Louisiana's peculiar primary sets up historic House race. Winner will be a Republican or a black -- firsts since Civil War

The Democratic nominee for Louisiana's Eighth Congressional District is a lawyer equipped with three degrees, a Rolodex bristling with Washington contacts, and a local pedigree stretching back for generations. A shoo-in in a district where almost every voter is a registered Democrat, right?

Wrong. This year the Democratic nominee is Faye Williams. She is a black woman -- a type of candidate voters here have rarely, if ever, seen running for political office. Ms. Williams would be the first black member of the Louisiana congressional delegation since Reconstruction, arriving in Washington to be among the first black members of Congress to represent the Deep South in over a century.

If she is elected, that is. Unlike her predecessors, Williams's success on Nov. 4 is no cinch. She is running hard to maintain her front-runner status against a Republican, Clyde Holloway, a nursery operator who first made local headlines as a vocal opponent of forced busing. While the area now represented by the Eighth District has not sent a Republican to Congress since the Civil War, local handicappers say they believe Mr. Holloway could change that.

National Democrats are concerned enough to be targeting the race for special help. The race is starting to attract national attention for what it may say about the trend toward swelling Republican influence in the South and the increasing electoral might of Southern blacks.

``We've never had a Republican that people would have thought twice about here,'' says Jim Abbott, a farmer near here. ``A lot of people are thinking about Holloway three, maybe four, times.''

Few expected the contest for the district's seat would turn out this way when its current occupant, Rep. Cathy Long, announced her impending retirement. Representative Long is the widow of Gillis Long, a legend in the district who had a hammerlock on the seat from 1966 until his death last year.

Three prominent white Democrats leaped into the primary. Any of them would have been expected to beat Holloway or Williams in a head-to-head contest: Holloway because the district has, at 85 percent, the highest Democratic registration in the state, Williams because only 35 percent of the district's voters are black.

But Louisiana's peculiar primary system, where the two top finishers in an open primary go on to the general election, sent Williams and Holloway to next week's race. Williams pulled almost all of the district's black voters, grabbing a 26 percent share. Holloway took area conservatives, claiming 23 percent of the vote.

Some blue-collar and rural Democrats here may consider their choice as one between race and party. But it is also a choice between a Democrat whose stands on social issues may be too liberal for their tastes and a conservative Republican who vows allegiance to the policies of Ronald Reagan in one of the most economically depressed regions of the country.

``Some people are not happy with the choice,'' admits Carson Killen, a Williams supporter who was an aide to Mr. Long and one of the Democrats who lost the primary. The woman behind the counter at the booming Hard Luck Pawn Shop here put it more succinctly: ``It stinks.''

Holloway and Williams are almost complete opposites. The district went narrowly for Reagan in 1984, and Holloway features a 30-second TV spot by the President and swears allegiance to his foreign and domestic policies, while differing with the White House on a few issues of concern to the area, such as the need for an oil-import fee. Those stands may make him too conservative for a district that has been walloped by the agricultural and petrochemical industry slump and that suffers from an unemployment rate of nearly 15 percent.

But his conservative social agenda -- he favors a constitutional amendment banning abortion -- fits with the region's. He ran for Congress twice before and lost, and those efforts have increased his visibility.

Williams, the daughter of local sharecroppers, advocates limited handgun control and is pro-choice on abortion -- both positions anathama to fundamentalists here. But she may strike just the right chord on an important point: ``The central issue of this campaign is jobs,'' she says.

Until recently, Williams was unknown in the area, having spent most of her adult years earning degrees and developing a career in teaching and then law in California; Washington, D.C.; Europe; and Asia. Her absence has earned the scrutiny of the local media, while Mr. Holloway has labeled her a carpetbagger. Last week, her bid was clouded slightly by the disclosure in the local press of a 15-year-old incident in which Williams's husband, whom she was preparing to divorce, murdered her boyfriend in her apartment.

Turnout will be the deciding factor in the race, and local analysts figure she needs at least 25 percent of the white vote to win. Polls show her leading by a healthy margin, but her supporters are anxious to ensure that attendance at the ballot boxes by blacks remains high.

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