The campaign vehicle rolls down Main Street behind the Boucherie Festival's junior miss queen and the mayor of Sorrento. Groups of people are scattered along the parade route, a mile apart along some stretches, and every time the white Suburban sees an occasional cluster of likely voters, the team goes into action.

Three young staffers stuffed into the cargo area launch from the rear and affix campaign stickers to anything standing still. The candidate jumps out of the front seat with a bag of candy and a huge smile. His wife and press secretary follow suit. Retail politics, the act of selling oneself directly to the masses, is obviously his strong suit. The whole operation is quite seamless. First comes the sticker, then the candy and finally the rapid-fire meet and greet.

The candidate is the last of the group to head back to the Suburban, which is starting to advance as a trailing convertible approaches. He spins around to the crowd while pedaling backwards and breathlessly yells out one final appeal: "I'm running for Congress, and I need your vote."

A middle-aged woman stares down at a sticker and fidgets with a piece of candy. "Who is Charlie Melancon?" she asks.

That question is rarely heard in the 3rd Congressional District. Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville, is the district's incumbent representative, and he's being challenged this year by state Sen. Craig Romero, who was squeezed out of the 2004 runoff by less than 1 percent of the vote and has been planning his comeback ever since. Aggressive fund raising early in the Romero campaign led to national recognition and GOP bigwigs like Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert writing checks for the Republican from New Iberia. The national RCCC isn't currently spending money in the race, but Romero's internal polling shows chinks in the incumbent's armor, and the post-hurricane environment is hostile. He has the name recognition and money to possibly pull off a major and rare feat ' unseat an incumbent. Millions will be spent on the battlefield: The 3rd Congressional District stretches across 13 parishes, from the Iberia-St. Martin line to the watery reaches of Venice. This vast area alone encompasses more than 200 miles of roads.

In order to effectively reach the region's diversified bases, running the gamut from commercial fishermen and oil moguls to plant workers and farmers, the candidates need to permeate major media markets in New Orleans and Baton Rouge ' not to mention print, billboard and grassroots efforts in communal hubs like New Iberia, Houma, Chalmette, Thibodaux and LaPlace.

If that means using negative campaigning, then so be it; both men aren't afraid to take off the gloves. Very little is off limits, as evidenced by the campaign commercials from this cycle and the last. It's all about results, which the candidates want desperately.

CRAFTING AN IMAGE

The day after Melancon attends south Louisiana's homage to the hog, 52-year-old Romero strolls around the annual gumbo cook-off in his hometown of New Iberia. The aroma of onions and filé drift through the air, and a Cajun band plays "Jole Blon" underneath a gazebo in the city's park while children play nearby.

It's a relaxed outing with only two campaign staffers in tow. Romero stands in a light rain chatting with people he has known his entire life. The wet spots on his shirt are beginning to meld together into one soaking unit, but people keep walking up. Some want a campaign sticker; others want to talk politics, and a few just want to cut up. Once Romero breaks away, he looks back at all the black iron pots brimming with okra and duck and sausage. "There's no way I could just stand there and eat," he says. "Gotta be talking to everyone."

As long as people from Romero's base are willing to stand in the rain to chit-chat, Romero is prepared to accommodate them. The tall, barrel-chested cattleman is always aware of his image and message. A gruff politician, Romero has been known to use his height and build to his advantage, towering over adversaries during negotiations and raising his voice to a crescendo when necessary. His thick Cajun accent is hard to disguise and can be ratcheted up when warranted.

Although a previous run for federal office has smoothed out a few of Romero's rough edges, he's still as boisterous as ever. What you see is mostly what you get with him, and his style doesn't change much from one audience to the next.

Well, actually, the clean-shaven face is new; it was announced in a press release that the beard was removed and updated photos were available. "But it has nothing to do with the campaign," Romero says after being asked if consultants suggested the change. He admits, however, to being familiar with the countless political studies slamming beards. A recent survey by the polling firm Pollara, for instance, suggests 24 percent of voters are less likely to vote for a candidate with facial hair.

