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You’d think Gov. John Bel Edwards would be a little better at reading the tea leaves.

After all, it was Louisiana’s teachers who first pushed him over the top to win the governor’s election over David Vitter in 2015.

And the teachers again provided needed support when he was challenged by businessman Eddie Rispone who had the backing of would-be kingmaker Lane Grigsby.

So, how did Edwards reward teachers for their support?

A raise of $1,000 per year in 2019. That’s $83 per month before taxes—and that was nearly four years into his first term before he got around to doing that much.

Yes, I know a lot of workers in Louisiana didn’t get raises of $83 per month but before jumping in with that argument, consider what teachers are expected to do (other than teach in a classroom) and how their salaries stack up with other states.

Last April, the NEA released FIGURES that showed Louisiana’s teachers (before that $1,000-per-year boost) still ranked 13th lowest in the nation.

And those same figures showed that the national average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, had actually decreased 4.5 percent over the previous decade. Teachers were paid 21.4 percent less than similarly-education and experienced professionals, the NEA study revealed.

The national average teacher salary increased from $59,539 for the 2016-17 school year to $60,477 for 2017-18,

The average pay for teachers in Louisiana was $50,256.

So, what did Edwards to this year to try and bring teacher into alignment with other states when he submitted his proposed budget for next year?

Crickets chirping. Nothing. Nada. Nil. Zip.

And his wife was a teacher before he was elected governor. His daughter is a school counselor.

As might be expected, teachers took umbrage at the governor’s slight—as well they should have.

An acquaintance offered a defense of sorts for the governor’s omission. “The Republican legislature wouldn’t approve another teacher pay raise anyway, so he just didn’t brother.”

My response to that is, “So what? Put it in the budget and put the onus on the legislators. Let them explain why Louisiana cannot support its teachers. There are, by the way, part-time legislators who pull down more than starting teachers in this state.

Gov. Edwards did finally reverse himself, but only after teachers bristled publicly. But you’d never know he truly felt their wrath when he offered up a $500 per year raise. That’s $42 per month, a little more than a dollar a day. You can’t even go to McDonald’s with that.

If Edwards is considering a run at John Kennedy’s Senate seat, he’d do well to remember the teachers.

And don’t give me that worn-out B.S. about teachers only working nine months a year. That’s pure bunk. No sooner than the school year is over than teachers must turn their attention to the coming year by preparing lesson plans, cleaning out classrooms, re-stocking supplies and attending meetings.

Teachers endure problems we can only imagine in our jobs. As a news reporter, I would get irate calls from subjects of my stories but try sitting across the desk from an arrogant parent who won’t accept the explanation that their kid, who never received discipline or help with his homework at home, is disruptive, a problem student and deserved that poor grade or suspension.

Teachers must watch for signs their students are abused at home. Ever had to do that in your job? Ever had to look at a bruised child and asked him or her to tell you what happened? It’s a pretty depressing responsibility and can leave teachers sickened with nightmares.

Sometimes teachers are called on to stop a bullet to save a child—and they do it, Alex Jones’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Test papers are taken home by teachers who, while the rest of the family is watching American Idol, must plod through 25 or 30 test papers for grading. They sacrifice time with their own families so they can devote time to their jobs.

Teachers dip into their own pocketbooks to purchase materials for their classrooms. And believe me, that isn’t cheap. I knew a teacher in Lincoln Parish who bought shoes for a child who had none.

They are saddled with tons of paperwork other than test grading and they are burdened with bureaucratic requirements in preparation for standardized testing and if the kids don’t do well, it’s the teacher who bears the brunt of evaluations by politicians who decide who is and who isn’t a good teacher—without ever meeting the teacher or sitting in her classroom.

Teachers must step in to stop fights and God help her if she’s a little too physical with the kids. Might as well go ahead and retain legal counsel.

And sometimes a teacher spots potential in a kid no one else has seen. They take the student under their wing, nurture his/her talents, and develop a kid everyone thought had no future into a productive citizen. On that point, I speak from experience. Thank you, Mrs. Garrett, Miss Lewis, Miss Hinton, Mr. Peoples and Mr. Ryland. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Teachers deserve better, Gov. Edwards. As a friend suggested, “Go big or go home.”

