WASHINGTON — When the tough-talking former St. Landry Parish sheriff's deputy and viral Crime Stoppers video star Clay Higgins declared his candidacy for Congress late in the 2016 race, he described campaigning for Congress as "descending into the belly of the beast."
"I'm descending as a soldier by the will of the people, descending as a warrior armed with the Constitution," Higgins — with a cowboy hat on his head and a chrome-plated semi-automatic pistol strapped to his hip — declared to news cameras and a smattering of supporters.
"I will not sit idly by," Higgins continued, "as my nation is devoured from within by career politicians who no longer serve we, the people."
Those on Capitol Hill might not have known what to expect when Higgins romped through the primary and knocked off political heavyweight Scott Angelle in the runoff to claim the Acadiana congressional seat.
But if Higgins sounded prepared on the campaign trail to wage constant war from within the walls of the U.S. Capitol, he's headed down a much different route since landing on Capitol Hill.
As a freshman in the restive GOP House majority, Higgins has largely been a reliable vote for the party's leadership. Though he admits to having considered Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan something of a sellout before joining Congress, Higgins now speaks with admiration of Ryan and his party's higher-ups.
"You have to earn your rank and you have to earn the respect of your colleagues," he said.
Though Higgins carried the 3rd Congressional District by 12 points, he acknowledges that plenty of folks back home and in Washington had "legitimate doubts" about whether the brash former Crime Stoppers spokesman would become a competent lawmaker.
Others wondered whether Higgins would have staying power or whether a more traditional challenger would knock him off and turn him into a one-term anomaly. In the immediate wake of Higgins’ victory, some in mainstream Republican circles felt out potential candidates about a run against him in 2018.
Several people have signed up to run against Higgins this year, with at least two already hitting the road to campaign. Both those candidates are political newcomers, and, at least so far, serious money hasn’t poured into the race.
'The Crime Stoppers guy'
Higgins, 56, rode into office in the same election cycle that saw another occasionally bombastic media sensation — real-estate mogul and reality-TV star Donald Trump — sweep into the White House atop the Republican ticket.
Higgins doesn’t dismiss the Trump comparison. “Am I a Trump-type candidate? Of course I am,” Higgins said. “We’re alike in many ways, and I have no apologies about that.”
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But to many observers, the surprise is that he has been low-key, wading into his responsibilities like other freshman lawmakers.
"Initially, I expected him to be completely out of water and to be a terrible buffoon," said G. Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. "In fact, he has functioned broadly within the parameters of what first-year congresspeople do. In many ways, it seems like he’s settling into this position and is going to be a business-as-usual conservative Republican from the 3rd District.”
Higgins said he understands the initial doubts.
“My detractors that were fearful that I would be a bomb-thrower and an embarrassment were just being human, man,” Higgins said. “They were responding to how’d they’d measured me as the Crime Stoppers guy.”
"It’s been a great deal of hard work to establish ourselves and prove to those who doubted back home whether or not Captain Higgins — the cop you see on TV, the guy that ran his whole campaign with a handful of volunteers and wore a cowboy hat and a .45 on his hip the whole time — whether or not that guy was going to be ‘congressional material,' " Higgins added in an hour-long November interview.
Chris Comeaux, Higgins’ campaign manager, said the campaign purposefully set about a shift in tone after winning the race. They assembled an experienced and largely conventional congressional staff, including hiring a Lafayette native, Kathee Wenger Facchiano, away from Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul’s office to serve as chief of staff.
Asked about his accomplishments in his first term, Higgins quickly points to a stack of case files his staff have closed out, the kinds of constituent services that have long been the meat-and-potatoes business of congressional offices. An annual report put out by his office lists 13 bills authored, four passed and 93 co-sponsored to go along with 10 town hall meetings.
Not that Higgins hasn’t found himself at the center of the occasional firestorm. He drew headlines for a June Facebook post demanding no “measure of quarter” for “radicalized Islamic suspect(s).”
“Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all,” Higgins wrote.
Higgins made no apologies for those remarks, which drew some condemnation. But he did retract a video he shot on a visit to the Nazi gas chambers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps in Poland, acknowledging it was insensitive.
In his characteristically foreboding cadence, Higgins cited the horrors of the Holocaust in urging a stronger U.S. military. Groups, including the museum that maintains the Auschwitz-Birkenau grounds as a memorial to the more than 1 million people murdered there, criticized the video for making a spectacle of a solemn place.
Rise to fame
Those moments of controversy recalled Higgins' rise to fame before his congressional bid. In his Crime Stoppers segments, aired as public service announcements on KATC-TV, Higgins in a gravelly voice mocked and threatened suspects by name while cajoling them to turn themselves in.
Clay Higgins, the St. Landry Parish sheriff’s captain who gained viral fame online through his weekly Crime Stoppers segments, announced his i…
The bits proved wildly popular, earning Higgins mentions on late-night talk shows and ink in national newspapers. They also stirred up controversy, with some groups blasting the segments as over-the-top and unprofessional. Higgins’ on-air rhetoric — and perhaps rising fame — also appears to have soured his relationship with St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz.
