It is almost too delicious to contemplate. Louisiana could have a gubernatorial runoff between a black man and a Jew.
Louisiana’s plentiful supply of bigots wouldn’t know which way to turn. Polling stations in the tonier sections of New Orleans would be virtually deserted.
For the rest of us, though, it would be most diverting election ever. Historic too. If Tony Clayton were to win it, he wouldn’t be our first black governor, but only because P.B.S. Pinchback held the job for about a month in 1872/73. Pinchback, as lieutenant governor, was the automatic replacement for Henry Warmoth, impeached close to the end of his term.
No black candidate has come close to being elected governor of Louisiana, although two then-sitting congressmen have given it a try. Cleo Fields made the runoff against Mike Foster in 1995, only to get whopped. Four years later, Foster crushed William Jefferson in the primary. And that was before anyone knew — or before anyone had proved in court — that Jefferson was a crook.
If Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne were to win, that would be a first, for no Jew has been governor for even a few weeks. Indeed, when Dardenne was elected Secretary of State in 2006, he was the third Jew to hold statewide office in the history of the state, and the other two were Confederates.
Indeed, one of them, Judah P. Benjamin, a U.S. Senator before the Civil War, went on to become known as the “brains of the Confederacy.” The other, Benjamin F. Jonas, a major in the Confederate army, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1879.
When Dardenne broke the Gentile run, he may have started something. Voters soon chose another of his faith in Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.
Less than a quarter century after David Duke made a gubernatorial runoff without any attempt to disavow his Klan and Nazi sympathies, perhaps this represents progress for Louisiana. A Clayton-Dardenne match is too much to hope for, though. According to the polls, the only question is who will make the runoff with U.S. Senator David Vitter.
More often than not, the leader in the polls at this early stage does not go on to be elected governor, but Vitter could hardly be sitting prettier. He is racking up the endorsements and has a pile of cash. He would have to commit some gross indiscretion to screw this one up, and, though he is famously no stranger to gross indiscretion, he has kept his nose clean for a few years now.
Vitter does not have the highest favorable rating among statewide Republican officials. That honor goes to State Treasurer John Kennedy, but he’s not running for governor and has, along with a couple of GOP congressmen, declared his support for Vitter. If he wins the governor’s race, Vitter will get to choose who serves out his term in the Senate, so his statesmanship is widely praised right now.
The big question may be who will meet Vitter in the runoff, and until now the smart money said State Rep. John Bel Edwards because he had the advantage of being the only Democrat in the race. If ever he does make the runoff, of course, Edwards will have the disadvantage of being the only Democrat in the race, a disadvantage that is unfailingly fatal these days.
The handicappers have had to put their thinking caps now that Clayton has strongly suggested he will run and thus split the Democratic vote. There is no telling how much of a threat Clayton would be, but clearly he is poised to pick up plenty of black votes that might otherwise have gone to Edwards.
Clayton, like Fields and Jefferson, is an attorney, but is not the household name that they were. He is, however, a member of the Southern Board of Supervisors and earned a certain amount of fame as the special prosecutor who convicted two serial killers — Derrick Todd Lee and Sean Gillis.
Thus, Clayton could quite conceivably win enough primary votes to set up a runoff between Vitter and the next most popular Republican in the field — none other than Dardenne.
That would still be a historic runoff, albeit not the ultimate one.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.