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Flashback Friday: One more reason to love Senate debates

It’s because they create the possibility of exchanges like this one, between 1996 runoff opponents Mary Landrieu and Woody Jenkins. WWL-TV’s Dennis Woltering, who moderated the debate, got the ball rolling by asking both candidates to name something they admired about the other.

Jenkins, speaking in his best radio-announcer voice, went first.

“I think one thing about Ms. Landrieu is she’s attractive, and before this campaign she was fairly nice, actually,” Jenkins said.

“Anything beyond cosmetics?” Woltering asked.

“Well, I love New Orleans,” Jenkins responded. “She’s from New Orleans and that’s good.”

Next came Landrieu, who complimented her opponent for being a “very smooth talker.”

“I’ve always admired his ability to communicate his ideas, although I don’t agree with most of them,” she said.

Anything else, Woltering asked?

“That’s about it.”

Anyway, just thought I’d share in light of my column today on this year’s debates. Made me laugh then. Makes me laugh now.

The 2015 election, geographically speaking

The 2015 statewide races are starting early, so early that candidates haven’t even formally qualified for the 2014 election yet.

So far, most of the focus has been on how the assorted candidates for various offices stack up ideologically. But there’s another interesting metric: geography. Depending on how things shake out, one Louisiana locality could wind up with an awful lot of stroke in Baton Rouge come Inauguration Day 2016.

That could be the capital city itself, if Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne wins the top job and Mayor-President Kip Holden is elected to fill Dardenne’s shoes.

Or it could be Jefferson Parish, if U.S. Sen. David Vitter becomes governor and Parish President John Young wins the contest for lieutenant governor.

While recent history suggests that governors and lieutenant governors don’t always see eye to eye — Dardenne and Gov. Bobby Jindal aren’t exactly a happy team, for instance — things could be different under either 2015 scenario.

Dardenne and Holden represented Baton Rouge in the Legislature together, and while one’s a Republican and the other a Democrat, they seemed to get on just fine. In announcing his candidacy, Holden did take a shot at Dardenne for wading into the “Duck Dynasty” controversy, but that came off more as political posturing than personal attack.

Vitter and Young seem to have a rapport as well, which is noteworthy since both are self-styled reformers with histories of clashing with the parish’s political establishment. In fact, despite the obvious benefit of having locals in high statewide office, at least some area politicians could well break ranks.

One big name already has. Sheriff Newell Normand has endorsed Dardenne for governor.

Vitter’s battles with fellow Jefferson Parish pols date back to his days as a legislator two decades ago, when he’d routinely call out his peers for what he deemed substandard ethics. In fact, tension between the always confrontational Vitter and Normand’s late mentor and former boss, the equally combative Harry Lee, was so thick that the two wound up in court. (During a recent C-SPAN interview, when Vitter was bashing the Senate’s majority leader, he briefly slipped and referred to “Harry Lee” instead of Harry Reid).

“His style has always been way too divisive and I don’t see that changing any time soon,” Normand said of Vitter, according to LaPolitics.com.

Today in trashtweeting

As I wrote in this morning’s column, candidates in Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race are playing things pretty safe on social media — unlike, say, some of the hopefuls in the 6th District congressional race.

But mistakes still get made, and in the Twitterverse, a single errant keystroke by a candidate can create an opening for his or her opponent. Take Republican Bill Cassidy’s tweet about tonight’s game, which clearly intended as an innocuous crowdpleaser.

“Finally, Saints football is back…even if it is preseason,” he wrote. So far so good. The problem was in the hashtag, which basically acts as a searchable key word for similar tweets. Cassidy (or whoever is tweeting from his account) tried to go with a game-day standby, but wound up typing “#whoday.”

Rob Maness, the other Republican aiming to unseat Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu, wasn’t about to let that one pass.

“Love the sentiment, Congressman,” Maness tweeted, “but I think you meant #WhoDat!” For good measure — or maybe to rub it in just a bit more — he added his own hashtag: #BeatTheRams.

