|Former legislator Woody Jenkins is re-emerging as the voice of a conservative faction fed up with government, business groups and mainstream media.|
Woody Jenkins has never shied away from a crusade. As a state lawmaker, he regularly staked out unpopular positions and held his ground, even while colleagues and reporters rolled their eyes at yet another of his diatribes.
As the also-ran in the 1996 U.S. Senate race, he refused to concede defeat after losing to Mary Landrieu by a razor-thin margin, taking his claims of election fraud all the way to Capitol Hill.
As a community newspaper publisher in Central, he has taken on the powers that be over a public records request, driving a wedge between the political factions in an already divided community and alienating those whose support he would seemingly need most.
Now, after a 40-plus-year career in politics and the media, he is embarking on a crusade to—in his words —make Baton Rouge a wonderful place to live, with low crime, good schools and economic progress. To him, that means fighting taxes, government inefficiencies and leading the charge for the creation of independent school districts in East Baton Rouge Parish.
At 65, that is the legacy Jenkins would like to leave, and it explains in part why he is seemingly everywhere lately. In January he became chairman of the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party. In May he helped form the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge Parish. Last month, he launched a new, second community newspaper—Capital City News—which, in combination with his existing Central City News, will double the size of the audience he reaches on a now-weekly basis.
In short, he is shoring up his base, broadening his circles, elevating his profile, putting in place the pieces to leave a legacy.
In the process, however, Jenkins is doing something bigger and more profound: He is tapping into the sentiments of an increasingly angry segment of the population that is fed up with elected officials, business leaders and the mainstream media. Jenkins speaks to them and speaks for them, articulating in public—and in print—things they can only say among family and friends in private.
Critics say he exploits their discontent as a way of selling more newspapers; admirers say he advocates on their behalf. Those are matters of perspective and opinion. What is fairly certain is that this segment is growing and becoming more proactive in response to its frustration, forming breakaway chambers, taxing districts, school districts and, even, cities. Jenkins feeds off of that movement, while fueling it at the same time, creating a dynamic that could, arguably, cause further rifts in a community that needs more than ever to come together.
“A lot of people may not like Woody, but they like what he is doing … And he is going to get stronger because conservatives don't have anyone else in Baton Rouge speaking up for them,” predicts political pollster Bernie Pinsonat. “He is going to get much more popular. His following is going to grow.”
The other side of the tracks
To an extent, Elwood “Woody” Jenkins has always had a following or an audience, whether as an elected official or as a journalist, the latter being how Jenkins prefers to think of himself. He began cultivating that audience at the age of 10, when he was editor of the Fairfield Elementary School newspaper in his native north Baton Rouge. He was a natural-born communicator and always sought a forum for his stories and ideas.
By the time he was in his late teens he had already come to fully appreciate the power of the press—and electronic media. It was 1965, the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy, and Jenkins was a part-time announcer on WLCS-AM 910. Power was out all over the city, and Baton Rouge was glued to the Top 40 station.
“People were making important decisions based on information we were giving them,” Jenkins says. “That's when I realized what we were doing was important.”
Jenkins never got over it. After graduating from LSU with a degree in journalism, he decided to go into business for himself. With the help of his wife, Diane, he launched the North Baton Rouge Journal—a community newspaper that was focused on covering the everyday events that the daily paper downtown overlooked.
“We were from the 'other' side of the tracks. If you graduated from Istrouma in those days, you didn't get a big write-up in the paper,” Jenkins says. “We had 40,000 people in north Baton Rouge, and we got no coverage. I felt like what was going on in our world in north Baton Rouge was unreported.”
It's instructive to hear Jenkins talk about the north-south divide of Baton Rouge in those days—a divide that still exists—because it colors so much of his perspective and has influenced the way he views the world. While he has tried to work within the system to change the things he doesn't like, he still views himself—whether as a community newspaper publisher or a politician—as an outsider, distrustful of big government, big institutions and the social elite. It's a sensibility that resonnates with his readers.
“I think Woody is very much liked by the people who don't have power in the community, and always has been,” says Daniel Duggan, publisher of the Zachary Post and a former business partner of Jenkins'. “The people in power don't like him because he is a crusader.”
Those sensibilities also influenced Jenkins' tenure in the state Legislature from 1970 until 2000. There, in the legendary, good-ole-boy culture of back-room deals and after-hour parties, Jenkins was the conservative choirboy, who frequently found himself at odds with his freewheeling colleagues. He was known for being strident, unwavering in his views and a relative loner, save for two close friends: Dan Richey, who served with him in the mid-to-late 1970s, and, in the 1990s, Tony Perkins, who went on to national prominence as head of Focus on the Family.
