David Duke, Jesse Helms and Lee Atwater would be proud. Those abominable race baiters (Helms and Atwater are dead) were undoubtedly the inspiration for a shocking television spot that Republican U.S Sen. David Vitter began running Tuesday on television stations and cable channels around Louisiana.
In the time it took one 30-second commercial to play, it was back to the (racist) future, Louisiana-style.
Vitter, who barely made it into the Nov. 21 runoff for governor with Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, demonstrated that he will stop at nothing to win the governor’s office – including trying to drag the state back to its racist past.
Political observers in Baton Rouge expected the runoff to get nasty. Vitter was deeply wounded by a poor, 23 percent showing on election night (Oct. 24). He finished 17 points behind Edwards, who surprised almost everyone with a strong 40 percent showing, leading the field of four major candidates. Many observers now give Edwards an even chance, or better, at winning the Governor’s Mansion, something unfathomable just weeks ago.
Few, however, thought Vitter would go full-tilt Willie Horton on just the third day of the runoff election. But he did.
In the spot, paid for by Vitter’s campaign, photos of President Obama and Edwards (who have never met) are cleverly melded together to appear as if they are standing side by side. In a menacing voice, the announcer warns, “Voting for Edwards is like voting to make Obama Louisiana’s next governor. Want proof? Obama dangerously calls for releasing six thousand criminals from jail.
“Edwards joined Obama, promising at Southern University he’ll release fifty-five hundred in Louisiana alone,” the spot continues. “Fifty-five hundred dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our streets.”
As anyone in Louisiana knows, Southern University is the state’s largest historically black university. And, as anyone who has studied racial politics over past decade can attest, “thug” is a loaded word – a racial dog-whistle that means, to many, a “black criminal.”
Let’s save for another day a fulsome discussion of the need for sentencing reform in a state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate. Let’s note, however, that the policies Vitter attacks as dangerous are supported by a broad coalition of Republicans and Democrats, including the Koch Brothers, who have joined forces with Obama to promote sensible prison and sentencing reforms.
Vitter, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate, last March advocated his own prison and sentencing reforms. Edwards says he has never proposed any wholesale inmate release but rather reforms similar to what Vitter himself has supported.
What’s important here is not that Vitter is angling for a debate with Edwards about prison reform. He’s not. He couldn’t care less about that debate.
Vitter’s objective is, quite simply, to smear Edwards by reviving and exploiting Louisiana’s fearful, racist past.
Vitter is fishing for votes in the same putrid pond where Louisiana’s racists of old reeled in many voters. And he’s using the same racist bait – fear of the violent black man.
Twenty-five years after the fact, nothing I’ve done in my political life is more satisfying to me than my role in helping defeat a former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, in his 1990 race for the U.S. Senate. I was campaign press secretary to Duke’s Democratic opponent, U.S. J. Bennett Johnston. It was a vicious fight in which I saw the best and the worst of my beloved Louisiana.
We vanquished Duke, but not by as much as we hoped or expected – he got more than half the state’s white vote. Duke repeated the feat again the following year while losing a tough gubernatorial runoff to former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Both men were deeply flawed individuals – Edwards tinged by decades of corruption accusations and Duke hobbled by his Klan and neo-Nazi past (which really wasn’t in the past).
Many voters like me held our noses and voted for Edwards. The mantra, which even made it onto a bumper sticker was, “Vote for the crook. It’s important.”
In the quarter century since those two campaigns – which portrayed Louisiana as a haven for some of the nation’s most intolerant racists and abhorrent bigots – I’ve prayed that my state was finally entering a new, more enlightened era.
Even though Louisiana is more politically conservative, and no Democrat has won statewide office here since 2008, I believed that our people had gradually grown more tolerant and less susceptible to a politician’s subtle or overt racist appeals.
Vitter, however, must believe that the past is still the present.
Despite his despicable, bigoted fear mongering, I’m still hopeful we have put our racist era behind us. There’s a decent chance that Vitter’s problems with the electorate are so profound that even a skillful, racist appeal won’t win over all the Republicans who voted for his two GOP opponents.
Edwards, the son of a sheriff and the brother of another, on Monday earned the enthusiastic endorsement of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association. Casting this West Point graduate and former Army Ranger as weak on crime won’t be easy.
In the end, Vitter’s racist spot could push more black voters to the polls for Edwards on Nov. 21.
As for the racist voters Vitter wants, are they as numerous as he hopes? Probably not. But even if they are, that doesn’t mean they’ll be easily duped by Vitter’s scare tactics.
That’s because maybe even racists can recognize desperation when they see it. Moreover, they likely suspect that Vitter really isn’t one of them. Like me, they understand that he’s not a true racist in the tradition of David Duke.
Rather, Vitter is just a cheap political prostitute trying to turn a few tricks for the state’s dwindling and dying congregation of bigots.