Is Jeff Landry the Worst Governor in America?

From prisons and policing to the environment, Louisiana’s new leader is making everything worse.

The title is a provocative question, I know. After all, the competition for “worst governor” is stiff. There’s Ron DeSantis in Florida, banning library books and making life harder for transgender people every chance he gets. There’s Greg Abbott in Texas, putting circular saw blades in the Rio Grande to kill and maim immigrants who try to swim across. There are lesser-known menaces like Alabama’s Kay Ivey, a particularly venomous union-buster, or South Dakota’s Kristi Noem (hide your dog!). But I think there’s a case that Jeff Landry, the recently elected governor of Louisiana, may surpass them all. 

Landry is, of course, terrible in all the ways that Republican governors like Abbott and DeSantis are terrible. He’s a climate change denier and a loyal ally to the fossil fuel industry, which has poisoned Louisiana’s majority-Black neighborhoods along the stretch of the Mississippi River known as “Cancer Alley.” He’s also appointed former oil, gas, and coal executives to several important environmental positions within his administration. (Keep in mind, Louisiana has been hit especially hard by climate-related disasters like hurricanes, so this is a direct threat to his constituents’ safety!) As a state representative and later Louisiana’s attorney general, he went out of his way to oppose LGBTQ rights on numerous occasions, and has even been condemned by his own brother (who’s gay) for his homophobic politics. He’s trying to dismantle and privatize the Louisiana education system, promoting so-called “education savings accounts” that allow public money to be spent on private school tuition. He wants censorship in public libraries, and may soon sign a bill to require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public schools. He praised the recent brutal police crackdown on students protesting for Palestine at Tulane University. There’s little need to go into further detail here, since Landry’s policies and actions are so similar to those of his fellow Republicans; just read a profile of Ron DeSantis, and 90 percent of it will also apply to him. But there are a handful of factors that are unique to Landry, and that make him especially dangerous. 

In the first place, Landry is a cop, which is always a bad sign. He hasn’t worn a badge or a gun in years, but like Mayor Eric Adams in New York, you can’t really call him an ex-cop. Whether his title is Representative, Attorney General, or Governor, the swaggering, do-as-I-say attitude of the average street cop follows him through life. In a 2017 interview with New Orleans news station WDSU, he defended the blatantly racist practice of “stop and frisk” policing—made notorious by former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg—as a “vital tool.” During his run for governor, he broadcast a series of dog-whistling “tough on crime” ads where he criticized not his opponents, but the Black elected leaders of cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, saying that “police are handcuffed instead of the criminals” under their watch and that “enough is enough.” And when he took office in January, one of his first priorities was to call a special session on crime and imprisonment, with the goal of increasing the latter.

The laws that emerged from that session are among the strictest in the country. Among other things, Landry has signed laws banning parole in almost all cases, lowering the age to be tried and imprisoned as an adult to 17, and requiring prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before early release for good behavior becomes a possibility. In the last few weeks, he’s also signed a so-called “buffer zone” law which makes it a criminal offense to stay within 25 feet of a police officer if the officer says to “back up.” This will make it a lot harder for journalists and other citizens to film cops and hold them accountable (the footage of George Floyd’s murder, for instance, was taken from just a few feet away), and make it a lot easier to arrest people on trumped-up charges. Louisiana already has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., second only to Mississippi, and Landry’s governance will likely make it higher still. 

When Landry’s laws throw 17-year-olds into adult prisons, or lock up people whose only crime was to stand too close to the police, the conditions they’ll be forced to live under are truly sickening to contemplate. Many will, no doubt, be sent to “Angola”—the colloquial name for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which was built on the site of a former slave plantation. (Sometimes the analogy between cops and slave-catching patrols makes itself.) Angola is one of the most notorious prisons in the United States, and for good reason. Most of its cells do not have air conditioning, and prisoners report that they “barely can breathe” when temperatures climb above 100—something that happens frequently in a Louisiana summer. When they’re not sweltering in a hot concrete-and-metal cage, prisoners are often forced to work on the “farm line,” a multi-acre agricultural operation where they grow, weed, and pick crops by hand for as little as 2 cents an hour in pay. 

The medical care at Angola is vile, too. In 2021, a federal judge ruled that the prison’s  healthcare is so bad it’s unconstitutional, and a 2023 ruling reaffirmed that the conditions constitute “abhorrent cruel and unusual punishment.” Speaking to Verite News this March, the mother of one prisoner described what that “abhorrent” treatment looks like in practice. Kentrell Parker, her son, was paralyzed in a prison football game, so he is unable to care for himself and is totally dependent on others. As fair warning, this is disturbing:

Janice Parker has observed the conditions in the medical ward on her frequent visits, nearly every month for more than a decade. The smell of urine and feces permeates the infirmary. Tables and medical equipment are covered in dust and grime, she said. Patients, suffering from open wounds and sores, scream in pain throughout the day. On one visit, she said, clumps of her son’s hair had fallen out and the bare patches of his scalp were covered in scabs. He told her he hadn’t been bathed in weeks. Another time, she found him lying in his own feces, suffering from an infection after bacteria had “entered his blood from his stool,” according to the 2015 lawsuit filed by her son and other inmates….

Ms. Parker says she “feared for his life” due to the terrible standard of care. With good reason: according to The Guardian, at least 500 incarcerated people have died in Louisiana prisons in the last three years alone. 