David Vitter’s “oops” moment over Common Core

Everyone knows that Gov. Bobby Jindal was for Common Core before he was against it.

But was U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who’s running to replace Jindal, against the controversial education standards before he was for them?

It certainly seems so, given the not-at-all subtle language that appeared over Vitter’s signature in a recent fundraising plea, which was reproduced over the weekend on LSU communications professor Bob Mann’s blog.

“I am prepared to lead on these issues as Governor — to get our economy moving, hold the line on taxes, and protect our citizens from ObamaCare, the president’s insane environmental regulations, heavy-handed big government policies like ‘Common Core,’ and all the rest,” Vitter wrote to prospective contributors.

Unless he didn’t.

Asked to elaborate on his boss’s evolution from critic to strong supporter, as he pronounced himself last week, Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar said it was all a misunderstanding. Bolar said the Common Core line was actually a “drafting mistake by the direct mail fundraising firm that should have been caught.”

“The situation,” he added, “has been fully corrected.”

An alternative to the official story, of course, is that Vitter put his finger to the wind and flip-flopped too.

While Jindal belatedly realized that he didn’t want to alienate the grassroots activists around the country who are agitating against Common Core, Vitter may well have figured out that he needs to back it in order to appeal to the big money donors who contribute to Super PACs — rather than the foot soldiers who respond to emotionally loaded direct mail pieces.

No matter how long he’s held it, Vitter’s office says this is his current position: “I support the strong standards Louisiana now has in place and think Governor Jindal’s attempt to start from scratch right before the new school year is very disruptive. As Governor, I would take an aggressive, hands-on approach to get curriculum and implementation right. I’d ensure the state and locals maintain complete control over curriculum, lesson plans and reading lists and make good decisions on those. And I’d demand effective planning and preparation with parents, school boards and teachers.”

Vitter, it’s worth noting, isn’t the only gubernatorial hopeful who says he accidentally misrepresented his own position. In a letter to the editor last week, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne blasted the tactics Jindal’s using to block implementation of Common Core, and in the process managed to echo the governor’s criticism of the program itself.

“I agree with Gov. Jindal that Louisiana should establish its own standards and tests in Louisiana,” Dardenne wrote.

Interviewed afterward, Dardenne insisted that he actually disagrees with Common Core critics. All he meant to convey, he said, is that Common Core was adopted through Louisiana’s proper legal framework.

So there you have it, the official positions of Louisiana’s big three Republicans on one of the most contentious issues of the day.

But just remember this: If you don’t like where any of them stand, stick around a while. If recent history tells us one thing, it’s that they may well shift again.

Steve Scalise’s short honeymoon

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise hasn’t even formally assumed his new job of House Majority Whip, but his honeymoon may already be over — at least as far as the national media’s concerned. And I’m not talking about the so-called liberal media.

Fox News’ Chris Wallace hit the Jefferson lawmaker with some tough follow-up Sunday after Scalise refused to be pinned down on the GOP leadership’s plans.

“I’m asking you a question sir: Will you delay your recess?” Wallace said at one point.

“We’re not even on recess, Chris. We’re here right now,” Scalise answered.

Scalise also deflected questions over whether the GOP hierarchy he’ll soon join will consider impeachment efforts against President Barack Obama. After Wallace asked the second time, he responded that, “well, the White House wants to talk about impeachment and they’re trying to fundraise off that, too.”

“I’m asking you, sir,” Wallace shot back.

Afterward, one former Republican congressman pronounced himself unimpressed.

“What is wrong with him?” “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough asked MSNBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd. “[Scalise] is the number three guy! He is not a back bencher! Not a crazy nut like I was. He is a number three ranking Republican in the House of Representatives! And you can’t say no to that? It’s devastating.”

Todd’s answer actually echoed Scalise’s.

“(The Democrats) want this. They see nothing but political upside to this and think a lawsuit frankly is good politics,” Todd said.

