W. Fox McKeithen

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W. Fox McKeithen
W. Fox McKeithen portrait.jpg
Louisiana Secretary of State
In office
1988–2005
Preceded by James H. "Jim" Brown
Succeeded by Al Ater
Louisiana State Representative from Caldwell, Franklin, Jackson, and Winn parishes
In office
1984–1988
Preceded by Thomas "Bud" Brady
Succeeded by Noble Ellington
Personal details
Born Walter Fox McKeithen
(1946-09-08)September 8, 1946
Columbia, Caldwell Parish
Louisiana, USA
Died July 16, 2005(2005-07-16) (aged 58)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Resting place Hogan Cemetery in Columbia, Louisiana
Political party Democrat-turned-Republican (1989)
Spouse(s) Divorced from Yvonne Y. McKeithen
Children Marjorie A. McKeithen

Parents: John J. McKeithen
Marjorie Howell Funderburk McKeithen

Alma mater Caldwell Parish High School

Louisiana Tech University

Occupation Educator; Businessman
Religion United Methodist

Walter Fox McKeithen (September 8, 1946 – July 16, 2005) served five terms as Secretary of State of Louisiana between 1988 and 2005. He is best remembered for merging the state's election divisions into one department and for the promotion of historical preservation.

Son of a governor[edit]

McKeithen was born in rural Columbia in Caldwell Parish in north Louisiana, to John Julian McKeithen and the former Marjorie Howell Funderburk. According to his tombstone, he was named for two World War II heroes, Walter Bennett and Elmer Fox. He graduated as class president in 1964 from Caldwell Parish High School, the same month in which his father was inaugurated as governor of Louisiana. One of his classmates was future associate justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Chet D. Traylor. McKeithen attended Louisiana Tech University in Ruston in Lincoln Parish to obtain a bachelor's degree in history and social studies.

After graduating from Louisiana Tech, McKeithen returned to Caldwell Parish High School, located off U.S. Route 165, as a civics teacher and coach. He also established three businesses in Caldwell Parish.

Democrat for secretary of state, 1987[edit]

In 1983, McKeithen was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives as a Democrat when the incumbent Thomas "Bud" Brady of La Salle Parish was shifted into District 22, where he defeated sitting Representative Richard S. Thompson and former legislator W.L. Rambo.[1][2]

In 1987, McKeithen was elected secretary of state. In the nonpartisan blanket primary, McKeithen led with 462,965 votes (34 percent) to 365,151 (27 percent) for his principal challenger, fellow Democrat Mike Cutshaw, an attorney for the Louisiana Bankers Association. Two Republican candidates, M. A. "Mike" Tassin and Bobby A. Patrick,[3] shared 13 percent of the vote, and two other Democrats held a combined 19 percent. Three "no party" candidates polled 8 percent. In the general election, McKeithen only narrowly prevailed over Cutshaw, 490,190 (51 percent) to 467,582 (49 percent).[4]

Republican for Secretary of State, 1991[edit]

In the summer of 1989, McKeithen switched to the Republican Party, whose chairman, William "Billy" Nungesser, had courted him for a possible 1990 campaign for the United States Senate against the Democrat J. Bennett Johnston, Jr.[5] Upon making the party switch, the GOP helped McKeithen pay off $400,000 in campaign debts.[6]

McKeithen announced that he would run for the Senate[7] but dropped such plans when the Republican state convention on January 13, 1990, endorsed State Senator Ben Bagert of New Orleans as the party's preferred candidate. Ultimately, Johnston was reelected in a showdown with another Republican, the maverick David Duke, a former figure in the Ku Klux Klan. Bagert left the race two days before the election at the request of national Republican leaders, who endorsed Johnston over Duke. In the 1972 general election, John McKeithen had run as an Independent for the Senate in an unsuccessful race against Johnston. Fox McKeithen's father and daughter, Marjorie A. McKeithen (born 1965), both opposed the party switch and remained Democrat.

In 1991, McKeithen faced a close contest for reelection as secretary of state. Two Democrats, Mary Chehardy (later a Republican) and Doug Schmidt, challenged him. McKeithen led in the primary, with 629,237 votes (46 percent) to Schmidt's 387,243 (28 percent). Close behind was Chehardy with 357,173 (26 percent). Schmidt, who used the expression "Get the Fox out of the Henhouse," advanced to the general election against McKeithen. In the showdown, McKeithen prevailed by 9,151 votes, a margin similar to David C. Treen's plurality over Democrat Louis Lambert in the 1979 gubernatorial contest. Returns gave McKeithen 827,506 votes to Schmidt's 818,355.

In subsequent elections, McKeithen was often endorsed by Democrats and worked well with members from both parties. His folksy manner meant that he was generally popular with voters despite adopting such unpopular positions as raising the pay of elected state officials. In his last race in 2003, he even carried the endorsement of organized labor, which rarely supports Republicans.