In resigning from the Sheriff’s Office, Higgins accused Guidroz of trying to muzzle him. The sheriff, in a 12-page internal memo and in interviews with the Lafayette Independent, said Higgins was insubordinate and ignored departmental policies.
Guidroz didn’t return a message seeking comment for this story.
But not long after his departure from the Sheriff's Office, Higgins resurfaced on the public stage again in what many initially thought was a long-shot bid to take on Angelle. The campaign was bitter, with Angelle's camp making an issue of more than $100,000 in unpaid child support that court records showed Higgins owed to his second wife.
It's an issue the Higgins camp said had sat dormant in court for years before being raised again on the eve of the election. Higgins also said he's continued to support his children and that the child-support amounts were never adjusted after he quit his job as a car salesman in 2005 and went to work as a street cop.
A spokesman for the congressman declined this past week to elaborate further on where the child support issue stands. Attempts to reach an attorney for his ex-wife were unsuccessful.
During the campaign, Higgins sought to turn his past troubles into a source of strength, telling a narrative of personal redemption and Christian conversion after decades of sinful living to go along with an intimate knowledge of working-class struggles.
“The machine is out there grinding, and the only means by which they can stop this movement is by character assassination,” Higgins told reporters when announcing his congressional candidacy. “Good luck with that, because I spent the first 40 years of my life trying to assassinate my own character.”
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Higgins said his brand of blunt speech earned him a perception as a straight-talker among voters.
“Everything they threw at me just sort of slid off,” he said from his congressional office. “That brought me here.”
Higgins presents a study in contrasts to his predecessor, Dr. Charles Boustany, a retired Lafayette surgeon with a knack for the weedy depths of federal policy. Boustany, now a lobbyist, spent six terms in Congress before giving up his seat in an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.
Boustany said he spoke with Higgins shortly after the election to offer advice on setting up offices and preparing for the job. Boustany said he counseled him to make sure he paid attention to his constituents back in Louisiana and not to “rock the boat just to rock the boat — make sure it’s in the interest of the district.”
William Fenstermaker, a prominent Lafayette businessman and chairman of Iberia Bank who’s long been involved in the region’s Republican politics, said he didn’t know Higgins and likely would’ve backed any number of other Republicans in the race before him in 2016.
But his sole meeting with Higgins since the election, Fenstermaker said, left him feeling “pleasantly surprised” by the freshman congressman.
“I walked away from a meeting with Congressman Higgins with a feeling that he’s willing to stand up for doing what’s right and is willing to take the grief,” Fenstermaker said. “I also came away thinking he’s a very intelligent person — he’s smart. I didn’t even know him before that but (...) I didn’t think he was as smart as he is.”
'Insiders vs. outsiders'
Higgins’ controversial record and the aversion that at least some “establishment” Republicans could still feel toward him might create an opening for a potential challenger, according to a number of Louisiana politicos and campaign operatives. But name recognition, incumbency and a strong base that appears to be solidly behind Higgins would all pose serious obstacles to anyone taking him on.
“The crowd that has traditionally put candidates in that district wants him out,” said John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge pollster. “But you’re getting into your classic insiders-versus-outsiders situation, and if Clay Higgins manages to play the outsider, he wins.”
Two of the four candidates who have filed to run against Higgins raised noticeable amounts of campaign donations by the end of last year, according to federal records.
Republican Josh Guillory, a 35-year-old Lafayette lawyer and Iraq War combat veteran, panned Higgins for acting as too much of a “rubber stamp” for the GOP and said the congressman betrayed campaign promises by supporting party leadership on a number of pieces of spending legislation that have increased the federal deficit.
Guillory also criticized Higgins’ character, suggesting his penchant for bombast reflects poorly on his constituents.
“We need a statesman, we need a leader,” Guillory said. “We don’t need someone who’s going to just attract negative attention and, quite frankly, embarrass us.”
Guillory nearly matched Higgins in campaign cash at the end of 2017, closing out the year with almost $47,000 on hand, something Guillory contended “speaks volumes.”
Dr. Phillip Conner, a Lake Charles physician and Democrat, is also making an earnest run against Higgins and is positioning himself as a moderate, gun-owning, pro-life Catholic in a district that’s become increasingly red in recent years.
Conner acknowledged he faces “a huge uphill hurdle” in his campaign but argued that what he sees as Republican failure to deliver on several key issues for the district — long-sought infrastructure projects and health care issues chief among them — has created a potential opening for him.
Higgins closed out 2017 with a relatively paltry war chest for a sitting congressman, with $50,651 in cash on hand. But Comeaux, his campaign manager, said donations have picked up considerably in 2018 after the hiring of veteran fundraiser Sally Nungesser and that the campaign has collected about $70,000 in contributions over the past month.
Roy Fletcher, a veteran Republican strategist who served as a consultant on Angelle’s campaign against Higgins, said Higgins’ fame and viral popularity from his Crime Stoppers days mean conventional wisdom about fundraising and campaigning might not apply.
“The bottom line is that he just does not need a lot of money. He’s unique, like him or lump him, and obviously I ran a campaign against him,” Fletcher said. “The point is that you have to remember that he had that image going in that he had built — a sheriff guy and all of that — and he’s worked on upping that image.”