Beards aren't important, Romero says, compared to coastal restoration, flood control and hurricane protection. Since he first decided to run for Congress three years ago, Romero has involved himself with every task force, special committee and research group he could find on the state level. When he released his 10-point plan, the first section addressed these coastal protections.

If elected, he says he will put all of his resources into helping Louisiana secure a greater share of its offshore oil and gas royalties from the Outer Continental Shelf, no matter who is backing the proposal, a Republican or a Democrat. "I'm going to have my name on every one of them," he says.

It's no shocker that Romero is running on coastal issues, especially since the two swing parishes in District 3 are Terrebonne and Lafourche, a shared media market that accounted for 32 percent of the vote in 2004 ' and that was long before Katrina evacuees migrated to the area. Internal polling from the Melancon camp also shows these are high-priority issues in the two parishes.

But rather than running on what he will do, Melancon, 59, is mounting a message on his first-term experience. The November election for him is a referendum on the past two years. These days, Melancon carries himself like a congressman, with a confident air he didn't have in 2004. It's a quality derived from his first taste of the Beltway. "I've been fighting for OCS revenues, I've been fighting for coastal restoration, I've been on the frontline," Melancon says. "It has been a tough battle, and people are sick of seeing government fund wants over needs."

Both men, in their campaign literature and in separate interviews, offer no new ideas for coastal protections. But they have vowed to support many measures and initiatives that have been in the works for years. The only difference is Melancon occasionally frames the debate as a monetary management issue, stressing his "fiscally conservative" nature, while Romero pounds on the inactivity of Congress in recent years to help the situation.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

"I always said one day I'm going to own one of those stores so I can get all the Rocky Road [ice cream] I want," Melancon says, repeating a line that has been told to countless reporters inquiring after his business interests. It's his way of explaining that he once owned Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores in Houma and Thibodaux during the '70s and '80s. One fell on hard times, but Melancon managed to sell the other.

He still owns and operates one of his original businesses, a mini-storage unit in his hometown of Napoleonville, but it's only one of many entrepreneurial lives Melancon has enjoyed. He also operated Melancon Insurance Agency through the 1980s until he sold out to Wright and Percy Insurance in Baton Rouge when he became president of the American Sugar Cane League in 1993.

Today, Melancon says the bulk of his income comes from his congressional salary, which is $165,200 per year. He also receives money from his storage unit business and a mix of stocks, bonds and investments. According to financial disclosure reports, the latter totals somewhere between $702,000 and $2.6 million.

Records also indicate that Melancon sold off Hibernia National Bank stock in December of last year, a transaction valued between $100,101 and $250,000. It's not certain how much was actually gained, as the federal government allows lawmakers to choose from ranges rather than precise figures. Melancon says the sale wasn't intentional and happened when he didn't reply to a missive from his broker.

Additionally, Melancon's wife, the former Peachy Clark, received $1,450 in per diems last year for her work on a statewide election commission and the Assumption Parish Waterworks Board.

Romero's finances are much more tangled and have raised multiple eyebrows. His disclosure form is 19 pages long, with 13 different sources of income for a collective $131,034 for the first four months of 2006 alone. He collects salaries from seven local companies: Ace Trucking, Frank's Casing Crew and Rental Tools, Arkansas-based Rebsamen Insurance Inc. (formerly ITC Insurance Agency, Inc. of New Iberia), Pinnacle Oilfield Services Inc., Dynamic Industries Inc., CLM Equipment Co., and Superior Energy Services LLC. He also reports income from local businesses such as Anthony J. Alford Insurance in Houma and Packers & Service Tools, Inc. in Broussard. All told, Romero has earned $1.3 million from these sources and others since 2003.

Melancon has criticized Romero for serving on legislative committees that oversee insurance and natural resources. Romero helped secure $11.8 million from the state capital outlay budget in 2004 for an expansion of Dynamic Industries, one of the companies that has Romero on its payroll. (Romero earned $30,000 annual salary from Dynamic in 2004 and 2005.)