During January 2004, McKeithen supervised the combining of the former elections department into the secretary of state's office. A few weeks later, when voting machines were slow to arrive in New Orleans in time for the 2004 elections, he helped to deliver them himself. McKeithen's gravestone in Caldwell Parish lists his principal accomplishments as the restoration of the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, the Cotton Museum in Lake Providence, the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, and the Louisiana Exhibition Building in Shreveport.

Premature obituary[edit]

After a fall in the garage of his home in Baton Rouge in February 2005, McKeithen was hospitalized with paralysis from the neck down. Trouble struck again, and he re-entered the hospital on June 21 with a serious infection caused from the fall. He resigned as secretary of state on July 15, 2005, and died just a few hours later. He left his state pension to his former wife, Yvonne Y. McKeithen.

Alan Ray Ater, a former state representative from Ferriday in Concordia Parish became the acting secretary of state on McKeithen's death by virtue of having been the first deputy secretary of state. Ater did not seek the position in the special election held on September 30, 2006, to fill the remaining fifteen months of McKeithen's term. Late in 2006, Ater hence turned over the office to Republican state Senator Jay Dardenne (pronounced DAR DEN) of Baton Rouge. Dardenne was declared the winner of the special election after the runner-up candidate, outgoing Democratic state Senator Francis C. Heitmeier of New Orleans withdrew from a pending runoff election, which would have coincided with the November 7 national general election. In the September 30 election, Dardenne led with 30 percent of the vote. He ran up large margins in the greater Baton Rouge area and finished second in other portions of the state. Heitmeier, who ran best in liberal and labor areas of the state, trailed with 28 percent.

A third candidate, the conservative former Louisiana Republican State Chairman Mike Francis of Crowley in Acadia Parish, finished with 26 percent of the ballots. He ran well in Acadiana and his native north Louisiana — he is originally from Jena in La Salle Parish - but trailed badly in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the Florida Parishes.

Fox McKeithen's legacy according to John Maginnis[edit]

Political writer John Maginnis offered the following analysis of McKeithen's career:

Though born in the first year of the Baby Boom, McKeithen more belonged to the bygone era of Louisiana politics, of stump speeches, election tickets and country hams given to voters. He grew up in that world of his father, former Governor John McKeithen, and of former Governor Earl Long, who indeed was young Fox's "Uncle Earl".

McKeithen was the last living link to that colorful era, and perhaps Uncle Earl wouldn't mind us calling Fox another of the 'last of the red hot poppas.'

He was one of the last of a few other things, such as North Louisiana politicians at the state level, going back to when governors hailed from Winnfield and Beech Springs and his hometown of Columbia.

McKeithen was the most consistently successful Republican elected official, the only one holding statewide office in state government.

His daddy called it "crazy" when Fox became a Republican midway during his first term as secretary of state, and Big John wasn't far off. His next election, against Democrat Doug Schmidt in 1991, was his closest. The top Republican on the ballot was David Duke, and McKeithen was nearly buried in Edwin Edwards' Democratic landslide. He survived by nine thousand votes, partly due to the support of the Morial political organization in New Orleans, a returned favor going back to John McKeithen's appointing Dutch Morial a state judge in the 1960s, the future mayor's first political office.

It was his own family ties that caused Fox McKeithen to campaign for his daughter Marjorie, a Democrat, in her near-miss challenge to Congressman Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, in 1998. Some GOP officials wanted to censure Fox, but since McKeithens were winning elections in this state before Republicans were, they got over it. He won his last two elections easily.

In a final act of non-partisanship, hours before he died, he resigned and turned over his office to his first assistant and longtime friend, Democrat Al Ater.

Fox McKeithen is interred beside his father, mother, and older brother at the private Hogan Cemetery off Louisiana Highway 559 in Caldwell Parish, Louisiana. Behind the grave is scenic Long Lake.
Fox McKeithen came from a time when friendship and kinship counted for more than party, and one wonders if those days haven't passed with him.

In 2006, McKeithen was inducted posthumously into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield, an honor that his father had procured in 1993, having been among the first thirteen honorees.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Louisiana primary election returns, October 22, 1983". staticresults.sos.la.gov. Retrieved July 5, 2013. 
  2. ^ "Louisiana general election returns, November 19, 1983". staticresults.sos.la.gov. Retrieved July 5, 2013. 
  3. ^ "Secretary of State's post a stepping stone?", Minden Press-Herald, October 18, 1987, p. 3
  4. ^ Louisiana Secretary of State, Primary election returns, October 24, 1987
  5. ^ "Republicans courting McKeithen", Minden Press-Herald, July 14, 1989, p. 1
  6. ^ "GOP wins McKeithen", Minden Press-Herald, July 27, 1989, p. 1
  7. ^ "McKeithen challenges Johnston", Minden Press-Herald, November 7, 1989, p. 1

External links[edit]

Louisiana House of Representatives
Preceded by
Thomas "Bud" Brady
Louisiana State Representative from Caldwell, Franklin, Jackson, and Winn parishes
1984–1988
Succeeded by
Noble Ellington
Political offices
Preceded by
James H. "Jim" Brown
Louisiana Secretary of State
1988–2005
Succeeded by
Al Ater