You gave state police enormous pay raises. You gave your cabinet members substantial increases.

Teachers, cafeteria workers and other school employees deserve nothing less than the same consideration you’ve given state troopers and cabinet members.

You’re beginning to look a lot like Bobby Jindal.

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A politically-conservative organization is set to launch its campaign to rethink the issue of capital punishment next week in Baton Rouge but a press release on Tuesday indicates the group is more concerned with the cost of capital punishment in terms of dollars than in the human cost of lives adversely affected by numerous documented cases of wrongful convictions.

Louisiana Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, “a network of conservatives who question the alignment of capital punishment with their conservative principles,” will hold a news conference to officially announce the group’s formation next Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Capitol Park Event Center’s Fishbowl Conference Room at 702 River Road North in Baton Rouge.

Speakers scheduled for the event include:

  • King Alexander of Lake Charles, a member of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee;
  • David Marcantel of Jennings, member of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee;
  • Robert Maness of Madisonville, member of the St. Tammany Republican Parish Executive Committee and unsuccessful candidate for a number of elected offices;
  • Marcus Maldonado of New Orleans, described as a “liberty activist;”
  • Hannah Cox, national manager, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

Louisiana is one of 12 state-based CCADP groups the press release says are “part of a nationwide trend of conservatives rethinking capital punishment.”

“The latest study shows the death penalty costs Louisiana taxpayers nearly $16 million a year more than life without parole, and this waste of money is a big reason why conservatives in Louisiana are speaking out against the death penalty,” Cox said. “For a state with one of the highest violent crime rates, Louisiana is flushing away enormous resources that could be used to make its people much safer.”

What the news release did not say was that no fewer than 60 Louisiana inmates have been exonerated after it was determined that they were wrongly convicted, according to the National Registry of Exonerations which lists more than 2500 exonerations nationwide.

Of those 60 Louisiana exonerations, 15 were on death row awaiting execution.

One of the principal reasons for the high number of wrongful convictions is that prosecutors are not held accountable in a country where virtually all but judges and prosecutors must answer for their actions.

District attorneys want a high rate of convictions to hold up to the public when re-election time comes around and if they have to fudge with the evidence in order to obtain a conviction, many prosecutors have no compunctions about doing so.

And why not? It’s practically impossible to successfully sue a district attorney for his actions and judges are absolutely immune.

A good example of how difficult it is to extract some measure of retribution from a DA can be found in the case of John Thompson of New Orleans. Convicted of a murder he did not commit because the DA withheld exculpatory evidence, he spent 14 years on death row before the Innocence Project of New Orleans obtained his freedom. He sued DA Harry Connick and won a $14 million judgment that was appealed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court which struck down the award. For 14 years of his life taken away by subterfuge on the part of the prosecutor, he got nothing.

Thompson died in 2017 at the age of 55, just 14 years after his 2003 exoneration. Fourteen years on death row followed by 14 years of freedom during which time the courts deprived him of any remuneration for the “inconvenience” of 14 years behind bars and now…he’s dead.

But sometimes the actions of a prosecutor can be so egregious that the protections against legal liability must be stripped away to allow the exoneree to seek recompense for the damages done to him and his family.

Apparently, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick felt that 21st JDC District Attorney Scott Perrilloux may have committed such a breach of protocol and ethics in a Livingston Parish murder conviction when she ruled that a lawsuit by Michael Wearry could go forward.

Dick, chief judge for the U.S. Middle District, ruled that Perrilloux’s “alleged use of intimidation and coercion to produced fabricated testimony went beyond the scope of the prosecutor’s role as an advocate of the state” by costing Wearry more than 20 years of his life on death row.

In light of Judge Dick’s ruling and a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that called the entire case “a house of cards,” Perrilloux’s claim of prosecutorial immunity came up pretty thin.

