Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke fell one election short of becoming Louisiana’s governor in 1991. In the years since, he has frequently mulled another run for office, but never taken the plunge. So when Duke publicly floated the idea of running for Congress, Louisiana statehouse reporter Melinda Deslatte was cautious.
But Deslatte also knew that if Duke were to actually run, it would be big news, especially in a year where race relations were front and center in the national debate.
With three days to go before the qualifying period closed, Deslatte prepared urgent copy so she'd have something ready to go if he declared. Then she parked herself in the secretary of state’s office – for three days.
That's because Deslatte knew from years of covering politics in Baton Rouge that that the best way to know if Duke was running would be to be there when he walked in the door. For three days, the secretary's offices served as her home base as she wrote about the elections and chased another major global story: the deaths of three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers in an ambush.
Deslatte knew from years of covering politics in Baton Rouge that that the best way to know if Duke was running would be to be there when he walked in the door
On the final day, she saw two photographers arrive who were not with the media. She asked who they were with, and when they told her they worked for Duke, she immediately notified the South Desk, where editors Don Schanche and Greg Schreier were ready.
They checked Duke’s social media accounts and found his just-posted announcement. With Deslatte's urgent prep at the ready, AP beat everyone with word that Duke was running for the U.S. Senate – not the House seat he’d previously hinted at. And Deslatte was also one of the few to confirm Duke was running as a Republican.
At a press conference later, Duke said he was running because "the climate of this country has moved in my direction," and that he has espoused principles for years that are aligned with those of Republican Donald Trump's campaign.
The Washington Post, Politico, and ABC News all used Deslatte's bylined AP story, and it would be 43 minutes before another news organization – Baton Rouge-based The Advocate – matched the report.
Her early heads up also meant that a photographer was in place who also shot video. The traffic on her story was enormous. It was shared 29,000 times on Facebook, liked 87,000 times and elicited 69,700 comments. It was tweeted nearly nine thousand times.
For putting the AP ahead on an important state and national story at a time of intense debate about racial politics, Deslatte wins this week's $300 Best of the States prize.