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Test of character: Louisiana style

Special to the Herald-Guide -   Oct 06, 2011

By John Maginnis,

When or if the candidates for lieutenant governor get around to facing each other in debate, the key points of discussion, judging from their TV commercials, will not be culture, recreation or tourism.

Those are the chief operational duties of the No. 2 office, but were only added in the 1974 constitution in order to give that official something to do while waiting around for something to happen to No. 1.

With no governor’s race to speak of this year, the contest between Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser becomes the big one, all the moreso because of the career trajectory of the current governor.

Then add in the political intrigue of Sen. David Vitter’s all-out drive for Nungesser, in part seen as payback for Dardenne’s not endorsing Vitter for re-election last year, after entertaining talk of running himself. What’s more, Nungesser claims Gov. Bobby Jindal encouraged him to oppose Dardenne. Jindal lamely distanced himself from the remark, saying he always encourages good people to run for office because it’s good for democracy, but he denied recruiting Nungesser for the challenge.

Mr. Nungesser seems hardly to need recruitment to seize the political opportunity of a lifetime by taking timely advantage of the lavish media attention he commanded during the BP oil spill.

According to the political chatter, Jindal may have been concerned that Nungesser was angling to run against him this year, and perhaps Vitter got the same vibe last year. If so, it could explain why Vitter and Jindal, who have so little to do with each other, would agree that it would be a swell idea for Nungesser to run against Dardenne. That perception of something going down between Jindal and Nungesser - as Earl Long would say, a smile, a wink or a nod - seems to have discouraged other Republicans from running, most notably Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle, the former interim lieutenant governor.

Whatever their motivations, that all of the above are Republicans must have Jay Dardenne feeling like he’s not in with the in crowd.

None of the above means much to the average voter. He and she can only go on the reasons the candidates give about why the other is so unfit to hold office, especially this office. Only so much column space can be devoted to sorting out every claim and counter-claim, though they both agree that the other is a liar.

The worst that Nungesser can say about Dardenne is that as a state senator he voted for some tax renewals and increases. Dardenne can point to more taxes that he voted to repeal or reduce, but his less-than-absolute anti-tax purity has earned him the scorn of the Republican right wing, which has broadened and intensified into the tea party movement. The Tea Party of Louisiana has endorsed Nungesser.

The worst that Dardenne can say about Nungesser is that the FBI has subpoenaed and is reviewing emergency parish contracts he signed 16 months after Hurricane Katrina. Nungesser says he is sure he has done nothing wrong. Voters can’t be as sure because the feds are not saying what they are looking for and are taking their time doing so, unconcerned with the election timetable.

Amidst the mutual character assassination, many voters will be putting the candidates to their own test of what kind of character they want for a leader.

Dardenne presents himself as responsible and prepared, an image that promises no unwelcome surprises of what he might say or do next or what the FBI thinks about him. He sums that up in the last two words on the screen of his commercials: “Steady, Conservative.”

Nungesser, seen charging ahead in his airboat, promises that no one will work harder or fight harder for the state, and that counts for more than experience or statesmanship. He may be rough around the edges, but so are many voters, including many Democrats, both white and black, who will see in him “one of us.”

It will be mainly Democrats, in southwestern and north Louisiana, where neither candidate is from, who will decide this election by choosing what Republican they trust or like most, or least.

When it gets down to that character test, what conflicts voters and makes Louisiana politics unpredictable is that “the safe bet” is not always “one of us,” and vice versa.

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