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A political state of chaos

C. J. Bertrand can tell you about the old days in Louisiana politics. In 1951, Bertrand got a job with the state Highway Department. Later that year, a new governor was elected. "There were 23 of us in that office," he remembers. "All but four of us got fired."

Bertrand eventually won his job back and stayed on long enough to retire. But he hasn't forgotten the lesson he learned. "In Louisiana," he says, "politics was everything."

To a large extent, it still is. Somehow, history, economics and geology have conspired to give this state what political writer John Maginnis calls "the curse of interesting politics."

How interesting? Where else can you find a governor's race where the incumbent suddenly switches political parties in midterm, his predecessor is trying to make a comeback after two trials on corruption charges and a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan speaks to packed audiences.

And these aren't the fringe candidates. According to most observers, these will be the top three vote-getters this fall.

Gov. Buddy Roemer, elected as a Democrat and now running as a Republican, is the favorite. The reason he's favored? "He's not been indicted," says Maginnis, who publishes a bimonthly magazine about Louisiana politics, "and so far that's the best thing he has going for him."

One of his opponents, former Gov. Edwin Edwards, has been indicted and tried twice, but not convicted. During his last term in office, in the mid-1980s, Edwards spent nearly a year and a half on trial facing federal corruption charges.

And then there's state Rep. David Duke. A former Klan leader, Duke ran for the U.S. Senate last year and stunned political observers by winning 44 percent of the vote against a three-term incumbent. Duke says he is no longer a racist, but the issues he talks most about _ welfare reform, crime and affirmative action _ seem calculated to inflame Louisiana's flammable race relations.

And these are the major candidates. At last count, there were six others running for governor, including Ronnie Glynn Johnson of Shreveport, who announced he would do most of his campaigning from telephone booths. "I will spend a lot of time on the phone," he told reporters.

"It looks like chaos in Louisiana," said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics who teaches at Atlanta's Emory University.

To an extent, Louisiana politics always looks chaotic. Even the residents call this a "banana republic." In the early 1960s, the writer A.

J. Liebling compared Louisiana's politics to Lebanon's.

Partly, says Edward J. Steimel, a retired business lobbyist and political insider, Louisiana's love of flamboyant politicians is a result of its curious ethnic mix and history. Louisiana had a well-established French and Spanish culture long before the Americans arrived in the early 19th century. And the French and Spanish took a different view of politics than the Americans, Steimel says, with a greater interest in strong leaders and a more tolerant view of corruption.

That was combined in the 1930s with tremendous state revenues that came from taxes on oil and natural gas produced in the state. All that money, says Maginnis, gave birth to a form of political populism that continues even today.

But this election may mark a change. If Gov. Roemer is re-elected, say observers, it will be a sign that Louisianans are tired at last of their banana-republic politicians.

Despite his quirkiness _ after a few frustrating years as governor, Roemer started subscribing to a pop-psychology philosophy that calls for positive thinking and "honoring" those around him _ Roemer is a rather standard-issue reform governor.

Like reform governors elsewhere, he is big on education improvements, big on environmental protection and big on integrity and efficiency in government.

Those stands might cause yawns in other states, but they mark a dramatic change for Louisiana, where politicians have traditionally been more into entertainment than education and ethics. As Roemer himself noted in a recent breakfast speech, "there have been no headlines about ethics questions" in his administration.

And according to some, Louisianans are ready for reform. "We've begun to recognize," said Maginnis, "that we have to be more like other states to survive."

That is because what allowed Louisiana to be so different _ its oil and natural gas reserves _ is no longer the economic or political bounty it once was. Since the collapse of oil prices in the early 1980s, Louisiana has suffered terrible economic troubles. "They talk about a recession in the United States; we had a depression," Roemer said.

The hard times have caused the state to do something it had only half-heartedly pursued before: Look for jobs not connected with the oil and gas industries. And new industries want what Roemer offers: education reform and clean government.

What Roemer doesn't offer is flamboyance. Edwin Edwards, the former governor, provides that in abundance.

Edwards was governor for two terms in the 1970s and a third term in the mid-1980s. In the 1970s, he was Louisiana's swinging governor, gambling at the craps tables in Las Vegas and flaunting his numerous extramarital affairs. Edwards was also quick with the quips. He once joked that the only way he could lose an election was if he was caught in bed "with a dead girl or a live boy."

But his last term was a disaster. Indicted on federal corruption charges, he was acquitted after two trials in New Orleans. He ran for re-election in 1987, but when he finished second in the primary that year, he dropped out of the race, giving the election to Roemer.

Now he's back, a little paunchier and more subdued than in the past. Even Edwards acknowledges that times have changed in Louisiana and his old image does not play as well as it once did. "Any good politician knows how to adapt," Edwards said in an interview. "There are times to be colorful and times to be serious. These are serious times."

Most observers are predicting that Louisiana's peculiar "open primary" system will produce a Roemer vs. Edwards rematch. Under the system, Republicans and Democrats run in a single primary, held in October. The top two finishers, regardless of party, then face each other in the general election the next month.

But because the field is so large and the open primary system so unpredictable, there is a chance one of the finalists will be David Duke, the former Klan leader.

The prospect horrifies many Louisianans. "(Duke) cannot do this state any good," Steimel said.

But Duke has his constituency, particularly among white working class voters who have suffered from Louisiana's depression in the oil and gas industries. Duke plays on their fears that they or their children will lose out in jobs or promotions in the future due to affirmative action efforts to recruit black workers.

Edwards points out that only a few hundred Louisianans have ever benefited from affirmative action programs. But these voters are angry at economic conditions in general, and Duke's rhetoric provides an outlet for the anger.

In speeches, Duke is careful not to dwell too much on race. He concedes he was a racist in the past, puts down his Klan membership to a youthful mistake and says he no longer believes in white supremacy. Rather, he attacks affirmative action as being unfair and says he wants to change the nation's welfare system in order to help those on welfare.

And he says that the issues he talks about in public are the same things many people talk about privately. "I say the things that many people think but few will stand up and say openly," Duke said.

There are others given an outside chance of making the runoff: Kathleen Blanco, a state public service commissioner who is considered a moderate Democrat; and U.S. Rep. Clyde Holloway, a conservative Republican from central Louisiana. Blanco, a Cajun whose maiden name is Babineaux, is from Lafayette in the French-speaking southern half of Louisiana. She is expected to take votes away from Edwards, who is also Cajun.

Holloway, on the other hand, is expected to take votes from Roemer. He is more conservative, and some Republicans don't care for Roemer's recent conversion.

The only thing that isn't expected in this election is the joyous spirit of campaigns past in Louisiana. The election people remember most fondly was in 1983, when Edwin Edwards defeated the man who had succeeded him, a Republican named Dave Treen, to return to office.

Maginnis, who wrote a book about the free-spending, free-wheeling campaign, remembers it this way: "That election was so happy-go-lucky, so full of money. It was just a big old party from one end of the state to the other."

Maginnis paused and added, "The party ended right after that."