When pushed on how he earns a salary with these companies, Romero says he is working for them each week, even during the campaign. "I call on customers for them, in Houston, Dallas. I'll do things. I'll hunt, I'll fish with customers. Everyday things in oilfield sales. I deliver egg sandwiches some mornings, I do breakfast runs to different businesses. Whatever it takes to sell." Romero doesn't keep set hours for the companies. "I don't have a punch clock," he says. "I'll be driving down the road and get four or five calls."

He says he closed an insurance deal recently, but wouldn't provide a client name. "I don't see where that's relevant," Romero says. "Why would I want to put that out for my competition to see?" As for his work at Frank's, Romero says he handles oilfield sales. "Everyday I'm selling something for them, or bringing doughnuts to an office to talk business," Romero says.

While personal wealth traditionally plays a role in congressional politics, it's usually the size of the candidate's war chest that matters. Based on the most recent reports filed this month, Melancon goes into the final weeks with an astounding $1.3 million in the bank, compared to Romero's $162,000.

The Melancon camp calls it "meauxmentum," a term coined during the 2004 election. "These numbers back up what experts around the country have been saying for months ' Melancon is well on his way to re-election," says campaign manager Bradley Beychok.

Brent Littlefield, Romero's manager, says his campaign's expenses moving toward the election have been pre-paid, and the senator is aggressively raising money. "Charlie Melancon has raised more overall money than Romero according to the filings, which is to be expected," he says. "As a former lobbyist [for the Sugar Cane League] Melancon is expected to raise more money from lobbyists in Washington."

Exactly half of the money raised by Melancon for this race came from political action committees, and his disclosure reports reveal he accepted six free trips from special interests during his first term, including jaunts to Kazakhstan and Napa, Calif. "People complain no matter where your money comes from," Melancon says. "You see the same kind of corporate money in individual donations, and PACs award money based on where their employees want it to go."

Romero has received more in individual donations, raising $1.4 million that accounts for 91 percent of all the money he has collected. "My people tell me I should be working the phones more, but I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish," Romero says.

There are times when personal finances are mixed into the campaigns. Both candidates loaned their campaigns money during the 2004 cycle, but neither hopes it comes down to that in the end, especially since one of them will likely break the $2 million mark in coming weeks. "I sure as hell hope I never have to do that again," Melancon says.

POWER CLIMB

Even though he lost a bid for mayor of New Iberia when he was 19, Romero's eventual political climb was predictable. He was raised in a political household where local politics were batted around alongside family dinners. His father Francis was a state senator, Iberia Parish police juror and Iberia Parish president and a practitioner of "old school politics," his son recalls. Romero's father quit school in the ninth grade, but he helped his son go to college as a way to make amends.

When his father passed away in 1984 after only six months in office as Iberia Parish president, Craig Romero was appointed to the position and served in that capacity until a special election was held, which he won handily. He remained parish president until 1992 when he was elected to the state Senate. Romero, who is term-limited, has served as chairman of the natural resources committee and vice-chairman of insurance.

Melancon also had a political upbringing. His father, Joe Melancon, was mayor of Napoleonville for 18 years. Additionally, one grandfather was the Assumption Parish assessor for 28 years while the other served on the St. Martin Parish School Board. If that weren't enough, his wife is a political science major. But Melancon says he got his first real taste of the game (and met his wife) while working on Edwin Edwards' 1971 gubernatorial campaign.

At first, Melancon distributed stickers and signs in New Orleans, but he quickly became a staffer. "It was a really interesting time," Melancon says. "And I learned a lot during that campaign." As for Edwards, who charmed voters for four terms until he was convicted of extorting riverboat casinos, Melancon says the sentence of 10 years was too harsh and some leniency should be considered. "He's not harmful to the public whatsoever," Melancon says. "The federal government has accomplished what they wanted with Edwin. They've broken his spirit. They've broken him."

