Dan Claitor entered public life as a giant slayer, figuratively speaking.
The Goliath in question was Gov. Bobby Jindal. Not 2014 Bobby Jindal, the man whose naked quest for national prominence has so alienated his constituents that no candidate here wants to be seen as his designee.
We’re talking 2009 Jindal, still in his first term and still personally popular. By shellacking his hand-picked candidate in a south Baton Rouge state Senate district, Claitor was pretty much the first person to expose one of the governor’s political vulnerabilities, his lack of coattails.
That’s one thing that distinguishes Claitor in the large field of Republicans competing for the 6th Congressional District seat, just one of whom is widely expected to make a runoff against Democratic ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards. Given the district’s politics and Edwards’ age and history, the top Republican would become the overwhelming favorite to go to Washington.
But it’s not the only thing that makes Claitor stand out. His fundraising has lagged behind some of his rivals, but Claitor’s got, by far, the biggest natural base — the well-off, well-educated 16th Senate District, where more than 17 percent of the voters in the congressional contest already know him as their elected representative. The district, which previously launched Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and outgoing U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, a candidate for U.S. Senate, is considered more business conservative than tea party, and its ideological leanings are tempered by a large contingent of university and state employees.
Claitor says his constituents’ priorities tend to focus on transparency and common sense. That, he says, helps explain why he pushed to disclose information about little-known scholarships awarded by the LSU Board of Supervisors, reform the ever-controversial Tulane University legislative scholarships and remove an unconstitutional law allowing the teaching of creationism from the books — an effort that ran into a brick wall at the Capitol.
“To me that’s an easy thing to resolve, but apparently it’s difficult on some folks’ politics,” he said. “I can tell you that in Senate District 16, the majority of the people are in favor of taking unconstitutional laws off the books.”
There’s also his populist tone, his frequent references to the sort of “crony capitalism” that he says gives the big guys an unfair advantage over small businesses and the middle class.
“If you’re perverting the system, creating these loopholes and incentives that only apply to those who have access to Washington,” he said, “then middle-class and the small-business folks get left behind.” His proposed remedy, he said, is a fairer, flatter tax structure.
Then there’s his somewhat quirky record in Baton Rouge, which he attributes to the district and to distinct chapters in his past — but which also reflects a penchant for going his own way, something he acknowledges when he admits to not minding taking lonely votes and stands.
“I don’t get the groupthink,” he said.
Working in his family’s publishing company taught him about pressures small businesses face. His time as an assistant district attorney in New Orleans exposed him to the fact that there’s evil in the world and prompted him to push for tougher sentences on heroin dealers.
“It was a heck of an education on how the world works,” he said. “None of the other candidates have that experience.”
Claitor attributes his fight against drones to his lawyerly background, as well. When he waxes about the Constitution, he’s more likely to focus on the Fourth Amendment, which protects property rights, than the 10th, the one about states’ rights.
“I don’t believe in giving up privacy rights easily,” he said. “And I don’t believe in giving them up in a panic.”
Family friends who had children with developmental disabilities prompted him to take on their cause. It was Claitor who blew the whistle on proposed cuts to new funding during the last legislative session, which created pressure to restore the money.
It was also Claitor who recently filed suit to kill the controversial measure adopted quietly in conference committee to give State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson a hefty pension increase.
“I pride myself on being a guy who reads the bill, so I was very embarrassed by what happened there,” he said. “So when nobody else picked up the ball,” he said, he did.
Asked to describe himself, though, Claitor refers back to the coach’s award he won in high school. It didn’t go to the best athlete, he said, but to the utility player who could fill in at fullback or quarterback, on offense or defense. It’s the mark of a team player, he said.
Asked whether that describes his time in the Legislature, Claitor threw back a different question: “Yeah, but who’s the coach? My coaches are the people I’m representing. And I think I go where they expect me to go.”