Election Politics Not Entirely Absent During Tropical Storm Barry

Jul 16, 2019
Originally published on July 19, 2019 3:55 pm

As Hurricane Barry was developing in the Gulf of Mexico, so was the race for governor in Louisiana. In light of the storm, Governor John Bel Edwards officially postponed a campaign bus tour across the state. And one of his opponents, Republican congressman Ralph Abraham, followed suit, putting his campaign on pause. 

But the lines between natural disasters and politics can be delicate in Louisiana.

On this week's Capitol Access, Stephanie Grace, columnist with The Times Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate explains why.

Q: In one of your recent columns, you say "disasters aren't about politics, expect when they are." How so?

The thing about these disasters is the person in charge gets to show his or her stuff.  They have a big platform, people are paying attention to what they're doing and they're in charge reassuring people and letting people know that they're in good hands or not.  A lot of people are watching them.  While everybody says there's no place for politics—and it's true—when lives and property are at stake.  It's Louisiana, there's always politics.

Q: Official campaigning took a backseat while the storm was impacting the state, but that didn’t necessarily mean the election was out of sight.

Exactly the opposite, it turns out.  Because what happens when we have a disaster?  People turn into local news.  What do they play during commercials on local news?  Campaign ads.  John Bel Edwards had his first campaign ad running.  That didn't stop and probably more people saw it than would have otherwise because more people were tuned into local news to follow the weather.  There was also an ad that was in heavy rotation that wasn't by his opponents per se, but was by the Republican Governors Association.  It was basically an attack ad comparing him unfavorably to President Donald Trump.  Of course, the John Bel Edwards ad compared him favorably to Bobby Jindal.

Q: A big part of being governor of the state of Louisiana is dealing with these natural disasters.  Edwards has had to deal with the 2016 floods, Bobby Jindal with Hurricane Gustav, and of course Kathleen Blanco was in office during Hurricane Katrina.  How have we seen these disasters impact the public image of governors in the past?

Well, with Kathleen Blanco, it really formed an impression that really stuck, and that's that she was overwhelmed by the situation.  Now, you have to say that nobody else has faced what she has faced, let's start right there.  It would have been hard for anyone to convey that things were under control because they were not under control and much of that was not her fault.  This was an overwhelming catastrophe.  But there is also something about the demeanor.  People really react to whether a leader seems calm and in control or not.  I think that is something that benefitted Bobby Jindal during Gustav, also the BP oil spill and that has benefitted John Bel Edwards.  That first summer he took office, not only did we have the huge floods in Baton Rouge, we had those police shootings in Baton Rouge.  It was just a horrible summer.  There was the Alton Sterling incident.  It's really, I think, when a lot of people got to know him a little bit and liked what they saw, is the sense I got.  The polls backed that up.  You maybe got a sense of his military experience and he was also just very empathetic.  He got the tone right and I think the tone is very important in these situations.

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