During Jeff Landry’s first four years as Louisiana’s attorney general, he’s wielded the office as a cudgel against his political opponents and used its legal resources to pursue Republican causes, like fighting environmental regulations, backing up the state’s strict anti-abortion laws and defending President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Landry, who was swept into Congress in a Tea Party wave in 2010 and has been rumored as a potential candidate for governor, has significantly raised the profile of the attorney general’s office. He has also assumed an influential position in party politics, chairing a political action committee aimed at flipping Democratic seats and weeding out moderate Republicans in order to shift the GOP-dominated Legislature even further to the right.
That’s how Landry sees the job he wrestled in 2015 from incumbent Attorney Buddy Caldwell, a Republican who he deemed not conservative enough. But that’s precisely what’s wrong with Landry’s first term, says the incumbent’s Democratic opponent to reelection this fall, Ike Jackson, of Plaquemine.
The two-person race is one of two statewide offices guaranteed to be decided in the Oct. 12 primary.
Jackson said his primary campaign issue is an obscure Louisiana law that limits how state regulators overseeing the oil, gas and petrochemical industries can collect penalties for violations. He said ambiguity about the attorney general's role potentially opens up a massive loophole for companies to avoid liability for wrongdoing — something Jackson said he'd clear up by publicly revealing known violations by those industries.
He also accused Landry of avoiding scrutiny by refusing to debate him and said Landry has led the state into a “partisan political battlefield.”
Jackson lost in a primary election for attorney general four years ago after getting 11% of the vote.
Jackson criticized Landry for joining Republican Attorney Generals who have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of significant portions of the Affordable Care Act, the GOP’s bête noire. Over the past decade Republicans have attempted repeatedly and failed to defeat Obamacare in Congress and in the courts.
“He can’t defend that. That’s absolute stupidity,” Jackson said of the lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act. “He can’t run away from his record on that. That issue is more than political, it’s personal.”
But Jackson posted only roughly $500 in his campaign account at the past two fundraising reporting deadlines, making him an extreme long shot in the race.
Landry, meanwhile, is backed by big business in Louisiana, especially the oil and gas industry that helped propel him to office in 2015. He has emerged as one of the leading faces of the state’s Republican party, especially its most conservative corners. He had $1.9 million in his campaign war chest at the beginning of October, the most by far among Louisiana’s statewide officeholders, excluding the gubernatorial candidates.
Landry has drawn the intense ire of the Democratic party and advocates for LGBT people and abortion rights, among others. He is also considered a strong favorite for reelection.
As Louisiana's top lawyer, Landry has used his resources to pursue a host of Republican policy priorities in the legal realm.
After joining the lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Landry ushered legislation through the state Legislature that directed Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon to create a plan for a high risk pool if that suit is successful. That capped a battle with Edwards, who offered up a competing bill that was shelved by a Republican-dominated House committee.
Landry created the position of solicitor general and appointed Liz Murrill, a longtime state government lawyer who served as executive counsel to Jindal, to fill it, and Murrill’s office has made Louisiana a party to dozens of lawsuits, many of them high-profile.
Murrill is defending dozens of anti-abortion laws and regulations in lawsuits filed by abortion clinics, the most notable being a law that would require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, which is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Landry, whose mother was a “pro-life activist” who was involved with Louisiana Right to Life as he was growing up in St. Martinville, said he didn’t want to leave office before his administration was able to argue that case. If the law takes effect, it could shutter two of Louisiana’s three abortion clinics.
Through Murrill’s office, Landry has signed onto or filed at least 185 amicus briefs, which are legal arguments made in lawsuits by outside parties with an interest in the litigation. He has backed up ExxonMobil in a lawsuit that accuses the oil and gas giant of covering up knowledge about climate change. He’s challenged the Clean Water Act, a birth control coverage mandate and a reading of the Endangered Species Act that opponents deemed too harmful to the oil and gas industry.
Landry, who is friends with Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, has also used his legal clout to back up the Trump administration. He’s supported Trump in a lawsuit over his executive order cracking down on “sanctuary cities,” and supported his controversial travel ban.
Landry has also emerged as perhaps the most vociferous proponent of executions in Louisiana, accusing Edwards of failing to do enough to put prisoners to death and even calling for bringing back hanging, firing squads or the electric chair if lethal injection drugs can’t be obtained. A Catholic, Landry said he’s “not a fan” of Pope Francis, who has declared the death penalty unacceptable under Catholic teachings, as did to a certain extent the pope’s predecessors John Paul II and Benedict.
Louisiana has a “contractual obligation” with the families of victims of those on death row, Landry said, and he dismissed arguments that liberals make against the death penalty while using religion.
“What I find so interesting about these discussions, especially from liberals, in particularly, all of the sudden, liberals embrace religion,” Landry said. “They don't want it in our schools, they don't want it in our public squares, but yet when it comes to the death penalty all of the sudden they all find God.”
Landry has spent much of his first term feuding with Gov. Edwards. He challenged an order by Edwards that would have banned companies contracting with the state from discriminating against LGBT employees. He refused to sign contracts for attorneys Edwards wanted to hire to handle coastal lawsuits against oil and gas companies for their role in Louisiana’s coastal land loss. Edwards, not one to shy away from a conflict, routinely fought back, and the two waged a protracted war in courtrooms and the media.
The bad blood reached a point that intermediaries between the two men met several times to try to calm things down in 2017. Dan Robin, a lobbyist and major Edwards donor, represented the governor, and Shane Guidry, CEO of offshore supplier Harvey Gulf and for a time an adviser Landry's office, represented the attorney general. That led to some level of peace between the two sides for a time.
Landry’s warring with the governor fueled speculation he was aiming to run against Edwards this year. He was thought to be a formidable challenger and said he intensely contemplated the idea last summer, but ultimately decided not to enter the race.
Guidry said at the time, there were “a lot of unknowns.” U.S. House Minority Whip Jefferson Republican Steve Scalise, who as the third highest ranking Republican in the U.S. House is Louisiana’s most powerful congressman, or Sen. Kennedy, who was elected three years ago, might wade into the race.
“Certainly, I think (Landry) would enjoy being governor, he would do some really good things. But I also know he loves Washington, D.C.,” said Guidry, who no longer works for Landry but remains a major GOP donor. “Those opportunities will be presented to him. He just needs to be patient.”
Staff writer Bryn Stole contributed to this story.