“There were times when Woody would get up to speak, and people would say, 'Oh no, I don't want to have to listen to that again,'” says veteran political consultant Roy Fletcher. “He was conservative when conservative wasn't cool.”
He's always been conservative, both socially and politically. Even in the mid-1960s, he was a registered Republican, at a time when Louisiana had just 2,000 or so GOP members. Though he switched to the Democratic Party in 1970 in a rare moment of pragmatism to get elected to the House, he didn't change his political philosophy just because he changed party affiliation.
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. More...
But Jenkins was respected, too, for his intellect and his knowledge of constitutional law. He almost single-handedly rewrote the state's Declaration of Rights at the Constitutional Convention of 1973, and he was a formidable debater.
“He is a very intelligent individual,” says consultant and former lobbyist Steve Jones, who used to watch Jenkins debate on the House floor. “You did not want to argue with Woody, because he knew his stuff.”
He was also intellectually consistent. Even those who might disagree with his principles concede Jenkins has always remained true to his core beliefs, however unpopular that made him. When the House debated the anti-abortion bill in 1990, for instance, Jenkins was one of the few stalwarts who refused to back the amendment that would have made exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
“His position was, you're either for abortion or you're against it, period,” says political radio host Jim Engster. “Woody lives in a black or white world.”
That absolutism has made Jenkins a force to be reckoned with when he is crusading—because he is always so convinced of the correctness of his positions. When he lost the 1996 U.S. Senate race by fewer than 6,000 votes, he refused to concede, claiming election fraud in Orleans Parish and demanding a congressional investigation, which he got.
It was a telling episode in his career, a fight he framed in terms of a little guy pitted against the corrupt, liberal establishment; and he used every opportunity to take his case to the media and rail against the system. In the end, however, the election was certified, and at 49 Jenkins' hopes for a national political career were effectively over. (He'd run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate twice before). Some believe the way Jenkins handled the loss actually did more damage than the loss itself.
“Woody is popular with the registered Republicans and Tea Party types, but he is not as popular with the electorate at large,” says Engster. “A lot of that stems from the '96 election. He challenged the results so forcefully, many people branded him as a sore loser.”
Controversy in Central
Many also assumed Jenkins political career was over with that defeat, which was followed by a loss for state elections commissioner in 1999 and his retirement from the Legislature in 2000. Really, though, it was just the beginning of a second career that had been on the back burner all along.
Jenkins had continued to support himself over the years with various media-related endeavors, including an ad agency, independent television station WBTR, and a community newspaper, the South Baton Rouge Journal. But in 2005 he and Duggan sensed opportunity in Central, which had incorporated as its own city, essentially so it could create its own independent school system.
In Central, Jenkins found a community that was fed up with the problems in East Baton Rouge Parish, its crime and failing schools in particular. It was a conservative, middle-class community breaking away from a system that was no longer working for it—just the kind of people to whom Jenkins had always appealed.
For several years, the Central City News was successful, and Jenkins credits his paper with having been a unifying force behind the creation of the city's school district. That all changed during the city's 2010 mayoral race, however. On the eve of the election, the company that manages city services in Central, CH2M Hill, took out a full-page ad in the The Advocate explaining building permit fees, which was a contentious issue in the race between incumbent Mac Watts and challenger “Jr.” Shelton.
The next day, Watts won and the perception around Central was the ad had played a part in his victory. Jenkins, who'd supported Shelton in the race, filed a public records request to determine who had paid for the spread and whether public dollars were used. CH2M Hill refused to say, and Jenkins ended up taking the matter all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, where he was eventually vindicated.
It made for plenty of good fodder in his newspaper, but it distinctly changed the tone of the publication.
“That's really when it became a crusading newspaper,” observes Duggan, who had parted ways with Jenkins by then.
It also created deep divisions in a community that was already split into distinct political camps that had different ideas about how best to manage its growth.
“You can trace everything back to that last mayoral election,” says one Central businessman, who declined to be identified for this story. “That's when you saw the division between the Woodys and the no-Woodys.”
For his part, Jenkins says he was just doing what any good journalist would do—trying to expose what he believed was an unethical use of taxpayer money. Others believe it was largely about grandstanding and self-promotion.
“He's a career politician and he is good at it,” says another local businessman, who also requested anonymity. “I just question some of the things he has done, in my opinion, for his own benefit—to the division of Central.”
The controversy in Central cost Jenkins advertisers, which is admittedly one reason he recently launched a second newspaper with a wider circulation. The Capital City News, now published on alternating Thursdays with the Central City News, focuses on south Baton Rouge as well as Central. Jenkins has relocated his newspaper office to his longtime home office on North Foster Drive.
