When he wasn’t working on a series of federal recovery grants last week, U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon was making sure all of his princesses received their gifts. Between making his daily calls to the Democratic Party leadership, he also handled requests for ball tickets and hosted a breakfast for Beltway royalty. Even though Fat Tuesday was still a coconut’s throw away, Melancon was knee deep in the pageantry and pomp of Carnival. The annual Mardi Gras ball hosted by the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians (also known as the state’s congressional delegation) is one of the hottest events in D.C., drawing an ever-increasing contingency from the Bayou State.
Melancon, this year’s ball chairman, was taking every meeting he could last week. After all, the Democratic congressman would have had to actually travel back home to Napoleonville to find as many Louisianians in one place. Even Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, was seeking a sit-down with Melancon and the rest of the delegation. It was an unusually busy few days, but Melancon was enjoying himself. “I’m lucky my wife doesn’t mind helping out with this,” he says with a laugh during a 30-minute break from the mayhem.
The organized bedlam of this year’s festivities was par for the course, but Melancon says there was something distinctly different this go-around. Citizens and advocacy groups, many from other districts, were approaching him for help on a variety of issues. It wasn’t because he was chairman of the ball, albeit an enviable position. It was due to the fact that Melancon, in many ways, has become the last man standing — or at least among the last.
In the Senate, David Vitter, a Metairie Republican, is still reeling from being linked to a prostitution ring, and Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat, will soon be under fire, as she is every election year. The situation’s much more dire in the House of Representatives. Now that he’s governor, Jindal’s seat is vacant. Two other Republicans — Jim McCrery of Shreveport and Richard Baker of Baton Rouge — also recently announced that they’re stepping down. Meanwhile, Democrat Bill Jefferson of New Orleans is still facing corruption charges, and his future is as shady as ever. All of this makes for a power-drain like Louisiana has never before seen.
But Melancon seems to have a clean slate that’s worth building on. He was heavily urged to run for governor last year, an offer he declined after little contemplation, and he now says he’s being encouraged to run against Vitter in 2010, although the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee isn’t technically knocking at his door yet. “For right now, I’m the congressman in the 3rd District,” Melancon says. “I feel like I started a job following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and I want to finish that job.”
Joshua Stockley, former president of the Louisiana Political Science Association and professor of government at Nicholls State University, says it’s only a matter of time until the DSCC does come knocking. With Kathleen Blanco on the mend after a tumultuous term as governor and “Bob Odom’s kingdom as agriculture commissioner” officially over, Stockley says Melancon is becoming the go-to Democrat when major Louisiana offices open up. “There’s also another scenario to watch,” he adds. “If Louisiana voters decide to boot Mary Landrieu this fall, then Charlie Melancon will become the man you need to know, the top Democrat. Also, more windows of opportunity will open up for him if the Democrats maintain control of the House and a Democrat ends up in the White House.”
While he didn’t directly dispute that the cards could potentially fall in such a way for Melancon, Roger Villere, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, is confident that a Republican will take the White House. If that does happen, he says Reps. Charles Boustany of Lafayette and Rodney Alexander of Quitman would stand to gain political ground, not Melancon. “For starters, Congressman Jefferson has more seniority than [Melancon] right now,” Villere says. “I think everyone in the delegation has learned to depend on each other and work together, and I don’t see any one person becoming ‘The Man’ anytime soon. We don’t really know the dynamics of this situation, either. These are unusual circumstances, and Louisiana has never seen turnover like this before.”
To some degree, Melancon’s good fortune is based on excellent timing, a bit of luck and other people’s misfortune. Furthermore, he has yet to hook up on any headline-grabbing policy issues or land serious committee assignments. If anything, it’s Melancon’s political prowess that deserves credit. While lawmakers with twice his years in office have yet to lead a congressional leadership team on a tour through their districts, Melancon has done so twice since Katrina’s landfall — and he formed solid coalitions in the process. He has also befriended Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California without angering his conservative base in south Louisiana.
