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Era of good government on the bayou?

Saturday's election shows that Louisiana, long known for political

Justly or not, Louisiana has always been ridiculed for its politics. Populists, buffoons, scoundrels, and the occasional crook all vied for public office, each promising a chicken in every pot. Voters occasionally threw the bums out, often to invite them back a few years later.

Some of that has improved, after a decade of good-government reforms and the changing nature of Louisiana's oil-based economy. But tomorrow's election, which includes a primary vote for the governor, shows that Louisiana politics can still be, well, colorful.

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*Two incumbent candidates for statewide office - the insurance commissioner and the election commissioner - are under indictment. Both are expected to win. One is running unopposed.

*In the governor's primary race, one Republican bricklayer legally changed his name to Mike Foster, apparently to siphon votes away from the incumbent, also named Mike Foster. (The renamed Mr. Foster has dropped out of the race.)

*Six of the state's top elected officials, both Democratic and Republican, signed a "nonaggression pact" in which they agreed not to campaign against one another, even if it meant not supporting a member of their own party.

Despite all this "color," tomorrow's vote could serve as a milestone of how far Louisiana has come in reforming its political system. Defenders say the Bayou State has come a long way toward creating a government that is trustworthy and responsive to its citizens as well as to business.

Critics say it remains decades behind the rest of the South in everything from race relations and education to job creation. Nearly everyone agrees that Louisiana's political reforms are, at best, a work in progress.

"The long-term direction in Louisiana is toward clean government," says Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Investigative reporting has begun to spotlight corrupt officials, he says. And with the collapse of the oil-and-gas industry in recent years, "Louisiana doesn't have the money to be corrupt anymore."

Work in progress

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But the short term, Dr. Parent adds, is not so pretty. "In the last 20 years, we've been taking three steps forward and two steps back." Noting the two indicted officials, and a recent ethics violation by the governor himself, he adds, "This election is two steps back."

Ethics aside, this governor's election appears to be one of the cleanest in recent memory. All the top candidates have eschewed character assassination and race baiting, the stock in trade of many a politician in this multiracial state.

Leading in the polls is the incumbent, Mr. Foster. Ranging from 55 percent to 62 percent support in recent polls, Foster is widely expected to win without the need for a runoff.

Avoiding debates, Foster was to spend the final days of the campaign in the mostly white, Baptist northern part of the state. His campaign portrays Foster, the millionaire sugar-grower and grandson of a governor, as a duck-hunting Everyman who increased education spending, reformed the legal system, and helped create jobs.

Critics say Foster has pampered the oil industry, and by changing civil tort laws, has taken away the one tool that ordinary citizens have in punishing polluters. In addition, religious conservatives have pointed out that Foster, who promised to rein in the gambling industry, has merely weeded out the smaller competitors and benefited the larger casinos. They also point to his failure to disclose the purchase of a mailing list from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as evidence that Foster is not above electoral shenanigans.

But some observers give Foster some credit for following the footsteps of former Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer, and pushing a slate of electoral reforms through a legislature that is still dominated by Democrats.

"Mike Foster is no white knight," says Quinn Hillier, a Republican political consultant in Mobile, Ala., citing the governor's ties to the gambling industry. "He's been a half reformer. But people are so cynical about politics these days, they don't realize how far things have gone."

Among the challengers, US Rep. William Jefferson, an African-American Democrat, is Foster's closest competitor. Polls show Mr. Jefferson with 25 percent of the vote, drawing mostly from blacks in New Orleans and southern Louisiana. His platform is liberal; he talks of reducing class sizes in schools, increasing teacher pay, and providing more technical job training in poorer communities.

"There's definitely going to be a runoff, unless people don't show up to vote," says Jefferson in an interview this week. Racial prejudice is no longer a divider in Louisiana, he says. "I'm going to be really heartened by how white voters respond in this election." About the worst thing Jefferson says about Foster is that he "really doesn't engage people."

Foster's harshest critic, ironically, is Tom Greene, a staunch Christian conservative Republican who entered the race in part because of Foster's tepid support for school vouchers and perceived bias toward big business.

At a rally to protest Foster's approval of a waste-disposal plant in St. Mary Parish, Mr. Greene, who got 4 percent of the vote in recent polls, sounded oddly like a Sierra Club activist: "St. Mary Parish needs good, clean jobs, not jobs that are tied to polluting our state. As governor, I will concentrate on bringing them. The question is, will Mike Foster?"

Ballot-box talk

Out in the streets of New Orleans, far from the gumbo-gulping haunts of the French Quarter, most Louisianans seem to have trouble believing that all this debate is a sign of cleaner, healthier politics.

"I have a general distrust of politicians, because I'm a lawyer, and so are all of them," says David Johnson, a lawyer from Baton Rouge who calls himself an independent, but plans to vote for Foster.

"There are very few elections that get me excited," says Aaron Henderson, a parking-lot manager who is undecided. "I could back someone who has a track record of doing things for the people, and I don't necessarily mean in politics. But it's a job that, in order to do it right, you're going to make a lot of people mad."

Sally Reeves, an archivist, is hopeful. "We've come a long, long, long way," she says, hoofing her way to a business luncheon. "I want a government that makes it fair ... to do business, where families are promoted. And if we can stop having to deal with corruption, we could get on to solving the problems of education."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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