The 11 candidates jockeying to replace Bill Cassidy in Congress constantly refer to issues like immigration and “Obamacare.”
But the audiences at the various forums around the 6th Congressional District inevitably ask what they would do to break the partisan deadlock that has resulted in Congress members receiving lower job approval ratings than used-car salesmen.
It’s a delicate balance for most candidates. They are running as “leaders” who can produce results on the one hand and on the other as ideological warriors who won’t retreat a step.
“Whenever they say, ‘Hey, we’re going to work it out with the Democrats,’ they’re saying that they’re going to stall the issue, they’re going to protect their own careers and in the long run, they’re going to stab conservatives in the back,” said Alex Velasquez, a Baton Rouge business development consultant, echoing the sentiments voiced by many who attend Republican Party events. “That would be a signal that they don’t deserve my vote.”
The election is Nov. 4 and a runoff between the top two vote-getters, if necessary, will be the Dec. 6 general election.
Two state legislators are among the dozen 6th District candidates, reminding voters of their willingness to stand on principle.
Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor, of Baton Rouge, points out that he fought to get money replaced in the state budget for the disabled community. Eventually, he was able to work out a compromise and have much of the funding restored.
“I have a record of going it alone when I have to, but my preference would be that we make every effort to work it out and keep this government running,” said Claitor, a lawyer whose family owns bookstores and real estate investments.
State Rep. Lenar Whitney, R-Houma, tells voters she opposed the last three state budgets because they did not cut enough spending and she would do the same in Congress. “There are many situations and many things that can be done along the way before they get to the situation where they start screaming and crying that ‘We got to shut the government down,’ ” Whitney said, adding that she would shut down government rather than sacrifice her principles.
She is the state’s representative to the Republican National Committee and the wife of a sign maker with a lot of Terrebonne Parish government contracts.
Republican candidate Charles “Trey” Thomas, a Baton Rouge educator and former LSU football player, says President Barack Obama continues to win the public relations fight.
“It’s our inability to get that awareness out,” Thomas said, that the administration pumps up fear among voters that ends up trumping conservative arguments on the need for cutting spending. “The better we are at winning that battle, we won’t have to face these fights. But at the end of the day, I would stand by my principles and values.”
When asked if he would buckle to pressure to change his vote, Republican candidate Bob Bell, a retired Baton Rouge lawyer who was in the U.S. Naval Reserve and writes a tea party column under the nom du guerre “Captain Bob,” used military history to frame how he would answer congressional leadership. He quipped, “Nuts,” the response Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe gave to refuse a German surrender demand during the World War II Battle of the Bulge.
“Of course, I’m going to stand up to anyone wanting to spend more than we bring in. As a businessman, I know that doesn’t work,” said Paul Dietzel, a Baton Rouge businessman also running as a Republican. “I would present specific cuts and specific solutions and would not back down on the budget.”
“Congress is completely dysfunctional. It is unfortunate that Congress does nothing as a result of merit and common sense,” said Garret Graves, the Baton Rouge Republican who has raised more money than the next two leading contenders combined. The former aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal has worked on Capitol Hill for several Louisiana congressmen, including Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, and still owns a house in Washington, D.C.
“Having worked for diverse bosses, I’ve learned how to do things and how not to. Think of all of the thousands of candidates that you’ve heard say they were going to change Washington. Has it changed? No, they get changed,” Graves said.
First-time candidate Craig McCulloch, a physical therapist from Ethel, says it was the $1.1 trillion spending plan that included a $587 billion deficit that Congress passed that provoked him to run in the first place. “They thought that was a great deal. We can’t continue to go along like this,” he said. “So I would stick to my principles. I wouldn’t go along with it. And if it shuts the government down, so be it.”
“That’s the most irresponsible thing a member of Congress can do,” countered Democrat Edwin W. Edwards. The 87-year-old four-term former governor who spent almost a decade in federal prison is making his return to politics casting himself as the populist alternative to the conservative Republican contenders in a district that is seriously weighted for a GOP candidate to win.
“The problem is the right-wingers are interested in shutting down the government, and that needs to be stopped,” Edwards said. “More of us who have a moderate view and an understanding of the effects of shutting down the government know that not only does it make us look bad in the eyes of the rest of the world, but it affects our credit rating and it costs millions and millions of dollars.”
“I’m more pragmatic,” said Rufus Craig, a Baton Rouge lawyer running as a Libertarian. He is perfectly OK with eliminating federal government departments and doesn’t believe much harm comes from shutting down government. But that’s not the point, he said.
“There needs to be grown-up conversation about spending money, instead of this over-the-top rhetoric that’s essentially meaningless. The purpose of politics is to have a conversation about where the country is going,” Craig said.
Democrat Peter Williams, a farmer from Lettsworth, says the partisan divide is natural.
“I know what Washington today is expecting from the 6th District, and that’s because not enough of us will be in the room,” Williams, who is black, told a predominantly African-American audience. “That’s why we have problems today. Inclusion is the key. America and Louisiana was built on everyone’s back. The only problem is that a chosen few are allowed into the room.”
Richard Lieberman, another Democratic candidate, likened the partisan stalemate in Congress to dealing with recalcitrant children. “Like when dealing with any strong-willed person, you don’t want to compromise your core beliefs, but there has to be an effort towards cooperation, listening,” said Lieberman, owner of a LaPlace company that sells residential real estate. “But in Washington, it’s either party line, toe the line. You can see that if they don’t vote to the party, they vote their donors.”
That description is not far off, said former Acadiana Congressman Jeff Landry, who plans to run for state attorney general next year.
He recalls being pulled into the House speaker’s office and with GOP leaders around, “told that if I wanted to return to Washington, I was going to vote ‘Yes.’ … They put a tremendous amount of pressure on you when they want to pass a bill.”
Landry, who lost his seat in 2012, was considered by the National Journal the fourth most conservative member of the 112th Congress. He also had one of the highest percentages of voting across party lines.
“If leadership, in both parties, allowed members of Congress to vote their constituency, to vote their conscience, we probably wouldn’t be so dysfunctional,” Landry said. “We’ve relegated Congress to a cheerleading squad for their particular party.”
Neither party’s congressional leader offers much of a positive face for candidates this year, according to a Gallup poll released Monday.
The survey of 1,252 Americans in late September found that House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, have favorable ratings of 28 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Boehner’s unfavorable rating is slightly higher at 50 percent, to Reid’s 45 percent, so they both carry essentially the same disadvantage.
Congressmen, probably never very popular, lately have hit new lows of unlikability when compared, say, to lice — 67 percent for the parasite to 19 percent for the congressman — and colonoscopies — 58 percent to 31 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey.
An NBC News and Marist College poll released in August showed that 74 percent of Americans describe Congress as unproductive.
Republican Bernie Pinsonat said none of the 6th District candidates is going to have any impact on congressional dysfunction. The district, like many others in the country, was crafted in 2011 to ensure that one party or another — in the Louisiana 6th, it’s the Republicans — has enough supporters to win the election.
“These districts are so tailor-made, you don’t have real debate,” Pinsonat said. “As a freshman, you have about as much power as the janitors; and maybe not, because they know their way around the building. So, whoever wins will be relying on leadership. You’re going to Washington and making functional changes? All by yourself? I don’t think so.”