The Wearry case stems from the brutal murder of 16-year-old pizza delivery boy Eric Walber whose body was found on a gravel road not long after he delivered pizza to a remote area in Livingston Parish in 1998.

The lawsuit was filed against Perrilloux and Marion Kearney Foster, former Livingston Parish Chief of Detectives who, together, built their case against Wearry on the basis of the testimony of then 10-year-old Jeffrey Ashton who has since recanted his testimony, claiming he was threatened by Perrilloux and Foster and that Perrilloux coached him on his trial testimony..

He now says he was nowhere near the crime scene and that he never saw Wearry,” said Ashton, now 30. “I seen none of that. On the night that everything happened, I was not in Springfield, period. We was at the Strawberry Festival (in Ponchatoula).”

Ashton says Perrilloux and Foster threatened to take him to juvenile hall if he didn’t say what they wanted him to say in his testimony and that “you’re going to be there for life.”

The case languished for two years before a jailhouse snitch told authorities he participated in the murder and named Wearry and four others. The problem with Sam Scott’s story, however, was that he got several details about the crime wrong.

He said the murder occurred on Blahut Road but police reports show that it actually happened several miles from there, on Crisp Road.

The jury wasn’t told, for example, that Scott gave five statements over two days, getting both the color and make of the car wrong. In his initial statement, he said that Walber was shot but he was not. He was kidnapped in his own vehicle and then beaten before being run over several times.

Moreover, Wearry’s then-girlfriend, Renarda Dominick, said she and Wearry were at a Baton Rouge wedding reception until well beyond the time of the murder but prosecutors, never eager to admit wrongdoing, claim he could have participated in the murder after returning from the reception.

Like Ashton, Dominick said authorities went so far as to arrest her for traffic tickets she had already paid in an effort to get her to change her story.

Undaunted by the double-team scolding from Judge Dick and the U.S. Supreme Court for his office’s sloppy work, Perrilloux immediately began planning to re-try Wearry. But Wearry’s lawsuit forced an abrupt change of plans. With the lawsuit hanging over him like the sword of Damocles, Perrilloux quickly agreed to a plea deal with Wearry in December 2018, just a month before his scheduled retrial for first-degree murder. Wearry entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge of manslaughter and agreed to a 25-year sentence with credit given for more than 20 years already served.

Whether or not Wearry was involved, this was the best deal for him. Even if he was innocent, it was his only chance of not having to endure another grueling trial at the hands of a prosecutor who had already shown his propensity to win at any cost, even if it meant bending the rules to the breaking point. And another conviction would mean Wearry would never get out of prison.

And again, whether or not Wearry was involved, the actions by Perrilloux and Johnson are inexcusable. These people are elected to protect us, not to resort to unethical behavior to obtain a dubious conviction in order to bolster their resumes at election time.

With most public officials, we ask only for honesty and integrity. With prosecutors and judges, the bar must be set higher because they deal with human lives and the consequences can be catastrophic. With them, we must also demand absolute adherence to the highest standards of justice. No one is perfect, but perfection must be the objective.

Every time.

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It looks as though the John Hays Memorial Rumor Mill might become a regular feature of LouisianaVoice.

For the unindoctrinated, Hays, who died five years ago following a protracted battle with cancer, was publisher of Ruston’s Morning Paper, a weekly edition that took on the entrenched power structure and never let up.

But what began as a one-man crusade against the local hospital and local, municipally-run power plant quickly expanded into the scourge of any would-be swindlers, scam artists and flim-flam peddlers. He once took on Ponzi schemer Steven Hoffenberg who headed up a scam called Towers Financial Corp. (TFC) and sent Hoffenberg packing off to federal prison, copping his Morning Paper a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in the process.

As I said yesterday in the column immediately below this one, the misfortune of having one’s name crop up in his Rumor Mill was the local equivalent to having Mike Wallace show up at your office for an interview on 60 Minutes.

And as I said in the opening paragraph, his Rumor Mill may, of necessity, become a permanent feature here after picking up on the rumor we heard today.

