No year in recent memory offered Louisiana’s political leaders more opportunity to shine than 2020. If the state’s citizens ever needed those who manage their government institutions to provide courageous policies and competent leadership, the year past was it. Fortunately, Louisiana had some such leaders. Unfortunately, too many failed the test, cultivated their own narrow interests, or pandered to our worst instincts.
I began my year-end assessment of the good, bad and ugly in Louisiana politics when I wrote a weekly column for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. I’m pleased to return at the end of this horrible, historic year for another edition.
Most Cowardice: No group has been more craven than the spineless creatures who make up Louisiana Republican congressional delegation. History will record that, as President Donald Trump bungled the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they backed the malevolent, incompetent president to the hilt. And then, as Trump assaulted our democracy and tried to overturn the election, these cowards remained silent or supported him. Only U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy acknowledged that Joe Biden won the election. But praising Cassidy for this would be like giving the rooster an award for acknowledging the sunrise. Let’s hope history is brutally unkind to these invertebrates.
Shameless Ambition: Whether it was backing efforts to overturn Gov. John Bel Edwards’ sensible and life-saving executive order that helped prevent Louisiana from experiencing the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, or trying to help Trump overturn the 2020 election, Attorney General Jeff Landry looked out for himself. He was shameless, as he’s always been, in pandering to the Cult of Trump and putting his political ambitions first, and yours and my wellbeing last. Landry is to public health and democracy what catsup is to prime rib.
Most Embarrassing Statement: Here’s U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins on Facebook in mid-December, comparing Biden’s election to the internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II: “It was abhorrent. And it was challenged in court as a violation of Constitutional rights. The Supreme Court of the United States did not stop it. Lessons of history. They were 120 thousand. We are 75 million. . . . If you were a Japanese American in WWII . . . would you just concede? Would you kneel? If your answer is yes, then perhaps you should kneel. You’ll be out of our way. We, the People . . . will not concede. We will not take a knee to oppression. 75 million Americans re-elected Donald J. Trump as our President.”
Villain of the Year: This award goes to Lafayette Parish officials, led by Mayor-President Josh Guillory, who refused to shelter desperate Lake Charles evacuees after Hurricane Laura devastated southwestern Louisiana in August. Speaking for Guillory, Cydra Wingerter, the parish’s chief administrative officer, told area humanitarian groups: “We are not in a position to safeguard people displaced by Laura. We know that bad actors will take our hospitality and use it against us.” I’m sure Guillory considers himself a pro-life Christian, but you couldn’t tell that from his reprehensible response to human suffering.
Most innovative idea: In response to the pandemic, Louisiana Democrats and Republicans had different responses. Republican lawmakers reflexively went to tax cuts for business. (Honestly, is there any problem Republicans don’t think they can solve with tax cuts?) Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Democrats had a better idea: Get some financial help to front-line workers.
Thus, was born the $250, one-time Frontline Worker COVID-19 Hazard Pay Rebate. After balking at the Democratic plan, everyone got onboard with this winning idea to send $50 million from federal COVID relief funds to various underpaid frontline workers, including bus drivers, garbage collectors, and grocery store clerks. As The Advocate aptly described them, these were “people who stayed on the job while the rest of the state stayed at home.”
Most Courage: The female LSU students who stepped forward to describe to the local and national press the physical and sexual abuse they suffered at LSU and which university officials, particularly in the Athletic Department, ignored or mishandled. Several of these students spoke to USA Today, which broke the story in August. Other students came forward to speak with The Advocate’s Andrea Gallo. Sadly, the courage of these young women has not been matched by those who run LSU.
Worst in Show: Outgoing Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is the Louisiana public official many of us will miss the least in 2021. Back in July, Big Easy Magazine summarized perfectly his hideous tenure. Here are some choice excerpts: “Mr. Cannizzaro leaves behind a legacy of political entrenchment, cruelty, and, at times, national embarrassment – as his brutal practices made headlines at a time when sentiment favored being ‘smart on crime, not tough on crime’. . . He was also known to routinely transfer juvenile cases to adult court, resulting in many juveniles being convicted and sentenced as adults. The imprisonment and trial of juveniles as adults is considered a major human rights issue globally, with the United States as the chief offender.”
Best in Show: Can you imagine Louisiana’s disastrous response to the pandemic if Republican Eddie Rispone had been governor? The Republican business executive would have undoubtedly surrendered to the Republican death caucus in the Legislature. Many more of our citizens would have died.
Thankfully, Gov. John Bel Edwards was our leader. He was a paragon of sober, sane, and responsible leadership. He put the public’s health first. He listened to the experts. He communicated well and often. Some of his decisions were unpopular, but they were usually correct and in pursuit of the best interests of the people, not himself. He suffered many slings and arrows from his critics, but he held firm. In the short-term, this may not help him politically. History, however, will be kind to anyone who put the public first in a time of crisis. Louisiana was, and is, fortunate to have his steady, wise leadership.
Robert Mann is a professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.