“Then why did he play into their hands, if he knew that’s they wanted?” Scarborough asked. “The answer is no!”

But if Scalise didn’t get much love on the airwaves, he did a lot better during the run-up to his new job with the people who grease the political skids.

The National Journal reported that Scalise collected nearly $150,000 in the days following his election as whip, including from donors who’d never given him a dime before. The new contributors include top lobbyists and representatives from the defense, financial and medical industries.

Scalise, who is popular at home and represents among the safest Republican seats in the nation, certainly doesn’t need the money to hold on to his job. But when it comes to powerful interests cozying up to powerful lawmakers, that’s generally beside the point.

Update: It got worse. Scalise assumed the whip post Thursday just in time for a Ted Cruz-inspired faction of his own party to torpedo an immigration funding bill to address the ongoing border crisis. The lead from Politico’s account of his first day: “The Steve Scalise era is off to an embarrassing start.”

So what’s Lenar Whitney so steamed about?

The 6th District Congressional race is just getting started, but state Rep. Lenar Whitney is already making it clear that she’s not just running against her ten or so opponents. She’s also running against what she’s called the “lamestream media” — a pet phrase of Sarah Palin, Whitney’s apparent role model.

Whitney took to Twitter Friday to lash out at a reporter who handicaps Congressional races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, alleging that he not only misrepresented what happened during her interview but that he’s out to get her.

“What @CookPolitical printed about me is an outright lie. I left interview w/ @Redistrict several ?s later, after he asked if I was a birther,” she wrote. “It was obvious from onset of the interview that @Redistrict had planned to jump me bc he is a liberal shill who despises conservative women.”

“@Redistrict” is actually a veteran journalist named David Wasserman, and this is what he wrote about Whitney in his 6th District roundup (the Cook Political Report is only available to paying subscribers).

While Dan Claitor, Paul Dietzel and Garret Graves round out the top GOP tier at this point, “the newest wild card in the race is state Rep. Lenar Whitney, a dance studio owner from Houma who hopes to rally the southern reaches of LA-06 (about 13 percent of the vote) and takes kindly to the moniker ‘Palin of the South.’ ”

“In late June, Whitney posted a YouTube video entitled ‘GLOBAL WARMING IS A HOAX’ in which she claims ‘any 10 year old’ can disprove the theory with a household thermometer. Shortly after being asked to explain how she arrived at her views in a recent interview with the Cook Political Report, she fled the room.

One neutral Louisiana observer admits that while Whitney is just as much of a loose cannon and potential embarrassment to the state as (Democratic former Gov. Edwin) Edwards, her over-the-top brand of provocation could sell with some elements of the party. Furthermore, her presence in the southern tentacle of the 6th CD could sap some votes from Graves, best known for his coastal restoration efforts. Still, at this juncture, Graves looks best-positioned,” Wasserman wrote.

Friday, Wasserman said Whitney’s the one who’s twisting things, particularly his attitude toward Republican women.

“I’ve interviewed many, many very conservative women and I’ve been impressed by many of them,” he said. “It’s fair to say she wasn’t one of the candidates who’s impressed us.”

Wasserman said he asked Whitney the same sorts of questions he asks male candidates, and that “it’s part of our standard procedure and our responsibility to gauge how candidates stand up to tough questioning. We believe that’s a pretty good indicator of how a candidate will perform in the race.” Although Whitney stuck to her claims about global warming, he said she “was unable to offer any evidence” despite repeated questions.

He said Whitney and her team did indeed leave after he asked whether she thought President Barack Obama was born in the United States, not immediately following the global warming exchange. Wasserman said he decided to ask “given her unusual positions on some other issues.”

“She replied that it was a matter of some controversy,” he said. Her aides objected and described the meeting as a “Palin-style interview,” he said, and Whitney ended the session.

Update: The long-distance war of words continued Wednesday, when Wasserman took to the Washington Post’s new PostEverything opinion blog to tell the world just what he thought of Whitney and their aborted interview. And he didn’t beat around the bush.

