DONALDSONVILLE — The First and Last Chance Café in Donaldsonville has a storied history as one of the spots in the historic Mississippi River city where Democrats would gather to cut a political deal.
Billy Guillot, 54, owner of the restaurant/bar that got its name because the bar and restaurant were the only stop on the rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, said state and parish officials would use the restaurant’s private rooms to eat and talk politics, even drawing Govs. Earl Long and Jimmie Davis.
Parish Council members can still be seen getting something to eat before meetings or a drink after one, but the bar doesn’t have the same statewide allure as when Democrats ran Louisiana and Donaldsonville.
Today, political observers in Ascension say they have watched for years as new arrivals have steadily shifted the parish’s balance of power northeast toward Prairieville and its politics to the right philosophically amid a decadeslong national trend by white conservatives to leave the Democratic Party.
Despite those trends, Democratic and nonparty parishwide leaders have managed to remain in power by eschewing far-left-leaning politics and leaning heavily on Donaldsonville and the Gonzales area for a coalition of white and black Democrats and moderate white voter support. These officials also have benefited from lower turnout among newer residents in Prairieville who are less attuned to parish politics. These voters are most likely to go to the polls when there’s a major state race or national election on the ballot.
But some parish political observers say they are sensing, even with the benefits of low voter turnout in Prairieville and Dutchtown for local races, the days of Democrats or independents winning parishwide are numbered.
“We are becoming truly Republican,” said four-term Parish President Tommy Martinez, who doesn’t have a party now but earlier in his career was primarily a Democrat.
Still, a Democrat can win an individual, municipal or School Board race and even some seats in the state Legislature, but parishwide races are the challenge, these officials say.
As one of Louisiana’s fastest-growing parishes, Ascension adds thousands of new residents each year, many settling in the parish’s northeast precincts.
As of June 1, nearly 49 percent of all registered voters in Ascension Parish live in an area roughly north of La. 74 and west of La. 431 that encompasses Dutchtown, Prairieville and Galvez, census and precinct-level voter registration data show. Of those voters, 40 percent are registered Republicans, while another 29 percent are listed as “other.”
Parishwide, voters with Republican and other-party registrations have risen sharply since 1990. Democratic voters have dipped slightly in that period but still hold a registration advantage, albeit a shrinking one.
Still, in the previous term, 2008 to 2012, all five parishwide elected officials were Democrats or had no party. There were no Republicans.
But Martinez, who was Ascension’s first parish president in the mid-1990s and has always been on the ballot since then, though he’s lost twice, is not seeking re-election in the Oct. 24 election for personal reasons.
With the February retirement of Ascension’s Democratic Clerk of Court Kermit “Hart” Bourque, Sheriff Jeff Wiley’s switch from independent to the Republican Party in August and an all-Republican field to replace Martinez, the parish stands a solid chance of having virtually all Republican elected parishwide officials take office in January 2016.
The one exception would be if Coroner Dr. John F. Fraiche, a long-standing incumbent and Democrat, is re-elected.
“The dynamic has changed the last several years because of all the people moving into the parish,” Assessor M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr., a Republican who defeated the incumbent Democrat in October 2011, said of the parish trending Republican.
Martinez, a native of Darrow who had to take the ferry to school in Donaldsonville, mastered the cross-parish coalition-building needed to keep non-Republicans like him in office in the face of growing demographic headwinds.
But he said the 23rd Judicial District election Nov. 4 between Assistant District Attorneys Jason Verdigets and O’Neil Parenton Jr., whom Martinez supported, showed him even independent candidates like him can’t win parishwide anymore.
The race encompassed wide swaths of Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes.
Martinez pointed to the ability of Verdigets, who is Republican, to garner so many votes in Prairieville and Dutchtown and overcome the independent Parenton’s advantages in Assumption and St. James.
Boosted by what many Republicans saw as a chance to oust three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., with the candidacy of U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, turnout in some Prairieville and Dutchtown precincts reached more than 60 percent, election data show.
