominating every state in the South, the Democratic Party is entering another new phase.

Where recently depressed Democrats embraced a “why bother” attitude, the party last week won Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat for the first time in decades. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards also broke the GOP trend in 2015. True, much of the energy was generated by damaged Republican candidates.

But that alone didn’t make those victories happen. They included a lot of party support in the form of dollars and workers, polling and databases, door knocking and expensive advertising. In short, the Democratic Party was in the game.

Last month’s state treasurer’s race underscores the same message.

Party leadership did not back the only Democrat in the race, Derrick Edwards, until a few weeks before the general election. Nevertheless, even without previous elective experience and little political acumen, Derrick Edwards spent about $25,000 and came within 40,000 votes of winning against a Republican who spent close to $1 million.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.