"Je suis un Cajun noir,” Elbert Lee Guillory, the 69-year-old state senator from Opelousas, Louisiana, tells me proudly. “I am a black Cajun.” To which he might these days add, “Je suis un Républicain noir—I am a black Republican.”
On May 31, Guillory became the first black Louisianan to serve at the state or federal level as a Republican since Reconstruction. In truth, he was a Republican before running for the statehouse in 2007, serving on the party’s St. Landry Parish committee and the state committee. But when he decided to run for office in his majority black, majority Democratic district, having an “R” by his name would have done him no favors. Besides, he says, his goal was to take down what he considered the corrupt regime of the local Democratic family in power, headed by Don Cravins Sr.
“He left Opelousas driving a Chevrolet,” Guillory says of his arch-rival. “Went to Baton Rouge and came back with his pockets stuffed with cash, driving a Cadillac.” Guillory registered as a Democrat and won his first race for the statehouse in a special election. He went on to win reelection and two subsequent elections to the Louisiana senate.
But by his 2011 campaign, Guillory was the only sitting Democratic senator not to receive the standard financial contribution from the state party. Always among the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus, Guillory had been voting with the Republicans more often than with the Democrats, who had been following the national party’s liberal lead on social issues like life, school choice, and gun ownership.
“All of the core values that I held and my community held, my family held,” Guillory says. “As they moved farther and farther away, what was kind of a tenuous relationship anyway became tense and rancorous.”
He won reelection and continued caucusing with the Democrats but says he felt increasingly alienated from what he now calls the “party of disappointment.” Republicans had been trying to woo him back for years, and his defection was imminent by this spring, when the Louisiana Democratic party chairwoman, state senator Karen Carter Peterson, added the final straw while debating Republicans opposed to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.
“It’s not about how many federal dollars we can receive. It’s not about that. You ready? It’s about race,” said Peterson, who is black, on the floor of the senate on May 28. “I know nobody wants to talk about that. It’s about the race of this African-American president.”
Peterson’s remarks touched off a firestorm, with national papers and cable news picking up the story. But most pertinent for Guillory was the reaction of his centenarian mother. She was furious.
“My mom calls me and says, ‘Elbert Lee, I heard this. You’re not any part of that, are you? You’re not saying anything like this, are you?’ ” Guillory says. “That was the last nudge that I needed.”
A few days later, at a gathering of black conservatives in Baton Rouge, Guillory announced he had become a Republican. “We must educate our people and show them that there is an alternative to the direction that the nation is being led in today,” Guillory told the crowd. “Today, the party of disappointment has moved away from the majority of Louisianans and away from the traditional values of America.”
Guillory says Democrats were probably happy to see him leave, while the GOP welcomed him with open arms, mostly because they considered him one of their own already. Republican governor Bobby Jindal, who calls Guillory a friend and a “great leader,” pushed to have him tapped as chairman of the senate committee on retirees when he was still a Democrat.
“I liked him as a Democrat. I like him as a Republican,” says Jindal. “It didn’t change who he was. It wasn’t like he woke up one day and changed his positions on policies.”
Jason Doré, the executive director of the Louisiana GOP, says Guillory’s status as a prominent black elected official has benefited the party as it seeks to make inroads in the state’s large African-American community (the highest percentage in the country after neighboring Mississippi). He’s already done seven town hall events on behalf of the state party and is expected to participate in more throughout the fall.
But it’s outside Louisiana that Guillory’s star has risen most rapidly. A few days after his switch, he released a web video that he says was meant to explain to his constituents why he became a Republican, aptly titled “Why I Am a Republican.” Filmed in the empty state senate chamber, the slick video features the well-dressed, soft-spoken Guillory speaking directly into the camera about his switch.