State Overview (AAP)

The 2020 Almanac of American Politics remains the gold standard of accessible political information, and LaPolitics is proud to provide the first ever preview of the overview and gubernatorial profile of Louisiana’s portion of the volume...

In the decade between 2000 and 2010, Louisiana – ravaged repeatedly by hurricanes – ranked third to last of any state in population growth. But since 2010, Louisiana’s population has increased by 3 percent, and by a striking 13 percent in Orleans Parish – Louisiana’s singular, and singularly resilient, urban gem, New Orleans. The comeback hasn’t been perfect, but at least it’s a comeback.

In 1718, the French founded New Orleans on a ridge formed by deposits of silt and declared the Mississippi Valley the colony of Louisiana. It was transferred to Spain in 1763, and after France took possession again, Jefferson sought to buy the city in 1802. When Napoleon offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory, Jefferson’s envoys quickly and eagerly agreed to purchase it — almost doubling the land area of the young republic. Its large French and small Spanish population had been ruled under European civil law rather than English common law. When Louisiana was admitted as a state in 1812, it included territory well to the north of the city that would soon be overrun by Americans heading west. The state’s boundaries were rounded out with the acquisition of West Florida, the land north of Lake Pontchartrain heading west to Baton Rouge. With its large sugar and cotton slave plantations, Louisiana boomed, and by the outbreak of the Civil War, New Orleans was the nation’s sixth largest city — the only substantial city in the Confederate South.

Louisiana has remained distinctive and exotic ever since. It is divided between a Catholic Cajun south, a Baptist Protestant north, and idiosyncratic New Orleans. Its population is 32 percent black, the second-highest percentage of any state; it was black Louisianans who developed American jazz. (The state is 5 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian.) Louisiana’s economy has always been based on the export of raw materials — sugar, rice and cotton in the 19th century, and oil, gas and petrochemicals in the 20th and 21st centuries. Its most talented politician was Huey Long, who as a young Public Service Commission chairman championed a severance tax on oil, and who, in less than a single term each as governor (1928-32) and senator (1932-35), left an imprint on the state’s public life and imposed an organization on its politics that faded into history only a generation ago. Long’s genius was not that he promised to tax the rich to help the poor — hundreds of idealists and demagogues in America have done that — but that to an amazing extent he delivered, often by strong- arming or worse. He built a new skyscraper capitol, a new Louisiana State University, Mississippi River bridges in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and more miles of roads than any other state but rich New York and huge Texas. He also built a national following and, by 1935, was planning to run for president on a platform of “Share the wealth, every man a king.” That year, Long was assassinated at age 42 in the hallway of the capitol he built. According to legend, bullet holes can still be seen in the marble walls.

Long’s impact was lasting, and not just in the literary character he inspired — Willie Stark of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. The Long threat may have moved President Franklin D. Roosevelt to embrace the liberal programs — the Wagner Act, Social Security, and steeply graduated taxes — of the Second New Deal. For Louisiana, Long delivered a political structure that revolved around him even after he was dead—and a class of political leaders who, lacking his talents, treated the state as Long’s incompetent doctors had treated his fatal wound, leaving Louisiana with neither a fully developed economy nor a fully competent public sector. The Long experience strengthened Louisiana’s already strong predispositions — tolerance of corruption, no interest in abstract reform, and a taste for colorful extremists regardless of their short-term means or long-term ends. This has persisted. The website FiveThirtyEight in 2015 tallied the number of public officials with federal corruption convictions in each state. On a per capita basis, Louisiana ranked first. In 2017, Jeffrey Sallet, the outgoing head of the FBI’s New Orleans Division, told the Times-Picayune that “the corruption in this state is at an extremely unacceptable level.”

This has not helped to create a vibrant economy. Louisiana has chronically suffered low incomes, low workforce participation, and low levels of education, with income disparities greater than almost anywhere else in the United States. In 2018, Louisiana was tied for the second-highest poverty rate in the country at nearly 20 percent, and the rate for children was 28 percent. Median family income ranked second from the bottom, exceeding only neighbor Mississippi. The United Health Foundation ranked Louisiana the nation’s unhealthiest state, driven by an adult obesity rate of 36 percent, an adult smoking rate of 23 percent, and a nearly 11 percent rate of low birth-weight babies. Louisiana had the nation’s highest incarceration rate until 2018, when Oklahoma leapfrogged it, and the Violence Policy