(Drum roll, please):

Politics can be a dicey game as two high-ranking officials in the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office apparently have learned, according to reports that have reached the executive offices of LouisianaVoice in beautiful downtown Denham Springs.

Without naming names (we’ll do that when we get official confirmation), word is Gov. John Bel Edwards has sent down word from the State Capitol’s Fourth Floor that the two LSFM officials, one stationed in the LSFM’s Baton Rouge headquarters and the other in Lafayette an hour to the west, should no longer be considered state employees.

Their sin? Backing the wrong horse in the recent gubernatorial election and doing it openly.

But, hey! That’s the price you pay for working as an unclassified state employee. Unclassified means you are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the governor, unprotected by Civil Service.

Unclassified, unlike classified (Civil Service) employees are free to participate in political campaigns, but they best be careful which candidate they back. Support the wrong one and your career can—and will be—cut short.

These two, we’re told, actively campaigned for Republican Eddie Rispone, apparently fairly certain that a Democrat couldn’t possible be elected governor twice in such a red state dominated by the likes of Lane Grigsby, Rispone’s mentor and principal benefactor. Surely Edwards’s win over David Vitter four years ago was an anomaly, more of an indictment of Vitter than an endorsement of Edwards, a (shudder) Democrat.

That may have been where the smart money was but the smart money doesn’t always take into account the intangibles in a tight election and the intangibles in this one included the impotence of Donald Trump’s support of Rispone (three trips to Louisiana) and an unexpectedly high turnout in support of Edwards.

And unclassified employees who rode the wrong pony are now paying the price.

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Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur Smith, III, has been named president of a new political action committee (PAC) founded in an attempt to stem the growing trend of economic, religious, gender, racial and healthcare discrimination against American employees.

Stand Up for Workers (SU4W) “was established by people who care about the basic rights of the American worker. We seek to protect the right to a fair and livable wage and benefits; to receive fair and humane treatment in the workplace, including work with dignity; and to have full access to justice, including the right to trial by jury,” according to its web page.

A little background is in order here.

The formation of the new PAC is realistically challenged with overcoming nearly a 50-year head start by big business and business-backed Republican elected officials who, indebted to corporate PACs, have given their tacit approval to the more subtle means of employee discrimination. At the same time, open endorsement has been given the so-called Powell Memorandum of 1971 by then-corporate attorney Lewis Powell, Jr., who shortly after writing his memo, was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Nixon.

The MEMORANDUM, written specifically for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System” and served as a master plan for conservative business interests to retake America from the so-called New Deal era. It was supposed to have been confidential, but was discovered an published by columnist Jack Anderson following Powell’s appointment to the Supreme Court.

Powell, who had served as corporate attorney and director on the board of Phillip Morris until his appointment to the Supreme Court, was an unabashed champion of the tobacco industry during his term on the court as well as an opponent of reforms to the automobile industry prompted by Ralph Nader’s expose’ Unsafe at Any Speed, which revealed the auto industry’s higher priority on profits than on safety. Powell called Nader the chief antagonist of American business.

The memo, which foreshadowed several of the Powell court’s opinions served as the blueprint for the rise of the American conservative movement and the formation of a spate of right-wing think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and lobbying organizations and also inspired the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to become more active in the political arena.

Conversely, as the chamber’s and other conservative organization’s influence gained strength in Washington, the political clout of organized labor weakened, further silencing the voice of American workers.

Following is the full press release announcing the formation of SU4W, as well as a link to the organization’s web page:

 

A group of worker advocates from across the nation has announced founding of a specialized political action committee, “Stand Up for Workers” (SU4W), dedicated specifically to the needs and concerns of American workers.  https://standupforworkers.org/    SU4W is a hybrid PAC, comprising both a traditional PAC and a super PAC.

“Despite recent promises of improvements in work life conditions for working Americans, the plight of middle and lower income workers has, if anything, become more dire,” said Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur “Art” Smith, III, President of SU4W.

Mr. Smith is a 47 year veteran employee-side litigator in Louisiana. He has litigated numerous trials and appeals in labor and employment on behalf of both employees and unions. He is a fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, and has served in numerous positions with the Louisiana Association for Justice, including membership on the Board of Governors, and chair of both its employment and civil rights committees.