These conditions have existed for a long time, but Jeff Landry has worked to preserve and defend them at every turn. As Louisiana’s attorney general, he filed legal briefs arguing that prisoners are “entitled only to ‘adequate care’,” not “specific care or even ‘the best care possible,’” and that plaintiffs suing against the mistreatment at Angola had erred by “applying a contemporary standard of care.” During the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he officially opposed releasing elderly prisoners and those with preexisting health conditions, something medical professionals advised the state government to do, claiming it would create a “crime wave.” (I know I’m terrified of being carjacked by an 80-year-old with asthma.) In a 2018 court case about extreme heat in prisons, Landry also weighed in against requiring temperatures to be kept below 88 degrees, saying that the Eighth Amendment “does not require prisons to be comfortable.” Clearly, he believes that if you end up in prison—no matter the circumstances—human rights no longer apply to you, and you should be made to suffer as much as possible. In short, he’s a sadist, and someone like that has no business holding power of any kind. When a prisoner dies from heatstroke or a preventable infection in Louisiana, it is to a large extent Jeff Landry’s doing, as surely as if he’d walked up and shot them. Keep in mind, too, that the United States imprisons more people than any other country on Earth—roughly 1.8 million at the most recent count, compared to China’s 1.69 million—and Louisiana is one of the worst among its 50 states. In that context, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Landry is one of the most despicable jailers and torturers alive today. 

And then, of course, there’s the time Landry—as attorney general—tried to hold New Orleans’ water supply hostage until its leaders did his bidding. Writing for Essence, Gabrielle A. Perry calls this “a horrifying intersection of reproductive rights and environmental justice,” and that’s putting it mildly. For context, Louisiana currently has a statewide abortion ban, which Landry and his Republican henchmen recently intensified by passing a law to make mifepristone and misoprostol pills controlled substances. But the city of New Orleans has largely declined to enforce these right-wing laws. Its city council issued a statement in July 2022 that “reproductive rights are human rights,” its police superintendent said that his department won’t make arrests or “otherwise enforce violations related to state laws prohibiting abortion,” and its district attorney indicated that he wouldn’t devote resources to “investigating the choices women make with regard to their own bodies.” This was obviously the right thing to do, and it showed a certain measure of courage. So, predictably, Jeff Landry couldn’t stand it. In an October 2022 interview with Tucker Carlson, he made his intentions for New Orleans perfectly clear:

In Louisiana, we have one of the most powerful executive departments in the country. The governor is extremely powerful. He has the ability to bend that city to his will, and he [then-Governor John Bel Edwards] just doesn’t. But we will.

A little later, Landry got even more explicit, saying that the Louisiana Bond Commission should “use the tools at our disposal to bring them to heel, quite frankly.” The Bond Commission is an important government body that approves applications for state funding by various municipalities, and Landry urged them to deny New Orleans’ requests, including $32.7 million to build a new power plant for the city’s Sewage and Water Board. He was quite clear that this was a form of political retaliation for the city’s resistance to the abortion ban, saying that “It is my belief that a parish or municipality should not benefit from the hard-working taxpayers of this State while ignoring laws validly enacted by the people through their representatives.” In other words: arrest and jail women who seek reproductive care, or no safe drinking water and sewer facilities for you. Thankfully, other people on the Board had more sense, and after about a month of delays, the funds passed. But the scope of what Landry attempted is astonishing. At the last census, New Orleans had a population of roughly 383,218 people, and he had no problem threatening them all in order to, as he put it, “bend that city to his will.” And that was back when he was merely Louisiana’s attorney general. As governor, he now holds a line-item veto over the entire state budget, and may try similar tactics on a much larger scale. It’s a deeply worrying prospect. 

When a politician uses phrases like “bring them to heel” and “bend that city to his will,” you might get the idea he doesn’t like democracy very much, and you’d be right. At various points in his career, Landry has demonstrated real contempt for the most basic elements of a democratic society. Transparency in government, after all, is an important part of democracy, and Landry is against it. As attorney general, he once sued a journalist for making a public-records request relating to sexual misconduct complaints against one of his top deputies, and as governor he supports a Republican bill that would dramatically curtail public access to government records across the board. Meanwhile, during his run for governor he skipped several candidates’ forums and the first debate, refusing to allow either his opponents or the people of Louisiana a chance to question his views. The election itself had one of the lowest turnouts in years, with just 35.8 percent of the state’s registered voters participating, which means that only 18 percent actually chose Landry as governor. So he doesn’t even have a real democratic mandate. But that hasn’t stopped him from announcing plans to move Louisiana to a closed primary system, shutting independent and third-party voters out of primary elections entirely. And to cap it all off, he also wants to hold a constitutional convention for the state, in which the legislature—entirely Republican-controlled—could rewrite virtually any aspect of its foundational law. Thus far, Landry and his supporters have refused to say exactly what additions and subtractions they’d make to the constitution, but given his track record, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be good. (For the Louisiana Illuminator, journalist Julie O’Donoghue suggests that “weakening collective bargaining provisions” could be high on the priority list.) Even Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, loathsome as they are, haven’t attempted to remake their states’ constitutions in their own image in this way. And unlike them, Landry is just starting out. Over time, there’s no telling how much damage he could do. 

If you’ve ever visited Louisiana, you’ll know that its people are truly remarkable. They’ve survived wars, racism, pandemics, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, invented some of the great treasures of music, art, and culture, and lost none of their unique joie de vivre along the way. Like everyone else, they deserve elected leaders who’ll actually look out for their interests and provide for their needs. Instead, they got Jeff Landry. From the cells of Angola, to the streets of New Orleans, to the halls of the state legislature, every decision he makes spreads further misery and decay. In a nation with no shortage of nauseating governors, he may well be the worst. 

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