Center determined that Louisiana ranked second nationally for the frequency of men murdering women. Meanwhile, Moody’s Analytics named Louisiana as the state worst prepared for a recession. Louisiana momentarily prospered when oil prices spiked upward in 1973 and 1979, but then jobs and people flowed out in the 1980s as it failed to develop a diverse economy similar to that of its similarly oil-rich neighbor, Texas. This has made a huge difference over time. Metro New Orleans in 1940 had a population of 564,000; it was about the same size then as metro Houston (610,000) and metro Dallas (624,000). But in 2004, just before Hurricane Katrina struck, metro Houston had 5.1 million people, metro Dallas 5.8 million, and New Orleans just 1.3 million. By 2017, metro Houston had 6.9 million and metro Dallas had 7.4 million, while metro New Orleans was stuck at 1.3 million. Hurricane Katrina, by far the costliest on record, slammed the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, and for several weeks, New Orleans and Louisiana dominated the national spotlight. More than 80 percent of the city was flooded after the federally built floodwalls failed, and hundreds of thousands of residents abandoned their homes for higher ground. All told, Katrina was responsible for some 1,800 deaths and at least $108 billion in property damage, including $10 billion for damage to energy infrastructure. New Orleans mostly withstood the initial winds and storm surge. But then the levees broke, submerging much of the city. The 17th Street Canal sprang a 200-foot gash through which much of the water flowed. Levees along the Industrial Canal, in the poverty-stricken 9th Ward, likewise failed to hold back water driven by a wave surge that reached over 20 feet. More than half of the 270 miles of levees and flood walls in Louisiana were breached or heavily damaged by winds and flood waters. Katrina (with another powerful storm, Rita, less than a month later) also laid bare the state’s political and economic frailties. Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin (who was convicted of bribery charges in 2014) seemed incapable of coping with the disaster.

By July 2006, Louisiana’s population declined by 250,000 (mostly in the New Orleans area), although many people eventually returned, as did tourists. In April 2010, disaster struck Louisiana again when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and spewing an estimated 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil slick that spread from the drilling site southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Mississippi River Delta threatened the state’s oyster beds and shrimp fisheries. Five years later, an estimated 20 species continued to struggle. The federal government imposed a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling, a serious economic setback for the state. In the first five years after the spill, BP spent $27 billion on the recovery, economic claims and fines. Meanwhile, a second, much slower leak known as the Taylor oil spill has dumped tens of thousands of gallons a day since 2004, with no sign of slowing.

Despite its risks, offshore drilling has been a major element of Louisiana’s economy since the 1940s. The state has 125,000 miles of pipeline, said to be enough to encircle the planet five times. The resumption of offshore drilling in 2011 and the increasing use of fracking — the extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing — in the Haynesville shale in northwest Louisiana touched off a recovery, with billion-dollar investments in refineries, gas-to-liquid facilities, and liquefied natural gas export terminals. The oil-price slump that began around 2014 only hastened the shift of the industry’s center of gravity, as companies such as ConnocoPhillips and Marathon moved their focus away from oil- drilling platforms in the gulf toward the state’s shale resources further north. In 2018, BP spent $10.5 billion for 470,000 acres of shale properties in Texas and Louisiana. The chemical business, closely related to the petroleum industry, continued to show life: Formosa Petrochemical Corp. has bought a 2,400-acre site on the Mississippi River in St. James Parish for a planned $9.4 billion chemical complex.

Unemployment in Louisiana followed an unusual track, peaking at only 8.3 percent in the fall of 2010, but since then improving more slowly than the national average. By late 2018, unemployment was more than a point above the national average, exceeded by only two other resource-dependent states – Alaska and West Virginia. Employment in the state was hurt by the closure of Avondale Shipyard in Avondale and the loss of an International Paper mill in Bastrop. In January 2019, Georgia-Pacific said the digital era is leading it to abandon the office-paper business, resulting in 650 employees being laid off at its mill in Port Hudson.

