By John Maginnis
To succeed at getting elected, a candidate needs to stay on message, to respond when attacked and—when there is nothing left to say—to change the subject.
Congressman Jeff Landry adroitly did the latter recently when he called on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to eliminate an academic minor in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies. By doing so, he ripped the headlines away from rival Congressman Charles Boustany, his fellow Republican opponent this fall in the newly merged 3rd District.
Boustany had just introduced legislation to deduct pay from members who fail to show for roll-call votes. It comes as no surprise that Landry has missed 10 percent of votes this year to the author’s one percent.
Landry responded gamely, wishing that Boustany "had been absent the times he voted to raise the debt ceiling, bail out banks, and allow his salary to increase." Good, but not enough, so the next day he was back in the news telling colleges what not to teach.
He did not think up this gem by himself, but, rather, chimed in to support the Louisiana Family Forum’s opposition to the gay studies minor, which, said director Gene Mills, was more advocacy than academic and "doesn’t reflect Louisiana values." Landry tried to be more subtle, criticizing the academic offering for wasting tax dollars by not training students for job careers.
ULL President Joseph "T Joe" Savoie, a fairly adroit politician himself, responded that gay studies will continue to be offered at the school, as it is at over 200 universities; that the designation of a minor costs nothing extra because it uses existing courses; and that it will prepare students well for careers in social work, counseling, teaching and personnel management.
Were the congressman truly concerned about the usefulness of the academic minor, by leafing through the course catalogue he could probably find better examples of classes that don’t directly lead to jobs. By his choice of targets, Landry’s motivation seems less to do with students’ career prospects than his own.
In a broader sense, academic freedom, like free speech, is not meant to protect only popular thought. More than a lofty principle, the protection is embedded in the state Constitution, which puts the management of colleges under governing boards, whose members, when they choose to be, are free from being told what to do by the governor, the Legislature or a congressman.
As for the concern for taxpayer value, it is the students taking these courses, who, more and more, are paying the bills, as this governor and Legislature slash state funding for higher education while tuition continues to climb.
This distraction is not likely to gain traction as an issue in the 3rd District election, any more than will Boustany’s "no show, no pay" gimmick bill. Yet, Landry, as shrewd and aggressive a candidate to come along in a while (young David Vitter comes to mind) best be careful about employing the same strategy as last time, in 2010, when he ran hard to the Republican right.
That was a closed Republican primary. Now that the state has returned to the open primary, all voters will vote the same ballot. This year, winning the right only works if there is a strong Democrat to win the left and to squeeze out the more moderate Boustany. But, so far, that "strong Democrat" is the no-show.
For all the back and forth between the two incumbent Republicans, the most meaningful statement about the fall elections came last week from Democratic state party chairman Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who said the party would not field challengers in all GOP-held congressional districts this year. Actually, it has yet to field any.
That could mean a free ride for four GOP incumbents. In the 3rd District, however, it means the winner won’t be the one who appeals most to conservative Republicans but he who least scares Democrats and independents.
To that end, Landry also is making a non-partisan pitch as the outsider, who won’t even join the congressional retirement system, compared to consummate insider Boustany. But that appeal might be limited in a region, which, having sent John Breaux to Washington for 32 years, doesn’t mind having their man on the inside.
With Charles Boustany having raised much more money and maintained most of his old 7th District, Jeff Landry needs more than a good issue. He needs a good Democrat.