BATON ROUGE -- The boys in the Louisiana House always seem ready for some action on Monday night. They get giddy at the slightest provocation, especially as the session stretches into the dark hours when by rights they should be unwinding with chummy lobbyists at the steakhouse or some other beef-and-booze hangout where the good times roll.
So Rep. Odon Bacque of Lafayette, the House's only political independent, sensed that he was in trouble one recent Monday when the speaker decided to bring his marital-rape bill up for consideration at the last hour. Louisiana is one of four states with no criminal statute involving marital rape. Louisiana also has the lowest percentage of women in its legislature: three of 144. And, remember, it was Monday night.
The moment the bill was read, hooting and hollering began. The House chamber crackled with jokes about scenes in the marital bedroom after the men returned from their democratic duties in Baton Rouge. Rep. Carl Gunter (D), a country boy from Pineville, declared that the bill would inspire women to falsely accuse their husbands of rape. "Women know what a man is when they marry him," he said as colleagues snickered and guffawed.
With no serious discussion, the bill was tabled. "It was disheartening," Bacque said. "They just refused to take my bill seriously. With 102 men and three women in the House, they tend to have the mentality where women are considered objects and property. These men are here for three months, most of them without their wives. They go out and get entertained every night. They tend to party and carry on and have a good time, and the whole atmosphere, to put it mildly, is not sensitive to the needs of women."
"It was disgusting," said Rep. Diana Bajoie (D) of New Orleans, who has survived for 14 years. "I'm not sure if it will change until more women get in here."
The treatment of Bacque's bill was just one episode in this year's unself-conscious effort by the Louisiana legislature to reaffirm its reputation as a bastion of good-ole-boy buffoonery. In recent weeks, the skyscraper capitol building that Huey Long, the state's most famous demagogue, built as a monument to himself has not been the friendliest place for people who do not fit the mold: feminists, minorities, rock-and-rollers, rabbis and civil libertarians.
"I don't think there is any place like the Louisiana legislature, at least not in this country," said Shirley Pedler, director of the state's American Civil Liberties Union chapter.
Pedler paused, and added, "Actually, Louisiana is not really in this country. Part of it is historical. This was never an American colony. It was French and Spanish, with a very inward-looking culture. Here, politics is theater. It's Mardi Gras."
Pedler ought never to utter such beliefs within earshot of Rep. James David Cain (D) from Dry Creek. It was Cain who introduced a bill that in essence said people could beat up flag-burners for a $25 fee. Cain drafted his bill in a fit of displeasure after seeing a magazine picture of protesters burning the American flag. He called them "long-haired, marijuana-growing, hippie-looking communist types." He sat on the legislation for a few weeks until more and more of his colleagues heard about it and urged him to bring it to the floor for a vote. It sailed out of committee and passed the House, by one vote, on Memorial Day.
The kick-the-flag-burners bill appeared during the same period when the House passed record-labeling legislation that the recording industry said would render about 70 percent of all modern music adults-only. Also moving through the House then was a bill that was sponsored by former Klansman and current U.S. Senate candidate David Duke (R) of Metairie and would have eliminated minority set-aside programs because of their supposed reverse discrimination.
This activity inspired the Atlanta Constitution to call Louisiana's version of lawmaking an "embarrassment to the South." The New Orleans Times-Picayune said this session was "the most dismal" in recent memory.
"The people liked my bill; editorial writers didn't," said Cain, adding that it was never his intent to inspire vigilante squads but rather to send a message to Congress and the Supreme Court that Louisianans would not tolerate burned flags.
Cain's measure has stalled in the Senate, which also has put aside the record-labeling bill and killed Duke's bill. Duke's bill survived the House only because several members wanted to get back at black legislators who they felt had double-crossed them by voting against a state lottery after pledging to support it.
Some statehouse players, including civil liberties lobbyist Russell Henderson, say the Senate, with more lawyers, tends to restrain the most emotional legislative agendas of House members. But Rabbi Robert Loewy of the Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie felt that certain senators were anything but restrained when he appeared before the Health and Welfare Committee to testify against the most restrictive abortion bill in the nation.
One senator later termed Loewy's treatment at the hands of committee Chairman Mike Cross (D) "rabbi roasting." Cross said he was merely doing his job, asking tough questions.
After Loewy described how he and his wife lost an infant to a genetic disease and told how that event shaped his beliefs on the "choice" side of the abortion issue, Cross pummeled him with questions about whether he supported a woman's right to be a prostitute or to use illegal drugs. When Loewy said that in the Bible, Exodus Chapter 21, feticide and homicide are treated differently, Cross snapped: "That's not in my Bible."
"I found the treatment I received to be demeaning," said Loewy, president of the Greater New Orleans Rabbinical Council. "Not so much to me but to the process of government." Loewy said he was shaken by the experience and what it made him feel about public officials. "The sad part is, in many ways Louisiana can be a good state," he said. "But the actions of this legislature make it hard to believe."