In 2016, Baton Rouge experienced severe flooding that the region hasn’t fully recovered from. The following year, parts of Louisiana, along with much of southeastern Texas, was soaked by Hurricane Harvey, which dumped as much as 22 inches of rain. The slow-moving storm shuttered almost a quarter of the nation’s refining capacity; it became the nation’s second-most expensive storm after Katrina. It was a reminder of Louisiana’s mounting environmental challenges. Low-lying Louisiana is uniquely at risk from rising sea levels. Brett Anderson of the New Orleans Times- Picayune has written that if maps of the state rendered wetlands as water and counted only solid “walkable” ground as land, then the very shape of Louisiana—its iconic “boot”—would appear “as if it came out on the wrong side of a battle with a lawnmower’s blades.” In 2017, Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency over coastal erosion and urged completion of a 50-year, $50 billion master plan drawn up by a state panel, largely funded by BP settlement money. Failing to curb the loss of land and wetlands could cost $11.2 billion in direct costs, lost wages, consumer spending and supply-chain disruptions over the next five decades -- not including damage caused by hurricanes, according to the Louisiana State University Economics & Policy Research Group.

For more than a century after the Civil War, Louisiana was solidly Democratic, with political divides expressed in Democratic primaries. There were splits between the Cajun Catholic parishes, which cast about 30 percent of the state’s votes, and Protestant parishes north of Baton Rouge, which cast about 45 percent. Another division was by income. Low-income voters of both races tended to support Huey Long and his populist successors; higher-income voters often opposed them. So for a long time, Louisiana politics were a struggle between reformist and conservative forces on one side and roguish populists on the other, a struggle waged in lavishly financed campaigns with grandiloquent rhetoric. For more than two decades the lead role in state politics was played by Edwin Edwards, a colorful Cajun populist who was elected governor in 1972 and 1975, sat out 1979 because he was ineligible to run, and then in 1983 won a third term. While in office, he faced corruption charges and was acquitted by a jury in 1986. He lost a bid for reelection in 1987 but ran again in 1991. In Louisiana’s all-party system, he won 34 percent of the vote to 32 percent for David Duke, a white supremacist who had won a special election to the legislature as a Republican in 1989 and was repudiated by most in his party. Bumper stickers read, “Vote for the crook — it’s important,” and a majority of voters listened; Edwards won the runoff, 61%-39%. He was convicted on corruption charges in May 2000 and went to prison. (After his release, he lost a comeback race for a U.S. House seat in 2014.)

Louisiana voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 – the only state in the Deep South to do so – but has since voted increasingly Republican. Republican Bobby Jindal, defeated for governor 52%-48% by Democrat Blanco in 2003, came back in 2007 and won the multiparty primary with 54 percent of the vote. The congressional delegation now has five Republicans, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, and one Democrat; the legislature, Democratic since Reconstruction, changed hands as party switchers brought about Republican majorities in the state House in 2010 and the state Senate in 2011. Jindal, a political wunderkind, came into the governorship as a policy wonk, and governed more as ideologue than pragmatist. Louisiana on his watch was hammered by lower oil prices, which, combined with past tax cuts and little spending restraint meant that Jindal left office with a $943 million budget deficit for his final fiscal year and a projected $2 billion shortfall for 2016-2017. His approval ratings sank to the high 20s -- below even Obama’s in the state – and he dropped out of the presidential race several weeks before the Iowa Caucuses.

Jindal’s rocky tenure enabled a relatively obscure Democrat, West Point graduate John Bel Edwards, to succeed him. Edwards defeated Republican Sen. David Vitter for the governorship by a 56%-44% margin, amid fatigue over Jindal and a relitigation of Vitter’s past scandals. In office, Edwards signed up 480,000 people for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, something Jindal had refused to do. In addition, a criminal-justice overhaul pushed by a bipartisan coalition in the legislature and signed by Edwards in 2017 reduced the number of people imprisoned for non- violent crimes by 20 percent, and cut the number sent to prison for drug possession by 42 percent.

In 2016, Donald Trump expanded on Mitt Romney’s 2012 victory in the state, widening the GOP margin from 18 points to 20, thanks to strong backing in rural areas. The other notable electoral result from 2016: Duke, the white supremacist, garnered only 3 percent of the primary vote for Vitter’s open Senate seat, nowhere near enough to make the runoff. The 2018 midterms were relatively quiet, but Louisiana voters did take an important step on criminal justice, passing a ballot measure to require unanimous jury verdicts by a 64%-36% margin. The state had previously allowed guilty verdicts if 10 of 12 jurors agreed. This less-than-unanimous standard was a legacy of a 1898 state constitution that had been drafted “to establish the supremacy of the white race in the state.”

Copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition set to be released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy,

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