The bell tolls for David Vitter. It also tolls for everyone at St. Francis Xavier Church in Old Metairie. It’s a reverent sound, and the beginning of Mass. Wooden pews are folded up, thin pages are flipped over and back, and whispers from the congregation become hushed. This is where Vitter, Louisiana’s junior senator, feels at home.
Still, his fellow parishioners can’t help but stare or take quick glances. It’s all just curious, like seeing the local weatherman grocery shopping or spotting Deuce McAllister in front of the line at Burger King. Observers take note when Vitter drapes an arm around his wife or stands to serve as the morning lector. Just like he did on a regular basis before being linked in 2007 to Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the D.C. Madam.
Despite the shame of the sex scandal, he still shows his face. He clings to his old role in the parish. This, as much as anything Vitter does these days, is another exercise in Vitter’s version of a mea culpa, the first leg of his transformation from political outcast to a Republican redeemed.
Louisiana’s citizenry has seen a performance like this before, albeit more personal and revealing the first time around. It’s been about 20 years since Pentecostal preacher Jimmy Swaggart tearfully told his Baton Rouge congregation that he was sorry for dallying with a prostitute. Swaggart’s public confession and apology were delivered skillfully and with great public remorse, but without actually providing details of the transgression. “I have sinned against you,” a tearful Swaggart said at the time.
When Vitter had to issue his own statement two years ago about his role in the D.C. Madam scandal, he took a strikingly different path. Rather than face the cameras and beg for forgiveness with tears in his eyes, as Swaggart did, Vitter issued a press release acknowledging “a very serious sin in my past.” He didn’t even go through his staff to send out the press release, but rather issued it himself late on a Monday night — when he realized the story was going to break the next day anyway. When he finally got caught on camera, Vitter apologized, didn’t mention The Deed and got out of there. Fast. “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible,” Vitter said. No tears. No begging for forgiveness.
While Swaggart has been able to hold together a few shreds of his evangelical empire, Vitter’s fate remains in political limbo. Nearly 20 months have passed since he was outed, yet Vitter remains solidly woven into the fabric of American pop culture, serving as the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows and as fodder for scandal countdowns on basic cable.
But Vitter, probably more so than anyone else, believes firmly that Louisiana’s voters are forgiving nonetheless — and, he hopes, easily distracted. Campaign commercials bankrolled by Democrats will not be kind. It’s doubtful they’ve forgotten anything, from Palfrey committing suicide in the face of jail time to Vitter reportedly receiving phone calls from her escort service during roll call votes.
As for Vitter’s strategy, it’s all about diversionary tactics. He has to overshadow the obvious and rebrand himself.
In that regard, Vitter has taken a guerrilla-style approach to resurrecting his public image. Expect to see his name tattooed to any high-profile issues that move through the Senate. When the auto bailout vote raged last year, he described it as “ass-backwards” from the Senate floor and threatened to filibuster, grabbing national headlines in the process. During the confirmation hearings of Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton last week, Vitter stole the spotlight again with tough questions about conflicts of interest and ended up being the sole dissenting vote when Clinton was confirmed by a bipartisan 16-1 vote.
With regard to Christian conservatives, Vitter isn’t just talking the talk and leaning on faith. He hopes to win them back with policy. Based on legislation he has in the hopper for this year, he’s going to protect the American flag, end abortion, further public prayer, advance home schooling, curb illegal immigration, enforce the death penalty and get rid of drugs.
From within his own party, there are influential leaders pushing Secretary of State Jay Dardenne to challenge Vitter in the GOP primary. On the Democratic side, Congressman Charlie Melancon is the clear frontrunner if he wants it, but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that he’ll give up his House seniority. As of last week, he wasn’t returning calls about 2010. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco wants to recruit a Democrat, but there’s a shortage of serious names floating to the top. Vitter scoffs at the notion of Blanco running herself, smugly telling WWL-TV that he would write a check to her campaign to get her to run.
Ultimately, Democrats will push one theme to the forefront: sex. Operatives have been hard at work trying to find an adult film star to qualify for the race. Hopes were initially high about landing Adult Video News award winner Stormy Daniels, a Baton Rouge area native, but, like Melancon, her prospects are dwindling. Democrats may have to settle for a stripper or, um, other sex worker. But the project is in the pipeline. “It’s going to happen,” one operative says. “It’s getting all wired up now.”
