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|Remember Duke versus Johnston?|
It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke gave J. Bennett Johnston the scare of his political life.
Hard to believe, but it's true.
A state lawmaker from Caddo Parish, Johnston burst onto the state scene in the 1971 gubernatorial race. That was the year Johnston and Edwin Edwards squared off in a run-off election to name the Democratic Party nominee for the general election. Remember, back in those days Louisiana conducted closed primary elections, meaning Democrats picked their nominee for the general election while Republicans did the same on the other side the fence.
Edwards won that '71 campaign by about 5,000 votes. He defeated Dave Treen in the general election, the first of two gubernatorial elections in Louisiana in which EWE knocked off the easy-going Treen.
Johnston bounced back a year later, in 1972, and took on U.S. Sen. Allen J. Ellender, who was first elected to the Senate in 1936. Johnston literally won by default since Ellender died during the campaign. However, Johnston insisted for years that he had a poll showing he would have unseated the veteran lawmaker. We'll never know.
In the 1972 general election, Johnston easily outdistanced Ben Toledano, the Republican nominee, and former Gov. John J. McKeithen, who ran as an independent. McKeithen finished second to Johnston with 23 percent of the vote.
In 1978 when Johnston sought his second term, he faced then-state Rep. Woody Jenkins. Jenkins was a Democrat back then, and he was on his way to becoming a thorn in the side of the political establishment in Louisiana.
Though Jenkins was considered a minor candidate in '78, the conservative message he took to the electorate resonated with enough people for Jenkins to garner 40 percent of the vote. Johnston may not have realized it at the time, but Jenkins' showing should have told Johnston a couple of things about himself—the people accepted him, but they weren't enthralled with him.
Johnston was easily re-elected in 1984 against token opposition, but by the time the 1990 Senate campaign rolled around Johnston had created enough enemies to invite serious opposition in his bid for a fourth term in office.
Johnston's vote against Judge Robert Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 confirmed what many Louisianians had come to believe about one of their senators—that Johnston was out of touch with the average man and woman on the street back home. Johnston's play to be named Senate Majority Leader in 1989 didn't help him either. That, too, told the people that Johnston was more interested in being a big shot in Washington than interested in helping the people who sent him there.
Though Duke could never be described as a mainstream candidate under any circumstances, his opposition to Johnston represented far more than a token, or fringe, threat to an elected official who had not campaigned in earnest since 1978. That was the case because Duke, the former Klucker, had perfected the art of tapping into people's fears over their standing in society.
Duke was a fraud through and through, but his message about welfare reform and illegal immigration resonated with scores of voters who were still reeling from the collapse of Louisiana's economy in the mid 1980s. At one campaign appearance in West Monroe in the summer of 1990, Duke attracted a standing-room only crowd who hung on his every word, dropping cash money into buckets for Duke to use to spread his message. Later we would learn that many of those contributions were used for Duke's own personal expenses.
Yet, Duke plugged away and along the way, he turned the Senate race into a spectacle. The national media descended upon Louisiana, and through its continuous negative reporting of Duke the media created sympathy for him.
That Johnston pulled only 53 percent of the vote to Duke's 44 percent probably played a significant role in Johnston bowing out of politics at the end of his fourth term. He had had enough, so much so that he remained in Washington following his retirement from the Senate.
The visceral tone of the Johnston/Duke election was a precursor of what the electorate would witness in Louisiana in campaign after campaign ever since. It's gotten so bad that it's becoming increasingly difficult to attract young people to politics.
After all, who in his or her right mind wants to endure a campaign for public office in which every decision and every action a candidate has made over the course of his or her life is treated as if some law had been broken?
Sam Hanna, Jr.
is publisher of The Ouachita Citizen
, and he serves in an editorial/management capacity with The Concordia Sentinel
and The Franklin Sun
, three newspapers owned and operated by the Hanna family. Hanna can be reached by calling (318) 805-8158 or by emailing him at email@example.com
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