Louisiana's next U.S. senator?
8:04 AM, Mar 8, 2013 • By MICHAEL WARREN
His career in politics started at LSU, where Dardenne was student body president in the 1970’s. Like most Louisianans at the time, he initially registered as a Democratic voter. But in 1974, Dardenne volunteered on the successful congressional campaign of Republican Henson Moore. Moore was just the second Republican to serve in the House of Representatives from Louisiana since Reconstruction. “He and I were in the same fraternity at LSU, and I got to know him and really admire him and helped in his campaign,” Dardenne says. “And that’s what really prompted me to become a Republican, long before I sought any office. So I’ve been a Republican, in essence, most of my adult life.”
In the late 1980’s, Dardenne ran for office himself, serving on the Baton Rouge metropolitan council. In 1992, he was elected to the state senate from East Baton Rouge parish. There, he says, he started “lobbing grenades” during the fourth and final administration of crooked governor Edwin Edwards (who defeated neo-Nazi David Duke in a race that featured pro-Edwards bumper stickers reading, “Vote for the Crook—It’s Important”). Mann says Dardenne earned a reputation as one of the “good government” reformers who tried—unsuccessfully, at first—to clean up the decades of back-slapping corruption that defined the Democratic-dominated politics in Baton Rouge.
“This has been a state that has been challenged in the past with political intrigue,” Dardenne says.
Over the next decade and a half, Dardenne served in the state senate under both Democratic governors (Edwards and Kathleen Blanco) and Republican (Mike Foster). His reform efforts, much more successful under the administrations after Edwards’s, and his judicious temperament tagged him as a “moderate Republican,” though he calls himself a fiscal and social conservative. He’s the kind of Republican, Mann says, who can win over independents and the state’s dwindling population of Democrats, too.
“Jay Dardenne is a political figure who transcends political parties,” says Chris Wilson, Dardenne’s longtime pollster.
In 2005, the five-term secretary of state died in office, and Governor Blanco appointed a temporary successor. In 2006, Dardenne ran to fill out the remainder of the term and won, winning reelection just a year later in the same 2007 general election that saw Bobby Jindal elected governor. Three years later, the Democratic lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu (Mary’s brother) won the race for mayor of New Orleans, so Jindal appointed a temporary successor, Democrat-turned-Republican Scott Angelle, while Dardenne announced his intention to run in the October 2010 special election for the seat. The situation was a replay of his secretary of state electoral story: he won the special election and then won a full term a year later. All told, Dardenne has won four statewide elections in five years. It’s no wonder some Republicans are “ambitious” for him.
Dardenne occupies an interesting place in Louisiana politics. When he was first elected secretary of state in 2006, he was the first Jewish statewide officeholder since Judah P. Benjamin, a U.S. senator until Louisiana seceded in 1861. (Benjamin later served as the Confederate States’s attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state.) He doesn’t dwell on his religion or ethnicity, though, noting Louisiana has always been a diverse “human gumbo.” It’s a state, after all, that elected the nation’s first Asian Indian governor despite the fact that Indian Americans make up less than half a percent of Louisiana’s population.
So will Dardenne ultimately try to succeed Jindal and become Louisiana’s first Jewish governor? Republican senator David Vitter is reportedly interested in returning to Louisiana to run for the office himself. Vitter is a conservative and popular with the party’s right wing, which in another state might keep Dardenne out. But Louisiana’s unique system means Republicans, Democrats, and independents all run together in an open primary. If no candidate wins 50 percent, as is often the case, the top two vote getters proceed to a runoff. As the GOP becomes more dominant in Louisiana, there’s more incentive for Republican candidates to jump in and try to make it to the runoff. In an open primary with Vitter and a weak Democrat, Dardenne could have a chance to win the vast middle.