RABALAIS’ POLITICAL HISTORY: Steve, JBJ & The Lanes To Leadership

Long before U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was thrust into the developing race for speaker, and prior to subsequently endorsing his perceived opposition, there was another Louisiana politico making power plays on Capitol Hill in the hopes of landing a leadership gig.

No, that wasn’t a reference to former Speaker-elect Bob Livingston or late House Majority Leader Hale Boggs. It was actually a tip of the hat to former U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, who made two serious bids for majority leader himself.

By the 1980s Johnston had been representing the Bayou State in the Beltway for more than a decade. He had staked out a conservative corner in the Democratic Caucus, but also maintained relationships with liberal lions like late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

If there were ever a time for Johnston to get his own D.C. trophy, it was then. So when Democrats recaptured the majority following the 1986 midterms, Johnston made his move — for majority leader.

Late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia had led the caucus for the previous six years and was the obvious frontrunner. That mattered little to Johnston; the Shreveport native was undeterred and he almost immediately took aim at Byrd’s leadership style.

Johnston told reporters the party had become rudderless and suggested to others he would be a “better face” for the job, a clear dig at Byrd’s poor performances during television appearances. In response, Byrd told The New York Times, “I can't help it if I don't have a pretty face.”

Those tactics, though, were not successful. Unable to corral enough support, Johnston dropped out of the contest before a single vote was cast.

While it’s often true that there are no second place prizes in American politics, there are definitely consolation prizes. In the wake of his loss, Johnston secured the chairmanship of the upper chamber’s energy committee and Byrd publicly pledged to step aside in 1988, clearing a possible path for Johnston to run again.

And that’s exactly what happened. The 1988 race for majority leader found Johnston squared off against Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who had chaired the high-profile Iran-Contra hearings, and George Mitchell of Maine, who was the deputy pro tem of the Senate and, more importantly, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Johnston focused on personal meetings with his colleagues — and personal touches, like handwritten letters. As it so happened, that was enough of an effort to deliver a tie for second place with Inouye. Each man had notched 14 votes to 27 for Mitchell, a bit of math that inspired both to withdraw from the race.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Johnston and others believed he had a fighting chance. The reality, however, was slightly more nuanced. In an oral history recorded years later for Bowdin College, Johnston laughed when recalling his struggles with that 1988 leadership election. “Senators are very cagey,” he said, “and they don’t want to tell you they’re against you.”

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