Louisiana Democrat Weighs Leaving Party for GOP : Politics: Rep. Billy Tauzin’s defection could be first of several. He says Southern conservatives are tired of being shunned by dominant liberal wing.


Believing that he may set off a new political earthquake for the Democrats, Rep. W.J. (Billy) Tauzin (D-La.) this weekend is going home to the bayous of his southern Louisiana district to contemplate the search for a new philosophical home.

By next week, Tauzin could become a Republican, and his switch could have far-reaching implications for his congressional career, for Democrats in Congress and for the future of politics in the South.

Tauzin is a conservative Southerner who charges that the liberal House Democratic leadership has closed its ranks to members like him. Within a month of the Republicans’ Nov. 8 victory at the polls, Tauzin announced that he was thinking of defecting to the GOP. And the new House Republican leadership has returned the attention, courting Tauzin with political inducements, a committee chairmanship and promises of philosophical kinship.


Tauzin would not be the first national Democratic lawmaker to join the GOP since the elections. Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, charging on Nov. 9 that the “Democratic Party is incapable of reform,” has that distinction.

But if he goes, Tauzin believes that his departure will set off a slow trickle of defections among like-minded Southerners. As many as a dozen, he believes, could follow him, although only two have openly acknowledged that they are contemplating such a switch.

And if they let him go without a fight, said Tauzin, the Democrats would be conceding two things: first, that they are a party of liberals who are incapable of responding to the public’s increasingly conservative mood and, second, that Democrats are willing to forfeit the politically powerful South, as well as their chances of regaining a congressional majority, to the GOP.


“Now that we (conservative Democrats) are a shrinking minority in the House, the question is, can we abide the discrimination?” Tauzin told The Times. He has complained that conservative Democrats are routinely denied plum committee assignments, leadership posts and even the right to speak on the floor by Democratic leaders.

“In the end, the battle I’m waging is over the willingness of the Democratic leadership to give every member the same effectiveness any other member has. If I’m going to be affected by a glass ceiling because of the way I vote, my ability to voice my constituents’ concerns is affected and I’m not going to put up with that. . . . I’m gonna find a new home.”

If Tauzin stays in the Democratic Party, however, it will be at a distinct cost to the House Democratic leadership. He already has won one of his conditions: The Democratic leadership has agreed to Tauzin’s demand that Democrats reject rules that bar renegade Democrats from serving in the House leadership or as committee chairmen.


But that means the party will have to tolerate Democrats who look and act like Republicans--not only among the party’s House ranks but in their leadership.

The Democrats’ partial concessions have yet to regain the loyalty of Tauzin, who said that he has been stung by the indignities of being shunned by Democratic leaders over the years.

“I’m going to be a very big doubting Thomas,” he said. In the end, Tauzin said that he will decide to which party he belongs after a series of public and private meetings this weekend with his family, his constituents and his supporters in Louisiana’s Third District.

What he will find, said political analysts, is an electorate that is part of a growing trend throughout the American South: staunchly Democratic since reconstruction, Southerners are abandoning the party and turning in increasing numbers to the GOP, where they believe that their conservative convictions are welcome.

While the South has voted overwhelmingly Republican in presidential races for many years, the realignment of the region’s national legislators is now just catching up. For the first time in history, Southerners voting in the November elections sent more Republicans than Democrats to the House, awarding 16 new seats to the GOP. And the House leadership, anchored by Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, reflects the region’s new role as a potential Republican powerhouse.

“This is the second wave of Southern realignment and that’s what Tauzin and others are looking at,” said Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. “They’re seeing an erosion of the Democratic base and contemplating whether now is the time to make a move. This is the return of the conservative Southerners, now as Republicans, in leadership positions and as a majority in Southern delegations.”


For disgruntled Democrats like Tauzin, that historic shift means that a defection to the GOP could come at relatively little political cost. Although registered Democrats continue to outnumber Republicans in Louisiana several times over, their party affiliation has grown weak.

Even Tauzin’s 76-year-old mother, Enola Tauzin, a lifelong Democrat, reflects that breakdown.


“For a while the Tauzins were all very Democratic, and so were my family, the Martinezes,” said Mrs. Tauzin, whose political advice the congressman has vowed to take first. “I suppose at heart we were Democrats. But the country’s changed. I don’t believe labels mean too much anymore, and the young people, it doesn’t make too much difference to them.”

In the end, said one of Tauzin’s Louisiana advisers, the 51-year-old lawmaker may choose between a philosophically comfortable political home with the GOP and a cold calculation of the Democrats’ prospects of regaining power in the House.

“Suppose these (Republicans) are fly-by-night, that they do 10-20% of what they say they want to do and get 90% of the people mad at them in the process?” asked Clifford Smith, a 60-year-old civil engineer from Houma, La., who has known Tauzin for 25 years and served as his campaign’s finance chairman for three years.

Tauzin is “not only got to ask where he’s going to be. He also has to ask, where are they going to be?”