Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Era of Good Government on the Bayou? ; Saturday's Election Shows That Louisiana, Long Known for Political

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Era of Good Government on the Bayou? ; Saturday's Election Shows That Louisiana, Long Known for Political

Article excerpt

Justly or not, Louisiana has always been ridiculed for its politics. Populists, buffoons, scoundrels, and the occasional crook all vied for public office, each promising a chicken in every pot. Voters occasionally threw the bums out, often to invite them back a few years later.

Some of that has improved, after a decade of good-government reforms and the changing nature of Louisiana's oil-based economy. But tomorrow's election, which includes a primary vote for the governor, shows that Louisiana politics can still be, well, colorful.

*Two incumbent candidates for statewide office - the insurance commissioner and the election commissioner - are under indictment. Both are expected to win. One is running unopposed.

*In the governor's primary race, one Republican bricklayer legally changed his name to Mike Foster, apparently to siphon votes away from the incumbent, also named Mike Foster. (The renamed Mr. Foster has dropped out of the race.)

*Six of the state's top elected officials, both Democratic and Republican, signed a "nonaggression pact" in which they agreed not to campaign against one another, even if it meant not supporting a member of their own party.

Despite all this "color," tomorrow's vote could serve as a milestone of how far Louisiana has come in reforming its political system. Defenders say the Bayou State has come a long way toward creating a government that is trustworthy and responsive to its citizens as well as to business.

Critics say it remains decades behind the rest of the South in everything from race relations and education to job creation. Nearly everyone agrees that Louisiana's political reforms are, at best, a work in progress.

"The long-term direction in Louisiana is toward clean government," says Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Investigative reporting has begun to spotlight corrupt officials, he says. And with the collapse of the oil-and-gas industry in recent years, "Louisiana doesn't have the money to be corrupt anymore."

Work in progress

But the short term, Dr. Parent adds, is not so pretty. "In the last 20 years, we've been taking three steps forward and two steps back." Noting the two indicted officials, and a recent ethics violation by the governor himself, he adds, "This election is two steps back."

Ethics aside, this governor's election appears to be one of the cleanest in recent memory. All the top candidates have eschewed character assassination and race baiting, the stock in trade of many a politician in this multiracial state.

Leading in the polls is the incumbent, Mr. Foster. Ranging from 55 percent to 62 percent support in recent polls, Foster is widely expected to win without the need for a runoff.

Avoiding debates, Foster was to spend the final days of the campaign in the mostly white, Baptist northern part of the state. His campaign portrays Foster, the millionaire sugar-grower and grandson of a governor, as a duck-hunting Everyman who increased education spending, reformed the legal system, and helped create jobs.

Critics say Foster has pampered the oil industry, and by changing civil tort laws, has taken away the one tool that ordinary citizens have in punishing polluters. In addition, religious conservatives have pointed out that Foster, who promised to rein in the gambling industry, has merely weeded out the smaller competitors and benefited the larger casinos. …

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