In what other city or state in the nation could Cleo Fields manage a political comeback? After appearing on an FBI surveillance videotape taking large amounts of cash from arch-crook Edwin W. Edwards in 1997, Fields passed off the event as innocent because he was never prosecuted for anything, although convicted in the court of public opinion for political chicanery and bad judgment.
In years since, the former state senator, gubernatorial candidate and member of the U.S. Congress has flourished in his south Baton Rouge mansion. His comeback is aimed at his old state Senate seat in north Baton Rouge, where he maintains a nominal legal residence. He was term-limited out of the seat in 2008.
What is interesting about Senate District 14’s race is the company that Fields keeps these days. The liberal Democrat is now backed with lavish contributions from what might be called "Capitalists for Cleo" — not just political operators from the black community but businessmen like Lane Grigsby, a funder of education causes for years, and the political arm of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
Why? Fields' opponent for the open Senate seat is state Rep. Pat Smith, a Democrat who is almost a floor leader for teacher unions and frequently at odds with the business community on education issues. Fields serves on a charter school board, commendably, and that's apparently enough to whitewash his associations with everyone that the conservative business community is supposed to be against.
Smith is a respected legislator across a broader range of issues, but she now faces a financial juggernaut and precious little support from black political leaders. For that matter, white ones too; Sheriff Sid Gautreaux issued a glowing and unblushing endorsement of Fields. There was no footnote on the flyer referring to FBI investigations. Fields is also backed by Democrats for Education Reform, for good measure.
Honesty and integrity obviously have little purchase with BRAC and the like. Nor was Smith immune from playing the game, as Fields tellingly notes that she sought and won his endorsement for her three terms in the House.
Perhaps the voters will object to a carpetbagger from near the Country Club of Louisiana, or perhaps African American women will rebel against a man kicking to the curb one of their own who has paid her dues. But Fields is considered the favorite.
If he wins, will Fields be the reliable ally that the business crowd thinks? Hopefully, BRAC and the others are not that credulous. In that district, the unions have much more to offer a senator of Fields’ shrewd political instincts. A few votes here or there on charter schools, maybe. They probably would have gotten those, anyway.
It’s a good bet that one day, Capitalists for Cleo will find that their investment was the Enron of education reform.
A liberal would say that serves the tycoons right: The big-shots only want pliant legislators who hunger for campaign contributions and big steaks. That’s a cross-party and cross-color reality, for pay-to-play is as ingrained in the State Capitol as Huey P. Long’s marble halls.
That interest groups are one-issue voters is obvious. But the EWE classics of political ethics has been a poison in the state for a long time. How many communities would accept I-beat-the-rap as integrity?
We’ve had in Louisiana a string of governors who, by and large, have escaped allegations of Edwards 1.0 corruption. Incumbent John Bel Edwards is an honest man, but he certainly glorifies Edwin Edwards, the old political ally of his sheriff father. That undermines faith in the political system.
Electoral choices like Smith and Fields come along, and one issue is enough to sway the unscrupulous political players. But the business community’s reputation is clearly damaged by association. BRAC plays a key role in broader community conversations in Baton Rouge. It’s now allied with the political fixer and Edwin W. Edwards protégé against a woman, and an ExxonMobil retiree, no less.
Back in 1991, Edwards was in a runoff against white supremacist David Duke. The famous bumper sticker: Vote for the crook. It’s important.
Skeptics might be forgiven for wondering if a similar calculation will sweep Fields back into office.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.