Louisiana G.O.P. Facing David Duke, Again

New York Times/April 29, 1999
By Kevin Sack

Metairie, La. -- On the surface, the special election to be held here on Saturday is about who will replace Robert L. Livingston, the veteran Congressman who admitted to marital infidelity and abruptly resigned last year as he was about to ascend to the most powerful position in the House.

But the undercurrent, as has ceaselessly been the case in Louisiana politics in the last decade, is whether this will be the race that finally cures the state, and the national Republican Party, of the anxiety generated by David E. Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader.

Duke, 48 and graying, is among the seven Republicans and two Democrats competing to succeed Livingston in the deeply conservative, reliably Republican First District, a swath of suburbs and farmland north of New Orleans. And for those who would like Duke simply to disappear, he offers this bit of encouragement: if he loses, he has no plans to run again.

With Duke drawing only 12 percent in his 1996 race for the United States Senate, many political analysts doubt he can finish first or second in Saturday's open primary and advance to an all-but-certain runoff on May 29. They say he has been marginalized by a field that is so conservative that one of its more moderate members, the front-runner, David C. Treen, advocates the public execution of drug dealers. The issues that once set Duke apart, like affirmative action, immigration and welfare, have been appropriated by mainstream Republicans. His rants about black inferiority and Jewish power have worn thin, and their appeal has been diluted by declining rates of joblessness and crime.

But some strategists say that strange things can happen in a race with such a large field and that history demonstrates that Duke should not be underestimated. That message has not been lost on the national Republican leaders who must protect the party's narrow Congressional majority in next year's elections. If Duke wins, they acknowledge, every Republican candidate in 2000 can expect Democratic advertisements that meld their faces into that of a hooded Klansman.

"He will become our Y2KKK problem," said Representative W. J. (Billy) Tauzin, the Republican dean of Louisiana's Congresssional delegation.

Such fears help explain why a number of prominent Republicans have tried, with only partial success, to forge a consensus around the 70-year-old Treen. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, the majority leader, has joined Livingston and Tauzin in backing Treen, a former governor and Congressman. Playing on the district's concern about the loss of Livingston's 21 years of seniority, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has declared that he would try to give Treen credit for his previous seven years in the House.

Saturday's outcome, therefore, should provide clues about how far to the right the rightest of the Republican South is leaning at a time when the party's Presidential candidates are beginning to hunt for traction.

It also may speak to the state of racial politics in Louisiana. Voting was polarized along racial lines in the 1995 election for governor, when Mike Foster, a white Republican businessman, defeated Cleo Fields, a black Democratic Congressman. Foster is expected to have an equally easy re-election campaign this year against Representative William J. Jefferson, a black liberal Democrat from New Orleans.

The glass ceiling for black politicians in Louisiana, where 68 percent of registered voters are white, is sufficiently low that the popular black Mayor of New Orleans, Marc H. Morial, is exploring the possibility of amending the city charter so he can run for a third term.

"He has no place else to go," said Susan E. Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.

Treen, the first Louisiana Republican since Reconstruction to be elected to Congress or the governorship, is widely favored to finish first on Saturday, but without the majority needed to avoid a runoff. The other Republicans vying for a spot are Monica Monica, a free-spending ophthalmologist who says her father loved her so much that he named her twice; David Vitter, a telegenic young state legislator and Rhodes scholar; Rob Couhig, the owner of the New Orleans Zephyrs minor league baseball team, and Duke.

The only serious Democratic candidate in the race is State Representative Bill Strain, who is considered as conservative as his Republican counterparts. The list of less viable candidates includes Patrick Landry, an electrician who is campaigning as a 33-year-old virgin, an interesting approach given that Livingston forfeited the Speakership when Hustler magazine threatened to expose his extramarital affairs.

Dr. Monica and Vitter are considered leading contenders for the second runoff spot. The two have thrown negative advertisements at each other. She has pumped nearly $1 million into her campaign, and has outspent Vitter and Treen by more than 2 to 1.

The candidates are ideologically similar, but Treen's age has pushed the issue of term limits to the fore. Vitter was the author of Louisiana's 1995 law that limits legislators to three four-year terms, but refuses to take a voluntary pledge to restrict his stay in Congress.

Dr. Monica has pledged to serve only three terms and has criticized Vitter as a term-limits hypocrite. Vitter counters that he is the only leading contender who can build the kind of seniority enjoyed by Livingston. Dr. Monica, he said, has limited her own tenure while Treen may be "limited biologically."

Some Duke critics believe that the warfare between Dr. Monica and Vitter may hurt both candidates, and therefore help Duke. Though many national Republican leaders have denounced Duke, they note that Governor Foster and a number of other leading Louisiana Republicans refuse to do so. Couhig is the only candidate who has repudiated Duke's views.

In an interview in a booth of a Mandeville Waffle House, where Duke devoured a late lunch of four fried eggs, grits and toast, the candidate said that the First District had "perfect demographics" for him. Eighty-five percent of the district's registered voters are white, and Duke won well over half of the white vote in his unsuccessful races for the United States Senate in 1990 and for governor in 1991. His biggest electoral success came in the heart of the district, Metairie, which elected him its state representative in a 1989 a race against Treen's brother.

Duke's candidacy coincides with the release of his self-published book, "My Awakening," a 736-page tract that calls for an Aryan resurgence and the establishment of "optional separate homelands" for minorities. His television advertisements criticize the depiction of Malcolm X on a postage stamp, the recent change of the name of a New Orleans elementary school from George Washington to that of a black doctor and prohibitions against singing Christmas carols in schools.

"Christmas is out, Kwanza is in," Duke says in one advertisement. "We're clearly in a fight for our heritage."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.