Verdigets beat Parenton by 3,638 votes in those areas, which helped him win overall by 512 votes.
Making matters worse for candidates like Martinez and Parenton, who view themselves as independent of any party, their names show up on the ballot as O, for other party, Martinez said.
“People don’t know what the hell ‘other’ is,” Martinez said. “That’s kind of the problem. When you look at ‘other,’ it could be the Communist Party. It could be any kind of party, so it makes it hard, and they (voters) don’t have a clue.”
Martinez and other observers say voters who aren’t as familiar with local candidates are likely to vote for the candidate with the R behind the name.
Chris Mann, an outgoing assistant professor of political science at LSU, said research has shown that voting is strongly tied to how long people live in a community as they learn about leaders and the issues.
“This is true in Louisiana, Minnesota, Maine, California and all points in between — suburbs, cities and rural areas,” Mann said.
Michael Tran, 42, his wife, Sunny, 37, and their two pre-teen children moved into the still-unfinished Shadows at Manchac subdivision north of La. 42 in November. The Trans, both Republicans, laughed last week during a walk through their neighborhood at how little they’ve paid attention to local politics as they’ve tried to settle into their new home. They expect they eventually will start paying attention.
“We always vote, but we vote by the party line. Yeah, we don’t care who it is. If there are two Republicans, we just flip a coin and see which name sounds better,” Tran said, half-jokingly.
But others caution about extrapolating too much purely from demographics and credit Verdigets for being a good candidate who was from Prairieville.
Some also say the parish has been available for Republicans to win for years, and Ronnie Hughes, a Republican, won the parish president’s job for one term in the mid-2000s.
In fall 2007, First Assistant District Attorney Larry Buquoi, a Republican, gave Martinez a stiff re-election challenge. With Gov. Bobby Jindal seeking office in the Oct. 20, 2007, general election, Buquoi saw solid turnout in Prairieville that sent him into a runoff with Martinez, who then ran as a Democrat.
But by the Nov. 17, 2007, runoff, Jindal was elected, and turnout in Prairieville and Dutchtown areas dropped by 10 to 20 percentage points, an analysis of election results show.
Martinez won by 603 votes. Buquoi believes he could have won had Jindal been in a runoff.
“I don’t think things have changed at all. I think it was a question of turnout in my race. I think it’s still the same as it was back then,” Buquoi said.
Three Republicans have thrown their hats in the ring for parish president this fall: Prairieville-area Parish Councilman Chris Loar, Gonzales-area surveyor and political newcomer Clint Cointment and longtime parish employee and Gonzales City Councilman Kenny Matassa.
Matassa, who was a Democrat for years, switched parties twice last year and is now a Republican. Asked about the switches, he aired the same concerns Martinez has about being listed as “other” on the ballot. Matassa said his anti-abortion and Second Amendment views and fiscal conservatism really line him up with the Republican Party.
Early in the campaign, all three candidates have platforms emphasizing their fiscal conservatism and appear to be making appeals to Republican and conservative voters.
But some aren’t as pessimistic about Democrats winning parishwide, including Republican Assessor Smiley.
“For me, as a Republican to say this, I’m sure some people would disagree with me. I think if a very popular person would be a Democrat and would be a moderate Democrat with a socially moderate agenda and very conservative agenda when it comes to finance, I believe that person would still have a chance to win,” Smiley said.
Others see those chances as possible but increasingly rare. Pollster Elliott Stonecipher said with the departure of Landrieu as Louisiana’s last statewide elected Democrat, the state is likely to be dominated by Republicans for a long time.
He said the best evidence that similar shifts are happening in Ascension is the judgment of longtime politicians who are changing parties.
“My point is they have already made those decisions, including that whatever turnout problems are in Prairieville, ‘I’ve got to be a Republican.’ They have adjusted for that,” Stonecipher said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.