But the move also seems calculated to help Jenkins reach a wider audience outside of Central, given that he has been branching out of late. In January he became chairman of the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party, which, like most parish party organizations, was small and sleepy. In the months since taking the reins, however, Jenkins has breathed new life into the group and used it to promote candidates and issues that are against taxes and in favor of limiting government.
The party campaigned against the CATS tax last spring and equally hard for the creation of an independent school district in southeast Baton Rouge. Though it ended up on the losing side of both issues, Jenkins gained a lot of traction, issuing news releases and holding forums, which his newspaper duly covered.
The group has also staged public events that are effectively meaningless but help shore up its base of support and give Jenkins' papers something to put on the front page. This month it will honor U.S. Sen. David Vitter as its “Man of the Year,” for instance, which raised more than a few eyebrows within the traditional Republican establishment. It also made a big show of endorsing Mike Walker in the Baton Rouge mayor's race, a move that, while expected, affirms its conservative credentials.
That's important to those who read his papers and belong to the group.
“People seem to be drawn to read and watch news that sounds like what they think in their head—news that expresses their views,” says former WAFB-TV anchor Julie Baxter, who worked for Jenkins' TV station in the 1990s. “I think Woody has always looked throughout south Louisiana to tap into local community markets in that way, hoping to express perhaps what typically might be considered a more conservative view of everyday local events.”
Jenkins has also been a key player in the creation of the new Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge Parish, which was formed in May by a group of mostly small business owners fed up with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber's position on issues like the CATS tax, which BRAC supported, and the independent school district, which BRAC opposed. Supporters of the new chamber say BRAC has become too liberal, downtown-centric, and unconcerned about the small business owners throughout the rest of the parish.
“Instead of having a chamber that represents a conservative business community, you have this liberal group—at least that's the way people feel,” says Pinsonat.
“Really, Woody is the only thing out there for them.”
Leaving a legacy?
So what's in it for Jenkins?
Some would say it's all about business, ways to sell his paper. Others suggest he is laying the groundwork for another run for public office down the line. Jenkins denies both. Those who know him well believe him.
Rather, Jenkins says his motivation is to make Baton Rouge a better community—the kind of community he grew up in in the 1950s. It's a nostalgic version of a community that only partly existed the way Jenkins remembers it, of course. But it speaks volumes about what he believes and what kind of legacy he hopes to leave.
“It's a Saturday in 1957 and I'm 9 years old,” he recalls. “I mow the grass, make 75 cents and walk down to Plank Road, where I get on the bus and ride it downtown to Third Street. Two of my buddies are there. We go to the Paramount Theater for a movie that costs 10 cents, plus another 10 cents for a Coke. After the show, we come out onto Third Street and there are people four-deep … little old ladies dressed in hats and white gloves. … As we run around, weaving in and out of the crowd, a lady sticks out her hand and says, 'Boy, you better shape up and behave, or I'm going to call your momma.' In those days our people looked out for the children, not just their own. You didn't allow children to cut up in public.”
Does Jenkins really want to go back in time?
No, he says. But he believes it is possible to recapture that sense of community in Baton Rouge, and he thinks reshaping the parish school system is the best hope for doing it. Jenkins is working on a plan that would create four independent school districts out of the existing parish system. They would share the hefty legacy costs for the entire system but would otherwise be autonomous—and, to an extent—geographically segregated. With his parish party, his chamber of commerce, his newspaper—and with other grassroots organizers—Jenkins is working on the plan and hopes to make it a reality, presumably during the next legislative session.
“By breaking up our huge school district into community systems, you'll have smaller groups where people will begin to know each other again,” he says. “They will rebuild that sense of community. They will work together, and things will begin to change.”
In theory, it sounds great. But is more division the best way to advance the collective interests of the Capital Region? Clearly, there are those who believe it is, and while they wax nostalgic for a Baton Rouge where kids could take the bus to a Third Street theater, they no longer want any part of public transportation—or downtown.
Instead, they believe the only hope for a better Baton Rouge is a divided Baton Rouge, where segregated communities take care of their own and keep to themselves.
“It's not like Baton Rouge shouldn't be big,” Jenkins says. “But we need to break it up so we can re-establish its sense of community.”
There is a fundamental paradox to that logic. Yet it clearly resounds with those who have formed their own chamber and are working to build their own school district. Jenkins is leading their crusade, and he has the pieces in place to advance their agenda.
“Woody is making a lot of newfriends and they want to start putting people in various places and in various offices to be a grass-roots conservative movement like the tea party,” says Pinsonat. “Baton Rouge is very ripe for that type of movement right now. ”
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