The Times - Picayune - Demo Touting Fee on Oil, Gas Processing
Foster Campbell: Proud to be called populist
By Robert Travis Scott
Bulldog. Populist. Another Huey Long.
Say what you will about Foster Campbell's fiery political style. The Elm Grove politician is flattered by the descriptions.
Little-known in the New Orleans area, Campbell has been a personality on the political scene in the Bossier City region for more than 30 years.
Hunter and horseman, farmer and insurance agent, unwavering Democrat, he has shaped his image over time as a country boy on what he describes as an uncompromising mission to protect the little guy from big-moneyed special interests.
"As far as a populist, I wear that proudly as a badge of honor," Campbell said. "And I think every politician in the state of Louisiana ought to be a populist, representing people. That's not a sinful thing to do."
Campbell announced his run for governor in March, the day before fellow Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco pulled the plug on her foundering re-election bid. With seven terms in the state Senate and five years representing north Louisiana on the Public Service Commission, he has four times the years of elected service of all the other major gubernatorial candidates combined.
Tall with billowy white hair, Campbell, 60, greets people with a warm handshake and serious expression. When not on the campaign trail, he balances duties on the commission with work at his insurance agencies in Bossier City. Divorced long ago, he said he remains close to his grown children and maintains a passion for the outdoors.
"I have six children, nine bird dogs and 17 shotguns," Campbell is fond of saying, noting his stance on the constitutional right to bear arms.
On the commission, which regulates utilities, he is an outspoken pain for Entergy Corp. and other energy interests when it comes to higher power bills.
"He is a tenacious player on things he believes in, and he can turn that against things he doesn't believe in," said Randy Ewing, a former state Senate president who knew Campbell as both ally and adversary. "Foster is just a unique guy."
Anyone who spends more than two minutes with Campbell will know that he is proposing an initiative that spills over into every major issue he sees facing the state. As governor, Campbell would try to eliminate the state's individual and corporate income taxes and replace them with a fee on oil and gas processing and distribution in Louisiana, a proposal he drummed year after year in the Legislature.
Critics say Campbell is too quick to point to the proposal as a cure for all ills and that it would stifle one of Louisiana's staple economic sectors, send an antibusiness message to the rest of the nation and place too much reliance on a single source of revenue to support the state budget.
According to Campbell, the fee would generate $5.5 billion a year, more than half the amount of the current state general fund and well more than the $3 billion the plan would give up in income taxes. He says the new resources would pay for improvements in health care, education, roads and coastal restoration. He paints it as a fight against worldwide industrial giants on behalf of poor and middle-class people.
Connecting with the people
Campbell traces his populist roots to his early years when he would go hunting with his uncle in the rural Black Lake area of Bienville Parish. Although Campbell's parents were prosperous, he said his uncle drove a pickup truck with a cardboard window. His uncle's hands had been blown off in a dynamite accident, but he somehow was able to steer the vehicle and fire a shotgun with the nubs of his arms. Each month the uncle waited on disability checks to buy groceries.
"We went to a country store to buy some shotgun shells one time," Campbell said. "And rather than buying a box of shells, we broke the box open, and he counted them out, 10 of them. And I said, 'What are you doing?' And he said, 'Everybody's daddy don't own a sporting goods store.' "
That act of thrift was an epiphany for Campbell, who saw what it was like to live with little money.
"I just never got over that," Campbell said. "I always had a special place in my heart for people who need help."
His mother worked for a retail store and his father was a bank director who also owned a service station, where Campbell started work in the fourth grade.
"That's where I learned how to politic, in the filling station, 'cause you start doing this in the fourth grade, and you learn how to work with people," Campbell said.
After college, Campbell became a math teacher for middle and high schools, when he got the bug to run for office. Politics ran in the family. Several of his cousins were judges. His father's friend Harold Montgomery was leaving the state's 36th Senate District seat.
Only 29 and newly married, Campbell agonized over whether he should get in a race that had attracted better-known candidates, including a former state speaker of the House.
"I was lying on a hardwood floor. We had the attic fan going on, and I was just flip-flopping around," Campbell recalls of his moment of decision.
