|Louisiana Political Profile|
is a state driven by its diverse cultural past and its uncertain economic
present. A state dominated by the Cajun culture and later the boom-time
politics of gas and oil production, Louisiana developed a political split
personality. On one hand, it, along with Utah, has the most restrictive
abortion laws in the nation. On the other, it is known for the debauchery
of the French Quarter in New Orleans and its politics have been dotted
with scandal and, at times, widespread corruption.
For much of its recent history, the politics of Louisiana have had clear fault lines. The first is religion. Thirty percent of the voters come from heavily ethnic Cajun Catholic areas -- parishes that have often been the swing votes in close elections. Some 25 percent of voters come from the mixed region of New Orleans and the remaining 45 percent from heavily Protestant parishes north of Baton Rouge.
Another bayou divide is race. Some 30 percent of voters are African-American. These voters have been the only reliable source of Democratic support. The remaining Caucasian voters fall along a final divide - economics. The result is a state that has historically backed either very conservative candidates or reformist mavericks.
The king of the mavericks, and the father of Louisiana politics, is Huey P. Long. Although Long only served one term as governor (1928 to '32) and part of one term as U.S. Senator (1932 to '35), his populist insurgency shaped the state's political life for 60 years. Long came to nationwide attention with an activist leadership style that changed the face of the state. He built hundreds of miles of road, the new Louisiana State University campus and the gigantic state capital building in Baton Rouge. By 1935, he appeared headed for a run at the White House when he was gunned down in the Capitol. His son would help continue the name in Louisiana politics - serving as Senator until 1986.
Another populist, four-term governor Edwin Edwards, is one of the other pillars of Louisiana politics. Edwards was elected in 1971 and reelected in 1975. Unable to run in 1979, he was eligible again in 1983, when he ran and knocked off the incumbent Republican. During his third term, he was dogged by accusations of corruption and bribery. He went down to defeat in 1987. Then, four years later, Edwards came back on the scene, facing off with former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke. Although Edwards won again, he again faced allegations of improprieties - and this time his troubles were more serious. In the end Edwards was convicted of racketeering, extortion and fraud.
One of Edwards' lasting effects on Louisiana politics is the unique open primary voting system. For every election, candidates face off in an open election. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates face each other in a runoff. So, if no candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Mary Landrieu garners 50 percent, the top two finishers, regardless of party, will square off in a second round election in December.
Despite its rich sociopolitical history, in recent years Louisiana's electoral focus has shifted more and more to economic concerns. In the 1980s, the collapse of domestic oil production and its derivative the petrochemical industry left the economy of Louisiana reeling. By the time the slump eased late in the decade, the state had lost 146,900 jobs, a higher percent of non-farm jobs than the nation lost during the Great Depression. Unemployment stood at 14.5 percent and the economic outlook for the state was dismal.
Louisiana had been largely dependent on those two industries until the collapse forced officials to explore ways to diversify the economy. The state lured new textile firms and seized upon the growing trend of legalized gambling in hopes of stirring new industries. The effort paid off in a limited way. A string of riverboat casinos and other gambling spots have brought 26,000 jobs to the state since 1993.
The textile industry also made an effort to replace jobs loss in the oil business. By 1993, some 11,500 people were working in Louisiana. But Louisiana State University economist Loren Scott told the Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate that the North American Free Trade Agreement prompted several major companies to move south into Mexico. By 2002, only 4,200 people worked for Louisiana's textile firms.
Two areas continue to fuel much of the state's anemic economic growth. Tourism surged in the 1990s, funneling nearly $9 billion into Louisiana in 2000 alone. Experts point to the continued popularity of New Orleans and the growth of gambling as the engine behind the growing numbers of visitors. The other burgeoning industry is the so-called business service sector. Many of these jobs come from a swelling number of call centers taking phone orders for products or services. During the 1990s, more than 37,000 new jobs were created in this area. By 2001, more than 100,000 Louisianans worked in the business service industry.
--By Lee Banville, Online NewsHour