The Magazine

Only One Can Survive

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By KATE HAVARD
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Lafayette, La.
Deep in the swampland, a battle is brewing. It is less than two weeks from the start of alligator hunting season. The gators have dug their holes in the bankside, and their young have all hatched. The population is at its peak. Jogging paths near large bodies of water are closed off. Now is the time to keep a close watch on your pets and not let your children go wading. The reptiles are ornery and hungry, packed in and fiercely protecting their territory, preparing for the fight of their lives.

Rep. Jeff Landry offers some advice during a presidential address to Congress.

Rep. Jeff Landry offers some advice during a presidential address to Congress.

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Louisiana’s politics match its ecology. The state is overpopulated with congressmen. It lost a seat in the post-Katrina population decline and redistricting, and now two members, Charles Boustany and Jeff Landry, are vying for the same district.

When I went down to cover the race, I was told that the only way to know the area was to travel by water. So despite my better judgment, I took to the swamp, in an itty bitty boat. As we glided around beneath the shade of a hundred shaggy cypress trees, I asked my guide, “There’s not going to be any, uh, swamp snakes falling out of the tree and into the boat, right?”

“Nah,” he said. “Just don’t knock us into any trees.”

Perhaps detecting my unease, my guide, Eric, tells me a fable: “One time, I watched a little baby gator sneak up on this great big bird, who was way too big for him. He bit the bird on the tail and it squawked, turned around, and poked his eye out. The bird had a sore butt, the gator had one eye, and they were both pissed about it.”

As it happens, this just about sums up the race in Louisiana’s Third District: Rep. Jeff Landry is one tenacious little gator—perhaps not a mortal threat to Boustany, but daring enough to be a real pain.

The new district, in the southeastern portion of the state, includes Lafayette (the largest city), Chalmette, Lake Charles, and Thibodaux. This is Acadiana, Cajun country, where the boudin is abundant and introductions include the question, “You’re Catholic, right?” Thanks to a thriving offshore drilling industry and high oil prices, the area is pretty much recession proof. In spite of hurricanes and Deepwater Horizon, it has bounced back and then some. Unemployment in Lafayette is only 5.3 percent. It’s one of the most conservative districts in the country, and a Republican can expect to stay a while. In 2010, Boustany ran unopposed.

Unlike other member-versus-member races, this contest won’t be settled in the next few days, or even weeks. Louisiana prefers to let the candidates slug it out until November 6 in what’s known as a “Cajun Primary,” where $600 or 1,000 signatures gets you on the ballot representing whatever party you choose. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there will be a runoff in December. After filing their official qualifying papers on August 15, both men are gearing up for open season—on each other.

Boustany’s camp says Landry is an extremist obstructionist on a vanity quest. Last June, Landry was the only Republican House member to refuse the president’s invitation to the White House to talk fiscal policy, and he was a firm “no” on raising the debt ceiling. In Boustany’s view, Landry’s intransigence will get him left out of the room when the real decisions are made. “It was a popular vote and a good sound bite,” Boustany says. “But it didn’t solve our budget problems. We had to take responsible steps.”

Landry’s campaign points out that Boustany’s vote for a “grand bargain” didn’t accomplish much either. They paint Boustany as a high-society city-slicker who’s lost touch with the voters in South Louisiana—an auto-bailout-loving, debt-ceiling-raising lapdog to the party leadership.

Redistricting has given Boustany a huge advantage—the new district is mostly Boustany’s old turf, with a sliver of Landry’s parishes (St. Martin, St. Mary, and Iberia) tacked on. But Landry doesn’t mind an uphill fight: “They’ve got more money than us, they’re gonna make me out to be Satan’s brother. That’s just fine,” he says. “I’ve been an underdog all my life. I came from nothing.”

Indeed, this sugar farmer turned sheriff’s deputy turned lawyer seems to flourish on the fighting side of politics. In the 2010 elections, expectations for Landry were low. Early polling numbers were abysmal. But with the help of the Tea Party, Landry ended up beating the establishment candidate, former speaker of the Louisiana house Hunt Downer, by 30 points.

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