The sideshow candidate will make it all the more difficult for Vitter to avoid questions about his infidelity. Or, she could trivialize the affair and inadvertently help Vitter. Thus far, he has taken cues from his top supporter, Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has made an art form of dodging sensitive questions. But, while Jindal displays Ali-like footwork, Vitter’s driver once loudly backed his car into a “No Parking” sign trying to avoid pesky reporters. For now, Jindal is giving Vitter much needed help in fund raising.
Many hope that Vitter will never be redeemed. They may do well to remember that Vitter, the Lone Wolf of Louisiana Politics, doesn’t seek literal redemption, just political indulgence in the form of another term in the U.S. Senate. For now, he is atoning for his “very serious sin” by simply staying in the game and enduring the humiliation. Recent events suggest that, soon enough, he will go on the offensive. Whether voters choose to forgive him remains an open question
MAY 22 This post was written the day after the second line shooting in NOLA, by Brentin Mock. Mock is a friend of Deb "Big Red" Cotton, a blogger who was shot in the back and was seriously injured. It is a raw, emotional piece of writing, something the writer obviously felt he needed to get off his chest. But it raises questions that can't be easily dismissed, and might give some insight into where the source of these events truly is.
MAY 22 In this Baton Rouge Business Report post, Rolfe McCollister considers the privatization of bus service in Baton Rouge. After decades of under-funding, it is a mess, and although a tax (partially) passed last year, improvement hasn't happened yet. McCollister apparently feels it is time to let private business get in on the transit business.
MAY 22 This post on Bayou Buzz by Jeff Crouere urges the defeat of a bill that would grant modest pay increases over the next several years to the state's judges and clerks of court. The state is in no position to fund pay hikes, Crouere argues, with the pay increases costing a total of $9 million over several years. It sends the wrong message to the (proverbial) hard-working people of Louisiana, he says.
MAY 22 The Advocate reports here that State Treasurer John Kennedy is complaining about a meeting of the corporation that oversees the state's tobacco settlement. The Governor wanted it restructured, and he has some support, but not a lot. The corporation agreed with his plan, but Kennedy didn't, and it appears that the meeting was noticed in a manner completely different than that of all previous meetings. Kennedy's given to hyperbole, but in this case the fish don't smell too fresh.
MAY 22 In this Advocate story, Carencro Police Chief Carlos Stout says the recent federal indictment of a strip club owner is all wrong. The indictment alleges that drugs and prostitution went on with impunity because club staff made arrangements with "local" police. Stout says it never happened, and while his cops do work security in the parking lot, they're not allowed inside.
MAY 22 This amusing post in DIG Baton Rouge recounts an ad that ran on Craig's List recently; the advertiser was seeking tenants for a Beauregard Town house. He knew his market, and wrote an ad that the most ironical hipster couldn't resist. Apparently, he really did know his market, because the ad worked like a charm.
MAY 22 In this post in The Lens, Mark Moseley comments on the rhetoric Gov. Jindal employed in trying to save his tax "reform" package. One interesting point concerns Jindal's use of his brother, Nikesh, in a little story. Nikesh left Louisiana because of his inability to get a decent job, the story goes, but the story won't hold water: Nikesh lives in DC, which has an income tax level comparable to Louisiana, Moseley says. If income taxes caused the dismal situation, it should exist in DC too. Right?
MAY 22 This post by columnist John Maginnis traces the trajectory of the bill that would fund construction at community and technical colleges -- and bypass the Board of Regents and traditional higher ed funding mechanisms. Sure, it will bust the legislature's self-imposed debt limit, but some leges feel that there's more need (because there is more growth) in the community and technical college area than in the university area, he says.
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.
There will soon be a whole lot of shakin’ going on at Benny’s Sportshack Supplement Depot, a new concept by Opelousas native Benny Nele. Located at 2002 Johnston St., the supplement shop, smoothie bar and café, featuring hot off the press paninis and wraps, plans to open in late May.