Maybe that’s because Melancon has molded himself as a Blue Dog Democrat that preaches pay-as-you-go financing and stays to the right on social issues. If you ask him directly, he’ll tell you as much and then paint a picture of America as a centrist country that demands its two mainline parties work together. That strategy seems to be the key to his success — so far. The way Melancon tells it, this acquisition of new power isn’t something that was premeditated, or necessarily wanted. “If I’m the go-to guy for a while, then so be it,” he says. “But honestly, I wish we weren’t losing Jim McCrery and Richard Baker and everyone else. And when it’s my time to go, I’ll just go, too. If I don’t do it on my own, at least my wife will have the common sense to push me in the right direction.”
MAY 17 Here's a column from James Gill, this time in the Advocate. Gill, who has jumped ship from the Picayune, writes about the absurdity of dueling polls in this post. The numbers are so wildly different, it is obvious that both sides are "cooking the books," he writes. In particular, he looks at Sen. Mary Landrieu, and how her recent actions in DC have been received by those polled. Gill's acerbic, amusing prose is a welcome addition to a paper so conservative as to be occasionally lacking in personality.
MAY 17 Blogger Tom Aswell continues delivering bombshells about the state education department and Gov. Jindal's education "reform" efforts. In this post, he reports that students in the Shreveport area have been signed up for a charter school without their knowledge or consent. Most interesting to Aswell is how this Texas-based charter (with ties to GOP types) got the personal student information it has, if the students didn't give it.
MAY 17 This post by JR Ball in the Baton Rouge Business Report is an interesting tongue-in-cheek look at recent Baton Rouge economic development efforts. Among the items he examines is the idea that gaining a Costco makes BR a "world-class city." (Really? All you need is a different brand of Sam's? MK!) This effort, and other recent ones, are all built on the taxpayer's back, with tax zones, tax incentives and tax rebates, Ball writes.
MAY 17 Blogger CB Forgotston is critical of the legislature's reliance on a revenue-estimating committee's decision to include projected tax amnesty income in this year's forecast. That's a problem, CB posts, because the deadline for these people to pay their taxes is June 30, 2014. So when do you think these people who haven't paid taxes in years are going to pay their taxes? Surely not before June 30, and that means the money won't be there for this year's budget, he argues.
MAY 17 Here's an interesting blog out of California by a Hollywood writer, attorney and academic named Brian Alan Lane. He blogs about higher ed, and was a whistle-blower in a scandal over false credentials. In this post, he takes aim at LSU's new top dog, King Alexander. It's convoluted and a little confusing, but it sure makes Alexander a lot more interesting than he was yesterday.
MAY 17 Blogger Robert Mann writes about the LSU Board's refusal to allow Dr. Fred Cerise to testify before the legislature about Gov. Jindal's plan to close down all the state's charity hospitals and dump the poor on the private system. It's hard to imagine anyone more qualified than Cerise to testify about that, so why would anyone try to prevent him doing so? Mann thinks it is because the powers that be aren't interested in hearing any truth about the plan.
MAY 17 This post on the Louisiana Sinkhole Bugle, a blog that notes developments in the Bayou Corne and Jefferson Island salt domes, talks about a proposed expansion of the salt dome storage under Lake Peigneur in Iberia Parish. Residents are working against it for several reasons, including two biggies: the sinkhole disaster in Bayou Corne and the continuing, unexplained bubbling on the surface of the Lake.
MAY 17 NOLA police arrested more people Thursday accused of either being involved in the Mother's Day shooting or hiding the suspect afterward, this Gambit story reports. The NOLA police chief said he suspects the whole thing was gang-related and throws out a challenge to the gangs: he's got informants now, he says, and he knows a lot more than the gangs want him to know. The people who live in the neighborhoods terrorized by gangs are ready to talk, he says.
Is it a crime for citizens to photograph, video, or take notes of a police officer in the line of duty, or a right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Locally, such activity, as witnessed recently, will at the very least result in a night spent behind bars.
David Calhoun and Elizabeth “EB” Brooks are the first two employees of Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit charged with turning Lafayette Consolidated Government’s 100-acre Johnston Street Horse Farm property into a passive public park. Calhoun was named executive director, and Brooks is director of planning and design.
Episcopal School of Acadiana’s Dr. Joshua Caffery, chair of the school’s English Department, is headed to Washington, D.C., and the Library of Congress as the latest winner of the Alan Lomax Fellowship in Folklife Studies.