Romero, who served in the Senate during Edwards' last term, barely knew the fabled politician and doesn't approve of his style. Romero believes the full sentence should be served out, no matter how repentant Edwards might be. "He should have to serve whatever came from the courts," Romero says.

The time Melancon spent with Edwards as a young man was formidable and led him to land a state House seat in 1987. For the next six years, Melancon was a popular state representative who missed only two days of work, according to official House journals. He eventually stepped down to take over the American Sugar Cane League, but Melancon left behind two landmark pieces of legislation that created the Louisiana Workers Comp Corp. and the state's tourism taxing districts.

On the flip side, most of the bills Melancon filed in the state House had a substantial failure rate, some years averaging 80 percent to 90 percent. In a 2004 interview, Melancon argued he often filed bills on behalf of businesses and individuals knowing they would go nowhere but kept his promise to introduce them nonetheless.

For the past two years since he was elected to Congress, Melancon has fallen under fire from Romero and others for not filing any serious legislation.

"That's not true," Melancon says. "I've filed 13 bills." Congress' Web site does show 13 measures sponsored by Melancon, but most are non-binding resolutions, and none ever made it further than simple committee action. "It was hard to get anything through because the speaker and leadership targeted my district as somewhere they might be able to win," Melancon says. "They just didn't want me to be re-elected." If he wins again in November, Melancon believes that attitude will change, especially if the Democrats take the House.

Romero says it doesn't matter who's in control of Congress if he's elected, because he's a natural salesman who knows "how to deal with people." It's not any different from what he does for a living, he says, or what he did in the state Senate. Among his policy accomplishments, Romero touts a tax exemption he sponsored for oil and gas rig repairs, and a 1993 constitutional amendment he co-authored requiring state spending to be prioritized for line items like health and education.

One of the more controversial bills sponsored by Romero came in 2004 when he passed legislation allowing the Big Easy Truck Stop to continue operating a video poker establishment even though it was technically located in Lafayette Parish, which had previously opted out of gaming on a statewide ballot. Romero says the original land survey showed the casino to be in St. Martin Parish and it came down to being an issue of "economic development" ' not a way to circumvent the will of voters.

Melancon's efforts have occasionally been questioned. The nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste, a national watchdog group, chose Melancon as its "Porker of the Month" in March 2005 for "fighting the President's proposed budget cuts, opposing the Central American Free Trade Agreement and bringing home the bacon" for his district.

Melancon countered that the group ' known for outlandish stunts like holding news conferences with a life-size pig ' has no credibility. He also noted that CAGW was once "singing my praises as part of the Blue Dogs for offering a reform plan to restore fiscal sanity to the budget." The Blue Dog Coalition is tight-knit group of 37 Democrats who vote along fiscally conservative lines.

Romero isn't quick to criticize the pork allegations against Melancon; if elected, Romero says he will chase every single cent he comes across for the district. "Hey, it's all about bringing the money home," he says.

SOCIAL ISSUES AND ETHICS

Social issues often separate candidates in congressional races, but in the 3rd District, they're the ties that bind. Romero, with his red campaign signs screaming "Conservative," and Melancon, with his close ties to some of the most liberal lawmakers in the nation, are two men that should easily be pigeonholed on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

But they're not. Both men are pro-life, and both believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. They also voice the same concerns about the way minorities and women are being treated.

When asked what separates him from his opponent when it comes to social issues, Melancon didn't pause. "I've got family values, and I've only been married once," he says. "I'm also more open-minded to Civil Rights and the struggles of minorities."

Romero, a former altar boy who named all seven of his children after biblical names, says it's a non-factor that he's divorced and remarried. If elected, Romero says he'll vote for a speaker of the House who believes in the same values he does. "I'm not going to say I'm pro-life, then turn around and vote for leadership that is pro-choice," he says. "I'm going to vote for someone who can make a real impact on the issues I believe in."