His wife, washing the dishes, offhandedly said, "If this is going to make you miserable the rest of your life, you ought to run."
"I said, 'You're right. I'm running,' " Campbell said.
He borrowed $2,500 for his campaign, placed 10-second ads on TV and passed out 80,000 campaign cards. In the general election he won 74 percent of the vote, and the schoolteacher headed to Baton Rouge.
Chalking up wins, setbacks
Campbell's agenda in the Senate included successful efforts to regulate the rates of rural electric cooperatives and to increase the regulation of pawnbrokers and payday loan shops.
He led the Agriculture Committee and passed numerous bills affecting animals, including a crackdown on dogfighting and the creation of a "Save the Black Bear" specialty license plate. He co-sponsored the Do Not Call bill prohibiting sales calls to homes. The Education Excellence Fund, which ensures that certain state revenue for schools is spent on classroom instruction, was his brainchild.
There were plenty of setbacks, too. His effort to outlaw gambling on religious holidays gained publicity but not enough votes to pass. He failed to create a superboard for higher education. He sometimes promoted offbeat ideas that didn't work, such as a repeal of the sales tax on tuxedo rentals.
Campbell was in the Senate during three separate terms of Edwin Edwards and to this day considers the flamboyant former governor a friend and respected colleague. But Campbell was no crony of Edwards, say those who worked with the senator.
"He and Edwin got along very well, but he would tell you no," said Don Kelly, a former state senator from Natchitoches who worked as a floor leader soliciting votes for both Edwards and Gov. Buddy Roemer. "He was unbending on his principles."
Campbell ran for Congress in 1988 when Roemer left his 4th District seat to become governor. He lost a close special election to Roemer's ally Jim McCrery, a Republican.
Early one morning during the campaign, Campbell was driving on a closed portion of Interstate 49 that was under construction when his car hit a deep crevasse, nearly killing him. Campbell lost his right eye and broke bones across his face.
The political lessons were brutal as well. Media reports made an issue of the fact that he was driving on a road before it was open to the public, and for years his opponents found various ways to criticize him for the accident. Campbell said he had taken the road by mistake and there were no signs marking it as closed.
Back in the Senate, Campbell fought to stop Roemer's plan to lower the homestead exemption. But Campbell later got Roemer's help to pass a new student loan program aimed at middle class families, and he voted to uphold a Roemer veto of a controversial antiabortion bill.
"I admire Foster in many ways. He's not hidden about what he believes in," Roemer said. "I don't think somebody controls Foster. It's definitely a strength of his."
Banking on big-oil fee
There's nothing hidden about Campbell's belief in his oil processing fee, and that's disturbing to the refinery industry.
Larry Wall, spokesman for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said no industry could survive a $5.5 billion tax. And a tax on energy would place a burden on all businesses, he said.
The tax would impede interstate commerce and probably violate the U.S. Constitution, Wall said. The industry, which employs 20,000 workers in Louisiana, would over time move assets out of state, eroding Campbell's proposed tax base.
Campbell said other states do not want refineries, so the plants in Louisiana will have to stay. To those that pare down, good riddance, he said.
"It's not like they're the best thing that's ever been invented," Campbell said. "It's a polluting deal. They use our air, they use our water, they've torn our coast up. And what are we supposed to say? 'Well, thank you for the refineries?' "
On most any state policy topic, Campbell's view will gravitate back to his refinery fee. On health care, for example, he advocates rebuilding Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans. But when asked how he would handle the large proportion of people in the state without medical insurance, he looks to the revenue pool from the oil fee.
"I don't have a specific plan today exactly how to attack that," Campbell said. "I do know that when we do pass the oil and gas fee . . . we'll have billions of dollars to work toward a health care system that will be second to none. But on specifics, what exactly I would do, I don't have it today."
Though polls have shown Campbell with low support, he has gained backing from organized labor and is trying to catch fire with black voters, the traditional Democratic bases. He recently started running TV commercials that picture him as a tall figure on horseback ready to fight "big oil."