Top Ten Political Stories of 2003_lowres

Coming and going: The election of Kathleen Blanco as governor and impending retirement of Sen. John Breaux are two of 2003's top political stories.

1. Year of the Women. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco's election as governor was the biggest and most obvious example of the awesome year that women candidates had in 2003. She did it by turning most conventional wisdom on its ear. Two quick examples: she completely disproved the notion that moderate front runners can't hold on long enough to make it to the runoff; and she likewise galvanized black voters once she was in the runoff without paying big organizations -- or so-called black leaders like Cleo Fields and Bill Jefferson -- to boost black voter turnout. Other women candidates won big in all sorts of races across the state, particularly when they faced men in the runoff. Can you say, "Gender Gap"?

2. The GOP Collapse. The Louisiana Republican Party is in shambles. It started the year smarting from a nasty (and losing) U.S. Senate contest, and ended it by losing every statewide contest but one -- and you can hardly call Secretary of State Fox McKeithen a GOP firebrand. The party was fragmented from the get-go by too many candidates for governor. Although the field voluntarily winnowed itself down to two or three, there were still too many frayed nerves to pull it off for Bobby Jindal. In the end, it was Republican Gov. Mike Foster who failed to deliver his base -- the so-called Bubba vote -- for the dark-skinned wunderkind he anointed as his successor. Now Gov. Warbucks is slouching toward the duck blind, leaving the party mullahs to pick up the pieces. Look for a GOP version of internecine war in 2004.

3. The Jindal Juggernaut. Although he ultimately lost in the runoff, newcomer Bobby Jindal showed the pros how to wage a conservative campaign for governor -- at least, on the GOP side. He did it by running hard at religious conservatives on talk radio -- and simultaneously pitching moderates in carefully crafted TV spots. Look for other GOP hopefuls to follow his blueprint in future races.

4. John Breaux's Last Lap. The senator's decision to retire means the race to choose his successor will likely be the top story in 2004. In the mean time, the big wind-up to Breaux's announcement on Dec. 15 kept friends and wannabes alike waiting with breathless anticipation. Louisiana and the nation are losing a leader whose U.S. Senate career showed the advantages of working from the center outward ... toward compromise.

5. Jefferson's New Council. It's not just brand-new, it's all new. Jefferson Parish voters weren't fooled by the idea of a "new" council districting plan. They recognized it for what it was: an attempted end-run around voter-approved term limits. In the end, all incumbents lost their bids for extended council tenures. Voters got what they wanted -- new blood on the council.

6. Morial's Big Move. Former Mayor Marc Morial's appointment as national president of the Urban League makes him a big fish in the really big pond, and it showed that the Morial magic hasn't disappeared after all. Although officially removed from local politics, word has it he will have a hand in trying to guide Mayor Ray Nagin's next opponent. This will be another story to watch in 2004 and beyond. Then again, keep reading...

7. Continued Federal Investigations. From City Hall to the Jefferson Parish courthouse to the Orleans Parish School Board, the G-men are on the prowl for crooks in high and low places. Rumors are swirling, but indictments thus far are trickling. Every time we think things are dying down, however, more names pop up on the grand jury's radar screen. And some of them have ties to the former mayor.

8. Political Groups' Decline. There was a time when you couldn't even dream of winning a citywide election without endorsements from some or all of the city's major black political organizations. Ray Nagin turned that notion upside-down in 2002, and the groups continued to suffer losses at the polls in 2003 -- despite getting wads of street money from governor candidate Buddy Leach. The only thing that's keeping many of them alive at all is the fact that the guy who first exposed their collective underbelly -- Nagin -- has proved no more able to deliver votes than they. In many ways, the real story here is the growing independence of the city's black electorate.

9. The Magi Overthrown. Voters tossed out all three wise men of The East -- state Sen. Jon Johnson and state Reps. Pat Swilling and Leonard Lucas -- in the Nov. 15 runoff, proving once again that voters are wiser (and angrier) than many suspected. Lucas was a goner from the outset, but Swilling and Johnson lost to relative unknowns in major upsets. Johnson's was the only Senate district in the state in which an incumbent senator and two incumbent representatives lost.

10. Constitutional Amendments Pass. Fifteen proposed constitutional amendments appeared on the Oct. 4 ballot, and the long list of propositions prompted many to predict they would all fail. Once again, voters proved to be good citizens and culled the ones they liked from the ones they didn't. Citizens approved, among other things, proposals to allow the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to take over failing public schools, to create new trust funds to help save Louisiana's disappearing coastline, and to allow judges to serve out their full terms after reaching the mandatory age of retirement (70 for most sitting judges). The latter will mean fewer special elections for judgeships -- which means I may have to work harder to compile this list in the years to come.

Then again, our politicians never fail to provide good copy. Happy New Year!