From Senator to Senate Staffer

Posted February 6, 2009 at 6:08pm

Four months ago, Louisiana Democrat Don Cravins Jr. was seeking an office of his own on Capitol Hill. Now he’s running one in the Russell Senate Office Building on behalf of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Following his unsuccessful 2008 campaign against Rep. Charles Boustany (R) in Louisiana’s 7th district, Cravins was tapped in early January by Landrieu to be the staff director for the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.

Last week, Cravins — who gave up his state Senate seat to take the job — said the adjustment from Congressional candidate to Congressional staffer has gone relatively smoothly.

He has even taken to describing himself as a recovering Louisiana politician.

“When I hear the word ‘Senator,’ I realize people aren’t calling me, and I’m OK with that,” Cravins said.

It might seem like an unusual career move, especially for a man who had been viewed as an emerging leader in the Louisiana Democratic Party. But then again, the 2008 elections showed that times are tough for Democrats in the Bayou State, especially for those interested in federal office.

Even as national Democrats celebrated a second straight cycle of major gains in the House and the Senate, the political pendulum in Louisiana continued to swing toward Republicans.

Landrieu’s re-election victory over state Treasurer John Kennedy (R) by a comfortable 6 points was the one bright spot for Democrats on Election Day.

Cravins, who is black and ran on a very conservative platform, lost his election by 28 points. Meanwhile, Rep. Don Cazayoux (D), who had won the Baton Rouge-based 6th district seat in a special election earlier in the year, lost his re-election bid. Both men were heavily supported by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In December, Louisiana Democrats suffered two more blows when they lost a pair of late general elections.

In the Shreveport-based 4th district, the national party poured massive resources into the open-seat race to replace retiring Rep. Jim McCrery (R), only to see Caddo Parish District Attorney Paul Carmouche (D) narrowly beaten by now-Rep. John Fleming (R).

Then, in the biggest upset of the cycle, scandal-plagued Rep. William Jefferson (D) lost the overwhelmingly Democratic 2nd district to now-Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, who is now viewed as somewhat of a celebrity in GOP circles.

While he’s happy with the campaign he ran against Boustany and grateful for the support he received from the state and national parties, Cravins uses words such as “disappointing” and “frustrating” when he thinks about what Democrats lost in the Bayou State in the 2008 cycle.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the state in the presidential election with 59 percent of the vote. Cravins said one problem for Democratic candidates in Louisiana last cycle was that some voters across the South still aren’t comfortable electing black politicians to federal offices.

“How do you change that mindset?” Cravins said. “I think those voters are going to see President Barack Obama do a great job. I think they’re going to see this Democratic Congress do a great job. … Then we’re going to go back to [those voters] and show them what we’ve done and I think it’s going to alleviate their fears.”

And that’s part of Cravins’ motivation for leaving the Louisiana Legislature — where he spent two years in the House before moving to a Senate seat formerly held by his father — and taking a staff position on Capitol Hill.

“It gives me an opportunity to do some great things for back home. Not only just helping small businesses … but the [Small Business Administration] is crucial for recovery during disasters,” Cravins said. “I saw during [hurricanes] Ike and Gustav recently the SBA do a much better job thanks in large part to Sen. Landrieu’s reforms at the SBA after Katrina and Rita.”

Some of the Democrats’ problems in Louisiana last cycle were also self-inflicted.

Cazayoux’s loss was in large part due to the fact that state Rep. Michael Jackson, who is black and was elected to the state Legislature as a Democrat, filed to run as an Independent in the 6th district race.

Jackson lost to Cazayoux in a special primary runoff last spring, and he blamed the DCCC for that loss. His candidacy split the Democratic vote — particularly the vote of the district’s 33 percent black population — clearing the way for now-Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) to win the district by a comfortable margin.

Both Cazayoux and Jackson are friends of Cravins’ and all three men served together in the state Legislature. Cravins said it was tough to watch the two former allies stand in the way of each others’ political goals.

“In the future, I think you’re going to see the party do a better job of hopefully working through” such self-destructive political situations.

Then there’s Jefferson.

When he won his House seat two decades ago, Jefferson became the first black candidate in Louisiana to be elected to Congress since Reconstruction. He went on to serve nine terms. But after being dogged for years by federal investigators, Jefferson was indicted in 2007 on bribery and corruption charges. He managed to win the Democratic nomination in his New Orleans-based district last year only to go down in stunning defeat to Cao. Now he is awaiting a federal trial.

“It’s a disappointment what happened,” Cravins said. “I don’t say it’s a good thing he is gone — it’s a disappointing thing.”

Cravins said that for young, aspiring African-American politicians like himself, Jefferson was a role model when he first was elected in 1990.

“This guy came from one of the poorest places in the country, got himself a Harvard education, became the first African-American Congressman. His career really was the American dream,” Cravins said. “Whenever you see someone you look up to [fall so far] it hurts.”

Cravins said he’s enjoyed his first few weeks as a Congressional staffer, but he also wouldn’t completely close the door on running for elected office again someday.

“I’m glad I ran for Congress because had I not, my ambition to run for public office would still be there,” he said. “But I did it. I did it, and so my ambition to run for public office is not what it used to be. … I’m a recovering Louisiana politician and I’m OK.”