The Voice of Louisiana, Part III (BESE races)
In the previous article, we looked at the legislative races. In this final installment, we will look at the BESE (Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) races.
Certainly no one had a better night than Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby. And for good reason: three incumbents were defeated, and three more races were pushed into a runoff. Historically, BESE has been one of those elected offices that not only got little attention (they share the ballot with statewide and legislative races), but was a continual source of frustration for conservatives, as Democrats allied with teachers unions historically dominated these races – Republicans weren’t even elected to the BESE board until 2003, and it wasn’t until 2007 that they even seriously contested a majority of the seats.
There were two reasons for this: (1) Because BESE is an unpaid position, not many people other than teachers unions and educational administrators used to care about who sat on the board, (2) until 2011, the business community didn’t pay much attention to those races.
That changed this year when construction contractor Lane Grigsby (whose mantra is “get into politics or get out of business”), decided to get involved, because of his belief that the public education system in Louisiana was broken. His involvement in this (and other races in the past) was no laughing matter: last year, for example, he provided the resources to help knock three incumbents off the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. His motivation is simple: he goes after incumbents who he believes “don’t understand they’re supposed to be public servants.” That, combined with his desire to end teacher tenure (he noted that “it’s ten times harder to fire a teacher than it is for a lawyer to lose their license.”) motivated him into the BESE arena.
How did he do? In a board of 8 elected members (an additional 3 are appointed), only two incumbents were re-elected. One (recent party convert Walter Lee of Shreveport) was unopposed, while favorable incumbent Jim Garvey (R-Metairie) was re-elected in the primary with 58% of the vote. Each of the remaining six districts has its own story to tell:
In District 3 (south Louisiana between New Orleans and Lafayette), Democratic incumbent Glenny Lee Buquet lost 56-44% to Republican Lottie Beebe, despite the fact that Governor Jindal supported the Democratic incumbent. What happened? In this case, we believe it was Buquet’s Democratic Party label. In the two parishes (Terrebonne and Lafourche) that were most familiar with the incumbent, Buquet received 55% of the vote. In the rest of the district, 62% favored the Republican challenger. Since this is an area where the oil industry is a vital part of the economy, we believe that the drilling moratorium, and the resultant drop off in terms of Democratic Party identity, contributed to this large Republican vote. There was another contributing factor to Buquet’s defeat: even though the district is 20% black by voter registration, black turnout was significantly lower, and the Republican challenger got 19% of the black vote.
District 5 covers northeast Louisiana, and in this case, freshman Democrat Keith Guice lost 55-45% to Republican Jay Guillot – Guice was one of Grigsby’s targets. The demographics behind Guillot’s victory are just as fascinating: despite Guice having a base in the Republican stronghold of Ouachita Parish (he received 49% in a parish where Democrats are lucky to get 40%) and several rural parishes near Alexandria, Guillot was bolstered by a 58% vote out of Rapides Parish (Alexandria) and a strong vote in most of the rural parishes. It also didn’t hurt that Guillot got 14% of the black vote, and their turnout intensity was roughly half that of whites (white turnout was 37%, while black turnout was 20%).
District 7 covers southwest Louisiana, and in this case, you had a 12 year Democratic incumbent (Dale Bayard) quietly switch parties earlier this year, despite his being considered favorable to teachers unions. Nevertheless, he was another Grigsby target, and Republican political newcomer Holly Boffy soundly defeated Bayard 67-33%. Not only did Boffy carry every parish, but she even prevailed 63-37% in Bayard’s home parish of Calcasieu (Lake Charles).
District 2 is one of two black majority districts. The district includes New Orleans and some of the River Parishes. Two term incumbent Louella Givens (who herself defeated an incumbent in 2003) trailed challenger Kira Orange Jones 39-31%. Jones, who sported the endorsements of Senator (and New Orleans native) Mary Landrieu and the Alliance for Good Government, also was helped by the legal and tax problems of Givens (she had a DWI arrest and a 1.3 million dollar tax lien placed on her house). This is an interesting exhibition of the black community’s growing independence from the teachers unions, who lined up behind Givens. Givens had a tepid 37-36% lead in the black precincts (a slightly larger 41-33% in New Orleans), while with the white vote, Jones led 63-14%. Givens is in trouble in the runoff.
District 8 is the second black majority district that includes the black communities in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, as well as some rural parishes with a significant black population. This was an open seat, and four candidates (three of whom are black) ran. Despite the fact that Domoine Rutledge (attorney for the EBR School System) had the support of the teachers unions, he finished last with 21%. Making the runoff were Carolyn Hill (a black Democrat who is a certified social worker and is pro school reform) and Independent Jimmy Guillory. This was an interesting race because Hill ran without the support of teachers unions and traditional black political groups; instead, she built a biracial coalition. She is in a strong position for the runoff.
Finally, the champion of reform was incumbent Republican Chas Roemer (District 6 incumbent), who was strongly backed by Grigsby. Though forced into a runoff with a 45-29% lead over Democrat Donald Songy, the remaining 26% of the voters supported a Republican, and Roemer only needs a fraction of that vote to win. In fact, his runoff strategy is simple: (1) add to his already large 56-26% lead over Songy in East Baton Rouge Parish (not too tough to do, since the East Baton Rouge precincts in the district are 14% black), (2) consolidate the Republican vote in the suburban/rural parishes along I-12, where Roemer only led 38-25% (the other Republican received the remaining 36%).
In conclusion, there were several interesting features about the BESE races this year: (1) without a contested governor’s race to distract voters, the conservative nature of Louisianians finally made itself apparent in these races, (2) the fact that pro school choice/educational reform candidates had the resources to compete for the first time, and (3) the reality (apparent from the data) that blacks are no longer a rock solid part of the traditional Democratic coalition (unions, government employees, blacks, and trial lawyers) in Louisiana, and in fact are receptive to reform minded candidates.