Remember the days when candidates for U.S Senator or Governor would speak to thousands of supporters at weekend rallies all over Louisiana? Huey Long was the master, mainly because he promised he’d give voters just about anything they wanted. A long line of colorful politicians followed in Huey’s wake. But those days seem to be long gone and forgotten.
Governor Jimmy Davis could draw a crowd on parish courthouse steps by blaring out a chorus of “You are My Sunshine.” Gov. John McKeithen was in high cotton while giving stump speeches on the back of a pickup truck. Edwin Edwards would mesmerize crowds in south Louisiana with his Cajun humor. Senators like Russell Long, Bennett Johnson and John Breaux, though not as flamboyant, still could both draw and relate to large crowds of voters all over the state.
Fairs and festivals used to be huge draws for statewide candidates. John Kennedy kicked off his run for the presidency before a crowd of over 200,000 at the Crowley Rice Festival back in 1959. It was an absolute must for aspiring governors, U.S. senators, and other statewide offices to attend the Frog Festival in Rayne, the Crawfish Festival in Beaux Bridge, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival, the Peach Festival in Ruston; the list goes on and on.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a gubernatorial election going on in Louisiana that is only a little more than a month away. You sure would not be aware of this contest if you relied on candidates showing up to “pressing the flesh,” and networking with constituents at many of the large gatherings that occur every weekend this time of year. What happened to all the direct contact with voters?
To back up my point, I made a cross section of phone calls across the state. From Kentwood to Morgan City, Belle Chasse to Homer, and from Lutcher to Lake Providence, the message was almost always the same. The statewide candidates have been, almost without exception, no shows in these local communities. Retail politics have been put on the back burner. It’s all about television, often paid for by out of state special interest groups.
I published a book four years ago by political columnists Tyler Bridges and Jeremy Alford about Governor John Bel Edwards’ victory called “Long Shot.” They both have seen a major change by candidates reaching out to voters. Bridges put it this way. “Blame the change on the rise of television ads and, lately, the importance of social media as a tool to reach out to voters.”
The three major candidates for governor seem to feel that the return is not worth their political investment to attend these annual gatherings, particularly in smaller communities. Their view is that they can get to the public on TV, and not spend the time with voters at the local level. I would respectfully disagree.
You can get a lot of bang for your buck by getting out among the locals. And in this day of growing social media, your contacts actually grow a number of times more than the crowd in attendance. Everyone now carries their cell phone cameras for “selfies” with friends as well as celebrities. Attending a festival can produce photos galore on Facebook, Twitter, and other social Internet outlets, as well as good fodder for the candidates to circulate themselves.
Statewide candidates may think that dollar raising for TV spots makes good political sense. But it is a slap at their constituents, and unhealthy for a democracy. Louisiana deserves better. Maybe we do need a third choice. In Nevada, if voters don’t like their options on the ballot, they can vote for “none of the above.” An idea worth considering in future Louisiana elections?
Jim Brown is a former Commissioner of Insurance, Secretary of State and state senator from Ferriday. His past columns can be read at www.jimbrownusa.com. Brown’s nationally syndicated radio show airs each Sunday morning from 9 a.m.-11 a.m. on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at www.jimbrownusa.com.