Civil-rights suit could sink Mount

Lingering anger over the Louisiana Democratic Party’s involvement in the 7th District race and an impending lawsuit claiming civil-rights abuse threaten to sink Democrat Willie Landry Mount’s bid for the seat being vacated by Rep. Chris John (D-La.).

Voters in Cajun country head to the polls Saturday for the runoff election.
Lingering anger over the Louisiana Democratic Party’s involvement in the 7th District race and an impending lawsuit claiming civil-rights abuse threaten to sink Democrat Willie Landry Mount’s bid for the seat being vacated by Rep. Chris John (D-La.).

Voters in Cajun country head to the polls Saturday for the runoff election.
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The seat being vacated by Rep. Chris John (D-La.) is hotly contested in Louisiana.

In the first round of voting Nov. 2, Mount, a state senator, narrowly made the runoff, coming in second, with 25 percent of vote, behind Republican Charles Boustany, who won 39 percent.

State Sen. Don Cravins (D) came in a close third, also winning 25 percent but lagging with 1,700 votes fewer than Mount. Another Democrat, Malcolm Carriere, won 2 percent.

Now Cravins, who is black, is preparing to sue in federal court claiming that the state Democratic Party violated the Voting Rights Act when it sent a unity ballot to thousands of 7th District voters.

The unity ballot featured the names, in large capital letters, of presidential contender John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards; John, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate; and Mount.

The small print at the bottom of the unity ballot, sent out in October, said it was paid for and authorized by the Louisiana Democratic Party, the John Senate campaign and the Mount House campaign. The Kerry-Edwards campaign did not take part.

“When the party engages in that kind of deceitful activity, sure it upsets me,” Cravins said yesterday, adding that many voters assumed the unity ballot was “the official sanctioned ballot of the Democratic Party.”

Citing his narrow loss, Cravins added: “I have every reason to believe that it had an effect on the outcome of the election.”

Cravins said he would not endorse Mount in the waning days of the campaign, even though Democrats in conservative southwestern Louisiana depend heavily on black voters to win. Cravins estimated that African-Americans make up 23 percent of the
district.

When Cravins has withheld his endorsement I the past it has had no effect. In 2003, he declined to back Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s runoff bid, and in 2002 he opted not to endorse Sen. Mary Landrieu in a tight runoff.

Lenny Dartez, a member of the state Democratic Party’s Executive Committee, said many Democrats in Louisiana believe wrongly that a black candidate cannot win in a majority-white district.

During the Senate race, some Democrats privately accused the party of throwing its support behind John, who is white and was backed by outgoing Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), while marginalizing the candidacies of state Sen. Arthur Morrell and state Treasurer John Kennedy, both Democrats. Morrell is black. Several black leaders in the state backed Kennedy.

“Granted, it would have been tougher for Senator Cravins to win in a runoff, tougher than for Willie Mount, but they just handled that all wrong,” Dartez said, referring to party leaders.

“A lot of other members” of the state executive committee are also upset about the mailing, Dartez said, adding, “It wasn’t a direct mail out from the party. They just participated in some of the costs.”

Louisiana Democratic Party spokesman Andrew Kones-chusky said state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom (D) sent out the ballot, which features a black soldier on the front and a picture of Martin Luther King on the inside.

Koneschusky said the state Democratic Party helped pay for the unity ballot because otherwise Kerry’s and Edwards’s names would not have appeared on it. He added that Odom sends out the ballot every cycle and that Cravins has appeared on it in the past.

Odom could not be reached for comment Monday.

Koneschusky pointed out that Louisiana Democrats had sent an official ballot to voters before Nov. 2 that did not favor one candidate over another.

A Louisiana Republican said the Democrats’ treatment of Cravins — whom Dartez and others called a viable congressional candidate with a middle-of-the-road voting record at the state Capitol — was typical.

Black voters, the Republican said, are Democrats’ “most loyal allies, and yet, they, more often than not, are thrown overboard because the party hierarchy fears no retribution. I’ve never been able to understand how they put up with it.”

The Republican continued: “Cravins is an outstanding candidate,” adding that the unity ballot “will have some effect” on Saturday’s outcome.

Both Republicans and Democrats will run extensive get-out-the-vote efforts Saturday to help their candidates in the 7th and 3rd districts. In the latter district, Republican Billy Tauzin III is running against Democrat Charles Melancon for Tauzin’s father’s seat.

Jason Roe, chief of staff for Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), said that the National Republican Congressional Committee would employ its standard ground operation but that the GOP would not flood Louisiana with out-of-state volunteers. Feeney has helped coordinate volunteer efforts for Republicans in tight House races in South Dakota and Pennsylvania.

Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats would unleash a ground game that paralleled efforts in special elections last year in Kentucky and South Dakota. Democrats won both those races. “We anticipate having hundreds of volunteers working to turn out the vote between now and Saturday,” Speed said.

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