Behind the scenes
Woody Jenkins has never been elected to statewide office, despite three runs for the U.S. Senate during his tenure in the state Legislature. Nevertheless, he has played a prominent role in national conservative circles during his more than 40-year career. Unbeknownst to many outside his closest friends and supporters, Jenkins was an active member of the so-called New Right movement in the 1970s and early 1980s, and helped spearhead two of the organizations that were instrumental in articulating what we now think of as conservatism in American politics.
“One of the best-kept secrets about Woody is that he was one of the half-dozen core members of the New Right in the 1970s,” says longtime friend and fellow conservative Dan Richey, who served in the Louisiana House of Representatives with Jenkins from the mid-to-late 1970s. “They were visionaries who said, 'Look, it's not enough to just be right. We have to also be victorious.'”
Jenkins was one of the first chairmen of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization created in the 1970s by conservative lawmakers from around the country who sought to promote limited government, free market economics and federalism. A few years later he served as the first executive director of the Council for National Policy, a nonprofit, members-only think tank that was formed in 1981 by an Evangelical preacher.
“I think he was very plugged in and connected to the national conservative movement,” says Bob Mann, who holds the Manship Chair at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication. “For a while there, at least in national conservative circles, he was a prominent fellow.”
Those conservative organizations were instrumental in rebuilding and rebranding the Republican Party. Though Ronald Reagan is credited in the public's mind with ushering in a new era of conservatism in America—which was a backlash against the civil rights and feminist movements, the Roe v. Wade decision, rising crime, inflation, the energy crisis and the other uphevals of the late 1960s and 1970s—the groups with which Jenkins was involved really did all the heavy intellectual lifting. They advocated the policies and programs that Reagan articulated and popularized.
“Conservatives realized they were outgunned and didn't have a thought or idea factory to compete with the Brookings Institute and a number of other institutions that were producing ideas and legislative agendas for the left,” Mann says. “They realized they needed a place to cultivate new ideas and rising stars. Jenkins was a part of that.”
Jenkins is still well-known in national conservative circles, particularly among the Christian right. One of his protégés and closest allies in the House during the 1990s was Tony Perkins, who now heads the Christian, pro-life group Focus on the Family and is a frequent talking head on Fox News and other cable networks.
Jenkins is no longer an outsider as a conservative Republican in Louisiana. During the early years of his career, he was one of just 2,000 or so registered Republicans in a state that, like much of the South, was Yellow Dog Democrat. Over the years, those moderate-to-conservative, mostly working-class voters joined the GOP, moving Louisiana from the blue to the red side of the balance sheet.
However, Jenkins' own Baton Rouge has become a lot bigger and more demographically diverse during his four decades as a conservative activist. East Baton Rouge Parish voted for Barack Obama in the last presidential election and has an African-American mayor.
“It's really much more politically and racially diverse than it was when Woody was first coming up,” Mann says.?That may help explain why Jenkins has been so drawn to the outlying, more conservative areas of the parish, like Central, and why, in turn, he has found a following in those parts.
“They are still very conservative there,” Mann says. “They are reacting against what they see as the tectonic shifts in the cultural and racial makeup of the parish. They are holding on to the Baton Rouge they used to know.”
comments powered by Disqus
Real estate recap: DPW reorganization recommendations coming … Capital Region home sales post 5% gain in February … WWII bombing range near Hammond at center of new lawsuit
The case for coming home
Office Parks Get a Makeover
What Families Are Spending on Prom Night