The two frontrunners also claim to be "fiscal conservatives." Melancon, for his part, has joined the Blue Dogs and got involved with efforts to overhaul the budget, while Romero talks breathlessly about reforming how Congress spends money.

"The big difference here," Melancon says, "is Craig Romero has voted for substantially more taxes than I ever have." While a precise side-by-side tally is difficult, neither man is safe from this accusation. During his time in the state House, Melancon also voted in hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and fees, if calculated over the lifespan of the measure, including taxes on food, utilities and gasoline. Romero has voted for similar taxes in the past as well.

As for his take, Romero says a real fiscal conservative would find ways to decrease spending while in office. "[Melancon] says he's with the president," Romero says, "but he voted with the Democratic Party against the Budget Reconciliation Bill," which reduces federal spending by $40 billion over the next five years by decreasing Medicaid and Medicare, as well as funding for agriculture, employee pensions, conservation, student loans and other projects.

While the stances are an effort to siphon votes from each other's bases, these similarities are also partly to blame for why both campaigns have prescribed to dirty tactics, such as negative advertising and opposition research. During the 2004 race, Romero's opponents dredged up a DWI he received when he was 22 ' a charge that was contested and dropped in court. This cycle, Melancon's campaign took the first punch with a negative ad detailing questionable activities by Romero and certain family members.

Anyone who has followed Romero's long career knows the details. In 1988, the Iberia Parish District Attorney's office issued an opinion stating that Romero, then parish president, violated state and parish laws by authorizing parish personnel to help clear property for a Jeanerette Mills expansion project, at a cost of $43,170.

The state inspector general also alleged in 1991 that Romero violated certain bid laws, but that never gained traction, either.

But other charges have stuck. Repeatedly, from 1981 though June of 1985, Sea Shells Inc., a sand and gravel company owned entirely by the Romero family, entered into numerous illegal contracts with Iberia Parish Government. The Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics prohibits public servants and members of the public servant's immediate family, or any legal entity in which he has a controlling interest, from bidding or entering into any contract, subcontract, or other transaction under the jurisdiction of the agency of the public servant. In a 1986 ruling of the state's ethics board, father and son were cited with violating the state ethics code, and Sea Shells Inc. was ordered to desist from bidding or entering into contracts with Iberia Parish. (A year earlier, Craig Romero had sold his shares of Sea Shells Inc. to his siblings, Lynn Paul, Cindy Mae, Ross Anthony and Pamela Romero.)

Subsequently in 1991 and 1992, the sand and gravel company once again contracted with Iberia Parish Government, first selling shell to the Iberia Parish Airport Authority, which is under the jurisdiction of Iberia Parish Government, and in 1992, following Hurricane Andrew, entering into a service contract with the parish for cleanup worth approximately $180,000.

In 1995, Sea Shells Inc. agreed to pay a $10,000 fine after admitting to violating state ethics laws by doing business with Iberia Parish while Romero was parish president. The ethics board censured Romero and Sea Shells for continuing the illegal practices, stating that in light of the previous hearings, they "should have therefore been keenly aware of the restrictions contained in the Ethics Code."

Romero won't address all the charges in great detail. He says nearly all of these occasions are examples of his family being attacked by opponents. "That's all politics, and there's nothing to it," he says. "It goes back to when I became parish president. There were strong factions of opposition against my father, and I inherited that."

Recently, Sea Shells Inc. received a $1 million federal contract for Hurricane Rita debris removal work. The contract was disclosed under a state law that requires legislators to file reports so the public can judge whether legislators or their family members are benefiting from their elected position.

As for Romero lashing back at Melancon, it still hadn't happened roughly three weeks from Election Day. Romero's first round of commercials have been nothing but positive. It's an odd choice for Romero, who went negative early and often in 2004. "I don't have any intentions of doing that," he says. But when pressed further, Romero adds a slight caveat. After all, he's faced with unseating an incumbent, and the final days are always ripe for muddy attacks. "Well, I don't know," Romero says. "We'll have to see what happens."


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