Louisiana's lieutenant governors, starting with Jimmy Fitzmorris in 1972, have worked hard to make the office more than a place where somebody waits for the governor to die or go to jail. Over the years, the office had overseen everything from economic development to state parks to cultural affairs to tourism. Curiously, though, most elections for lieutenant governor are ho-hum affairs.
This year will be different.
So far, four major candidates have announced and more may join them in the weeks ahead. The field at this point includes three hopefuls from the New Orleans area -- Democratic state Reps. Mitch Landrieu and Melinda Schwegmann of New Orleans and Republican trial attorney Stephen Rue of Kenner. Also running is Republican non-profit executive Kirt Bennett of Baton Rouge.
In addition to that field, state Sen. Willie Mount of Lake Charles, a Democrat who formerly served as mayor of that city, is said to be considering a run for statewide office. Word has it she's looking at either lieutenant governor or treasurer.
State Rep. Vic Stelly, also from Lake Charles, may also join the race. Stelly is a Republican and the lead author of the recently passed "Stelly Plan," which swapped higher state income taxes for some state sales taxes.
It's doubtful that both Mount and Stelly would run, but then who could have foreseen three major candidates from the New Orleans area? This will be an interesting race, indeed.
Landrieu brings much more than his family name to the race. He has always enjoyed great support among African-American voters, but without the high-profile political tensions that have haunted his sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. In the Legislature, he is widely respected as a voice of reason but also as a man of principle. All factions respect and trust him, and he's a tireless campaigner. I remember his father, former Mayor Moon Landrieu, whispering to me the day after Mary won her first election to the Legislature in 1979, "Mary is a great campaigner, but Mitchell is the natural politician in the family. Watch him."
Schwegmann will give Landrieu a real run for his money, however. She has the advantage of having served honorably as lieutenant governor from 1992 to 1996, and like Landrieu she has enjoyed staunch support among African-American voters. She also is a great campaigner who wears well with voters. Thanks to her stint in the office in the early '90s, she has statewide name recognition. Her biggest challenge will be raising enough money to get her message out.
Landrieu's and Schwegmann's ties to the black community will be tested by the candidacy of Bennett, the only African American in the race so far. He also is a Republican, which will make his campaign a test for the historically Democratic black electorate as well. The same goes for the state GOP, which typically gets paltry support among black voters in statewide contests. In many ways, Bennett is the most interesting candidate in the race. He is very highly regarded in Baton Rouge, where he heads up a non-profit program that mentors at-risk youth. His first major test will be fund-raising. That means the GOP will have to step up to the plate long before black voters are asked to cross traditional party lines.
Money will not be a problem for Rue, whose law practice has made him a household name as well as a wealthy man. This is his first foray into politics, and he's likely to find it no easier than succeeding in the legal arena. In most ways, it's a lot tougher. Considering this race doesn't get much attention other than what candidates generate through TV ads, he has an advantage. His main challenge will be to convince Republicans to back him over Bennett -- at a time when the party needs to show it cares about black voters.
Qualifying is not until August, but already this race is shaping up as one of the most interesting in years.