“Never have I met any candidate quite as frightening or fact-averse as Louisiana state Rep. Lenar Whitney, 55, who visited my office last Wednesday. It’s tough to decide which party’s worst nightmare she would be,” Wasserman wrote. “She clearly relishes poking Democrats in the eye, cites Minnesota’s Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) as a political role model, and takes kindly to the nickname ‘Palin of the South.’ ”

“Whitney’s brand of rhetoric obviously resonates with some very conservative Louisiana voters who view President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency as big-city elitists directly attacking the state’s energy industry and their own way of life. And she would hardly be the first ‘climate denier’ elected to Congress,” he wrote. “But it’s not unreasonable to expect candidates to explain how they arrived at their positions, and when I pressed Whitney repeatedly for the source of her claim that the earth is getting colder, she froze and was unable to cite a single scientist, journal or news source to back up her beliefs.”

He also wrote that “it was the first time in hundreds of Cook Political Report meetings that a candidate has fled the room.”

Whitney spokesman Chris Comeaux pointed to the online column as evidence of Whitney’s initial claims on Twitter, including that Wasserman has it in for her because she’s a conservative woman.

“It was obviously a jump,” Comeaux said of the interview. “He even brought interns to watch. He asked her a bunch of times about the video. He kept being snarky. As we’re leaving the room, he throws out the Kenya question.”

Comeaux said he doesn’t remember her saying anything in response — “he’s talking to people who are literally leaving the room” — but says her stance is that “of course Obama was born in America.”

Comeaux also criticized the Post for initially illustrating the item with an unflattering photo of Bachmann, the much-mocked congresswoman and former presidential candidate. The picture was later replaced with a link to Whitney’s video claiming global warming is a hoax.

“This is the real war on women,” he insisted.

Which will apparently be the last word in this strange back-and-forth.

Reached by email, Wasserman wrote that “we here at the Cook Report are moving on and have nothing more to say about the matter.”

About that proclamation….Mayor Landrieu would like to take it back

Maybe the city should come up with a neutral phrase. Better yet, perhaps it needs a more stringent application process for groups seeking “certificates of recognition” from Mayor Mitch Landrieu commending their “outstanding service to the City of New Orleans.”

Because some of the folks who’ve had some pretty shocking run-ins with visiting members of Operation Save America have a few thoughts on the mayor’s warm welcome for the hardball anti-abortion group.

Landrieu awarded the standard-issue proclamation to OSA director Rev. Flip Benham, according to a story on the Uptown Messenger web site. Tuesday afternoon, Landrieu’s office said the certificate was “issued in error.”

Two days earlier, its members had disrupted a moment of silence in honor of a recently deceased congregant at the First Unitarian Universalist Church at Claiborne and Jefferson.

Rev. Deanna Vandiver told Uptown Messenger that the protesters started shouting about “abominations” and challenged the idea that the church represents a true faith. On its web site, the group called the generally progressive church a “synagogue of Satan.”

“Literally in our most tender and vulnerable space, religious terrorism began,” Vandiver said. She said she found the mayor’s proclamation “deeply troubling.”

Operation Save America, an affiliate of the more notorious Operation Rescue, is also protesting against the not-yet-opened Planned Parenthood facility near the church, and has brought bullhorns and signs with graphic photos to providers’ neighborhoods.

“My kids are scared,” a neighbor of one targeted doctor told the news organization. “It’s all these ugly pictures. They’re talking on the loudspeaker. I try to speak to them civilly, and it’s very difficult to do, because they’re looking for a confrontation.”

As of Tuesday, an online petition asking Landrieu to rescind the proclamation had drawn over 750 signatures.

“OR/OSA are fringe organizations, comprised of those who feel it appropriate to engage in aggressive, threatening, and violent behavior, in the name of denying women their constitutionally-protected right to reproductive health care,” the petition says. “Flip Benham has been arrested over 50 times, and has targeted a variety of abortion-providers, including Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered in 2009 in his church by a OR/OSA adherent, Scott Roeder. He has targeted doctors and their families at their private homes, business, and schools. He has also been convicted of stalking a Charlotte physician, with intent to cause emotional distress.”

Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble said the request for the proclamation came in through the city’s web site, www.nola.gov. According to the site, proclamations are meant for organizational honors, church anniversaries and pastoral anniversaries, retirements, heroic deeds, 100th birthday celebrations and outstanding community service by an individual, group or organization. He described the process as routine.

Still, Gamble said the staffer who looked through the requests should have flagged the group’s application based on its history.

“To be clear,” Gamble said, “the city does not endorse extreme or violent tactics, and this proclamation was issued in error. Any group can exercise their constitutional rights, but all of us have a responsibility to do so in a respectful manner. During these events, the NOPD is executing a robust security plan to keep the peace.”

Stacy Head’s secret weapon, on the campaign trail and at City Hall

If you watched Monday night’s PBS broadcast of “Getting Back to Abnormal,” you saw how effective an emissary New Orleans City Councilwoman Stacy Head had in Barbara Lacen-Keller during the 2010 election.

Lacen-Keller, a longtime neighborhood activist, member of the BOLD political organization and “Mayor of Central City,” as real mayor Marc Morial once dubbed her after she led the charge to build a new Sixth District police station, guided the sometimes impolitic Head across District B’s tricky racial terrain, vouched for boss’s good intentions and cajoled people into giving her a look.

The part that the film didn’t cover is that Lacen-Keller, Head’s director of constituent services, plays a similar role within City Hall.

In a joint interview before the documentary’s airing, Head said the two often work on “dual tracks” to make government more responsive. Head may be all about studying spreadsheets, researching best practices and holding administration officials’ feet to the fire, but it’s Lacen-Keller who has City Hall wired.

“I do things a certain way to try to fix the department. Meanwhile, Barbara goes over there and says, ‘Oh, honey, can you just fix this street light?’ She knows everybody in every department. She goes with a list,” Head said. “So while you’re trying to fix the structure, you have to acknowledge that it’s not going to be fixed tomorrow, and people that are relying on you want their pothole filled.”

In fact, Head credits Lacen-Keller for breaking through numerous bureaucratic logjams and helping new businesses like the Restaurant Depot on S. Claiborne Ave. get their doors open.

One side benefit to the approach? Recon.

“It also helps to know who’s really doing their job,” Head said.

Lacen-Keller brings just as personal a touch to her relationship with Head. She said she feels “protective” of the sharp-tongued councilwoman, and has been known shut the door and coach her boss on what she tactfully called her “delivery.”

During council meetings, Head said, Lacen-Keller sometimes sends her notes or Bible verses, and “sometimes she comes down to the council chamber when she thinks it’s going to be a hot button issue, and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to get mad.’ ”

Lacen-Keller said she wishes she’d intervened when Head had one of her storied showdowns, this one with civil rights icon and Treme Community Center director Jerome Smith back in 2008, still relatively early in her council tenure (there’s a brief reference to the incident in an early scene in the film, when a caller to WBOK brings it up).

Smith had come to the council to protest the actions of two police officers, one of whom had brandished a gun in front of dozens of children attending camp at the center, and one of whom allegedly did nothing in response to the 911 call. Smith argued that officers outside the Jewish Community Center would have behaved differently, and Head cited what she called his “blatantly racist statements” in threatening to cut off the camp’s city funding. She also wrote that she felt physically threatened, although Smith said he’d only vowed to unseat her through political protest.

If she’d been present that day, Lacen-Keller said, “I would have said, ‘Don’t go there.’ I would have said to her, ‘He wrong, I know he wrong, but don’t go there.’ ”

As with many of the councilwoman’s early critics, Lacen-Keller said, Head and Smith have long since buried the hatchet.

_______

Did you miss the show? You can catch it online starting Tuesday at pov.org.