SU4W Vice President James Kaster, a Minneapolis, MN attorney, is an experienced trial lawyer who concentrates on representing plaintiffs in employment cases. He is one of only a few plaintiffs’ lawyers who is a member of both the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers and the American College of Trial Lawyers, a group limited to one percent of America’s trial attorneys.  Mr. Kaster has also been a frequent lecturer at continuing legal education seminars and has been active in bar activities, including serving as President of the National Employment Lawyers Association.

“Until now there has been no group specifically dedicated to supporting political candidates committed to sponsoring and voting for legislation aimed at concrete measures that will produce better conditions for the American workers whose labor has formed the backbone of our country’s prosperity,” Mr. Smith said. SU4W will support candidates for all federal offices and will engage in other activities in support of working Americans, such as providing accurate information about candidates, proposed legislation and policies.

Most lower- and middle-income American workers have seen stagnant wages for decades, while executive and professional income has risen astronomically, Smith noted. Efforts to better the lives of workers through measures such as affordable health insurance have been consistently attacked and undermined by the current administration in Washington.

SU4W focuses on three goals:

  • more equitable pay for workers;
  • fair and humane treatment in the workplace, and
  • full access to justice, including trial by jury. Trial rights have been substantially eroded by the advent of arbitration agreements extracted from workers through the threat of not being hired.

SU4W will solicit applications for support from candidates, and will engage in a careful vetting process to ensure that the candidates selected satisfy a clear set of criteria showing they will include support for workers among their top priorities.  SU4W will study recent election returns to identify districts where pro-worker candidates will have the best chance of success.

The need for advocacy on behalf of workers extends beyond the issues of income and access to affordable health care, Smith noted. Incidents of degrading treatment at work, including racial, religious and sexual discrimination, are on the rise, and many employers have failed to prevent  abuse or act against it.

Founding members of SU4W are from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.  Among its leadership are some of the country’s most prominent attorneys whose legal practices are committed to enforcing employee rights.

For more information about SU4W, to make a donation, or find out how to apply for support, visit the website at https://standupforworkers.org/

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It’s been a long time since an election in Louisiana has featured the level of accusations and misleading ads.

Like four years.

It was in 2015 when then State Rep. John Bel Edwards rolled out his “Prostitutes over Patriots” ad to taint U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the latter’s attempt to succeed the controversial Bobby Jindal to the state’s governor’s mansion next to Capitol Lake.

That ad was a reminder of Vitter’s embarrassing scandal over his skipping a vote to honor 28 soldiers killed in action in favor of taking a call from a PROSTITUTES.

That ad eclipsed Vitter’s attempt to smear Edwards for his visit to a black nightclub that featured semi-nude dancers.

In an ugly sidebar, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, a Republican who succeeded the colorful—and controversial—Harry Lee, got involved in the race, first by endorsing Edwards and then by collaring an apparent campaign mole attempting to record a session of Edwards supporters at a coffee claque.

Ugly indeed. Worthy of Earl Long.

Fast forward to 2019 and little has changed.

Both candidates, incumbent Gov. Edwards, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Eddie Rispone have unloaded a spate of attack ads against each other that have Louisiana voters suffering severe cases of campaign fatigue. If possible, the barrage is worse even than the avalanche of lawyer ads that seem to obscure local newscasts.

Edwards convinced black leaders in New Orleans to remove an ad comparing Rispone to David Duke, prompting Rispone to accuse Edwards of playing the race card, accusing Edwards’ family of racism because his ancestors were slave owners.

Ugly.

Even Donald Trump has inserted himself into the governor’s race, appearing at rallies over the state and charging that Edwards is pro-abortion and anti-2nd Amendment.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Edwards broke with his own party to support and sign into law one of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the nation—the constitutionality of which will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. And Edwards, himself a hunter, is a strong advocate of the 2nd Amendment.

