One after another this past legislative session, lawmakers apologized for term limits, even though it was voters who ultimately imposed the 12-year standard in a constitutional amendment. Still, it was legislators, eager to cash in on the immediate reward of voter approval, who initially let the pelican out of the bag by putting the proposal on a referendum ballot in 1994.
"It was one of the worst decisions I made in this chamber," Republican Sen. Clo Fontenot of Livingston told his colleagues last month. "If I could take it back, I would."
Of course, that's easy for Fontenot to say, seeing how he isn't term limited until the elections of 2011 and the exit of his brothers and sisters in arms will create a power vacuum that he and others will be forced -- not kicking or screaming, mind you -- to fill. The same applies for House members eligible for re-election, although all nonterm-limited legislators face the same challenge this year: winning re-election in the face of widespread voter dissatisfaction.
Term limits, early retirement and higher political aspirations were expected to push the legislative turnover rate to nearly 50 percent this fall -- a huge figure by itself -- but now there are indications that the casualties could be even higher.
New faces are announcing challenges to incumbents and associates of the Old Guard at an alarming rate, shattering the notion that the hottest legislative races would be those for open seats (i.e., those with no incumbent running). Special interest groups are lining up to endorse candidates and pony up cash in all races, and an anti-incumbent message has already proved successful in recent special elections across the state. On top of all that, the GOP is set to mount a statewide effort to capture a majority of the seats in the House. Meanwhile, despite a rash of term-limited House members hoping to restart their political body clocks by winning seats in the Upper Chamber, the high rate of turnover could well produce a Senate that is more conservative than many thought possible.
That's the read of Ginger Sawyer, political director for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), the largest advocacy group of its kind in the state. LABI has a long and mostly successful history of influencing policy and voter opinion in Louisiana. If the legislative elections were held this week, Sawyer says 103 of the 144 seats in the House and Senate would be contested -- a much higher rate than many pundits and experts were forecasting at the start of the year. Term limits will account for 60 of those contested elections; the rest are either voluntary retirements or a reflection of voter unrest.
The bottom line is voters can expect change -- if they demand it.
"There are going to be a lot of races taking place, and we will definitely see many new faces in the Legislature," Sawyer says. "Turnover could be a lot bigger than 50 percent here. We all thought the elections would start after last year's session, and many have been on the ground that long. But we're still getting calls every day. Candidates are climbing out of the woodwork."
LABI has four PACS that cover each major region of the state. Incumbents are graded on their voting records, and a committee assesses new faces based on interviews. Sawyer says LABI could give the $5,000 limit to candidates in the primary and runoff in certain races. Other groups may do likewise.
The Louisiana Sheriff's Association is putting money behind its own agenda this fall via direct contributions and personal expenditures. Additionally, LA Ethics 1, a coalition of more than 50 Louisiana businesses and chambers of commerce, plans to ask all candidates to sign a pledge of support for ethics reform, then publicly take to task -- via newspaper ads, emails and other direct messaging to voters back home -- anyone who reneges on the pledge when legislation comes up for a vote next year.
Considering that the fall ballot also will have high-profile races for governor and other statewide offices, and with campaigns stirring for the U.S. Senate and president in 2008, legislative candidates would be wise to cater to special interests waving money around, says Cynthia Dupree, a political fundraising professional who formerly oversaw operations for outgoing Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Dupree cautions that candidates who take contributions from special interests should do so only if they can stay in step with those interests once they're elected.
With so many races and so many candidates, political money could be hard to come by, Dupree adds, noting that candidates should consider on-line fundraising techniques to tap new revenue sources. "Somehow, there always seems to be enough money to run these races, but this year could be different," she says.
Democratic incumbents, who comprise a majority of the House and Senate today, will also have to watch their backs. The Louisiana Republican Party is poised to catch up with the GOP trend that swept the Deep South in the 1990s. Based on early polls and declared candidates, Republicans appear to have more to gain than any other interest. State party chairman Roger Villere plans to hammer away at Democrats at every opportunity. "Democrats have controlled our Legislature since Reconstruction -- yes, the 1870s -- and we are nearly last in everything good," says Villere, launching the first of what will surely be many partisan jabs to come.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.