And speaking of Edwin Edwards…

Are you one of those people who heard about Edwin Edwards’ post-prison, late-in-life attempted political comeback and thought, “Only in Louisiana?”

If so, maybe you’ve never heard of Buddy Cianci or ventured up north to Providence, Rhode Island.

Long before he embarked on his current quest to win a seat in Congress, Edwards set Louisiana records by serving 16 years over three separate runs as governor — and enduring four criminal trials, one of which ended in conviction for gambling-related corruption. After he got out of prison in 2011, Edwards, who will soon turn 87, went right back to living large; he married a woman 50 years his junior, starred in a doomed reality television show, and fathered a child using his 20-year-old “baby gravy,” as wife Trina put it, all before heading back out on the campaign trail.

For sheer audacity, staying power, and entertainment value, though, the Prince of Providence could give the Silver Fox a run for his money.

Cianci served as mayor of the small New England city twice for a total of 21 years, and presided over an urban renaissance. And like Edwards, he earned his share of black marks. His first stint at City Hall ended when he was convicted of using a fireplace log and lit cigarette to attack a man he believed to be romantically involved with his estranged wife. Six years later he stormed back into office, only to be targeted by federal investigators in the fabulously titled “Operation Plunder Dome” and convicted of racketeering conspiracy (one of the lead FBI agents on the case had actually asked to be assigned to “the Louisiana of the North,” according to Mike Stanton’s book, “The Prince of Providence”).

Now, at age 73 and on chemotherapy for cancer, Cianci, like Edwards, is back in the game. After whipping the local media and political establishment into a frenzy of speculation and anticipation, Cianci signed up Wednesday to seek a third stint in office.

‘‘If the people don’t want me, they don’t have to vote for me. I realize I have baggage,’’ he said after announcing his intentions on his popular radio show. ‘‘They know who I am. They know what I am. And they know what I’ve accomplished.’’

For a whole lot more on Cianci, check out this juicy profile from the Daily Beast.

Parish presidents for Graves

The roster of hosts for Republican Congressional candidate Garret Graves‘ Thursday fundraiser is eye-catching on several fronts.

For one thing, Graves, who left his job as head of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Office of Coastal Activities to seek the open seat, has clearly wrapped up the parish president vote — among those who can vote for him, at least. The list includes a dozen chief executives from a dozen parishes, both inside the 6th District and way outside, all the way down to the mouth of the Mississippi. In alphabetical order, they are: Pat Brister of St. Tammany, Michel Claudet of Terrebone, Guy Cormier of St. Martin, Tommy Martinez of Ascension, Paul Naquin of St. Mary, Billy Nungesser of Plaquemines, Mitchell Ourso of Iberville, Charlotte Randolph of Lafourche, Natalie Robottom of St. John the Baptist, Timmy Roussel of St. James, V.J. St. Pierre of St. Charles and John Young of Jefferson.

While Graves made headlines last year for vociferously opposing the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East’s lawsuit versus 97 oil and gas companies, his supporters point to a much longer record. Several sponsors attribute the strong showing to his work on coastal issues, and his prior experience as a Congressional staffer for former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin and U.S. Sens. John Breaux and David Vitter.

Young, who serves on the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority that Graves chaired until earlier this year, said he’s had a “great working relationship” with parishes dating back to Katrina and on through the BP spill.

St. Pierre, who organized the $500-a-head breakfast fundraiser ($2,600 for VIPs), concurred.

“Every time there was an issue, for drainage, for coastal erosion, he was side by side with us,” St. Pierre said. “He’s just been a great advocate for the coastal parishes.”

St. Pierre’s nod, along with those from several of his peers, is noteworthy for another reason. He’s a Democrat, and as we all know, there’s already a very prominent Democrat in the crowded field, a guy named Edwin Edwards.

So why would a Democratic elected official bypass a former Democratic governor for someone from the opposing party?

“You know, Gov. Edwards did a lot of good for this state,” St. Pierre sighed. “I just think his time has passed. It’s time to move on.”