Rispone has fashioned himself as a “jobs creator,” but Edwards ads point out that he has a record of outsourcing jobs to foreign workers who subsequently sued him over benefits. And as for the jobs Rispone says he “created,” Edwards has noted that Rispone’s company has received millions of dollars in tax exemptions for businesses that created precious few jobs.

Rispone has an ad attacking Edwards as being “too liberal for Louisiana” that inserts Edwards responding to the hypothetical “how liberal is John Bel Edwards,” saying “That’s a stupid question.”

Problem is, the Edwards comment is taken out of context. The remark was in response to Rispone’s debate question about New Orleans being a sanctuary city—which, in fact, was an uninformed question, much like Rispone’s claim that the State Constitution contained 400 pages just on the state tax code.

Ugly.

The Edwards campaign features an ad that shows Rispone introducing then-Gov. Bobby Jindal at some function (we don’t know what, but it does appear authentic). His introduction is interspersed with negative news headlines about major budget cuts and budgetary shortfalls that occurred during Jindal’s eight years. Rispone can be heard congratulating Jindal on “a great job.”

The end concludes with a warning that we can’t go back to the Jindal years.

Recently, Secretary of State KYLE ARDOIN apparently violated a state prohibition against him (or any secretary of state) from participating in any partisan election other than his own—because as secretary of state, he is in charge of impartially overseeing all elections in the state—when he appeared in a Trump rally in Monroe and endorsed Rispone.

Ugly.

A Rispone ad inaccurately accused one of Edwards’ supporters, a West Point roommate, of landing a STATE CONTRACT worth up to $65 million. The facts revealed that while Murray Starkel did bid on the coastal restoration contract, neither his firm nor any of the other three bidders received the contract. The ad was subsequently pulled.

A Rispone ad attacking Edwards’ MILITARY RECORD was particularly ugly, especially in light of the fact that Rispone’s primary benefactor, Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, DROPPED OUT of West Point.

And while Rispone appears satisfied to attack Edwards vis TV ads, he seems reluctant to face Edwards face to face, one on one, other than the formal debates to which he committed earlier. But he was a NO SHOW at a Baton Rouge Area Chamber forum as well as a Baton Rouge Press Club debate, prompting one observer to speculate that he didn’t get Grigsby’s permission to attend.

And while Rispone offers no hard solutions to any of the state’s problems other than to say he is a “jobs creator,” Edwards can—and does—boast that he took over a state wallowing in eight consecutive years of budgetary deficits of the Jindal administration to produce a $300 million budget surplus.

Rispone’s most effective ad features his daughter Dena extolling his family values, his faith and the fact that he is not only a wonderful father, but a “good man.” It’s easily the least offensive ad that either candidate has rolled out, even more effective than the image of Edwards driving down the road in his pickup truck with his arm draped around his wife’s shoulder. That ad may have been genuine, but I couldn’t help but feel it appeared contrived, posed. Rispone’s daughter, by contrast, was about as sincere as any ad in the entire festering campaign and, looking directly into the camera, she comes across as a truly loving daughter. Nothing about it seems rehearsed.

Rispone, however, all but negates that ad with another in which he opens by saying Louisiana is the best state in the nation but immediately clicks off a multitude of poor rankings that causes one to question his claim of our being the “best” state.

There can be no denying there are lingering problems that are so entrenched from decades of back room politics that put lawmakers’ personal gain of the state’s best interests.

In 2018, Louisiana had an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent, fourth-highest in the nation, and a poverty rate of 18.6 percent, the nation’s third-highest.

There are those who are not as enamored as Rispone’s daughter. And the skeptics include at least two elected Republicans.

One, a state senator, cautioned, “If you think Jindal was bad, just wait until you see what happens if Rispone is elected.”

Another, a parish official, said Rispone would bring back former commissioners of administration Kristi Nichols and Angelle Davis from “political oblivion” to work in his administration.

Those two, and others Republicans with similar opinions, will be targeted by the State Republican Party as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

Regardless, the citizens of Louisiana will breathe a sigh of relief when this circus is over.

Political campaigns in Louisiana can wear even the most resilient observer down to his or her last nerve.

Ugly.

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