Editor’s Note: This is first of a series of profiles examining the major candidates in the U.S. Senate race.
Sometimes, it sounds as if Mary Landrieu is looking to land a spot on the Olympic boxing team as much as win re-election to the U.S. Senate.
“I keep my eyes on the people of Louisiana, fighting for them, every day,” she said Monday night in a televised campaign debate.
In a news release after an Oct. 9 debate, her staff recounted how she “led the fight to stop draconian rate hikes on flood insurance” and how she “fought to secure over $50 billion for Louisiana to rebuild after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”
Last Friday, her campaign released a TV commercial it titled “Louisiana is worth fighting for.” The day before, in announcing a deal with the federal government that netted $19 million for crawfish processors, Landrieu said in a statement, “This is a battle for our way of life, and I promise to continue to fight for the protection of our crawfish industry.” Her campaign that day also noted a letter to the editor of the Shreveport Times from a student who, writing about opportunities for high-school graduates, said, “Sen. Landrieu is fighting for them and fighting for me.”
On the electoral front, Landrieu may be in the fight of her political life as she seeks her fourth term in the Senate. The last remaining Democrat elected statewide in Louisiana, she faces a well-financed Republican opponent in U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, as well as six other candidates in the Nov. 4 open primary.
If no candidate wins a majority Nov. 4, the top two finishers will meet in a Dec. 6 runoff. A recent poll shows Landrieu and Cassidy virtually tied atop the Nov. 4 field, but with tea-party Republican Rob Maness drawing significant support, both are well short of a majority. Several polls show Cassidy with a substantial lead over Landrieu in the likely runoff, which would attract heightened national attention and a flood of outside spending, as Landrieu is a prime target of the Republicans’ effort to win the six seats they need for a Senate majority.
The image of Landrieu as a tenacious combatant for Louisiana interests is not limited to her campaign, as it is reinforced by senators who have served with her in Washington.
“I used to say about Mary, if she wanted something from you, she would grab you by the ankle and she wouldn’t let go until she got what she wanted,” said John Breaux, a Democrat who was Landrieu’s Senate seat mate from Louisiana for 10 years, until his retirement in 2005.
“She was certainly an advocate for Louisiana interests,” said Richard Bryan, a Nevada Democrat who served with Landrieu in the Senate from 1997-2001, during her first term.
Looking out for the home state “is something that every senator must include in the job description,” Bryan said.
“You want somebody out there that aggressively advocates, and she does that in my opinion,” he said.
Bryan and Landrieu didn’t always agree on issues, he said, citing the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository proposed for Nevada.
“What I liked about her is that she can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said, “and oppose you without being personal.”
George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio who was in the Senate with Landrieu from 1999-2011, said, “Her personal skills are excellent. I enjoyed talking to her. She listens to you. She has strong opinions about things but she’s always been willing to listen — someone who’s pleasant to be around.”
Nonetheless, Voinovich said, Landrieu sometimes pressed her case to far, and would hold up the business of the Senate while she dug in her heels.
“Her activity in the Senate was a little outrageous on occasion,” he said. “When she got locked into something, she stayed with it.
“She could be stubborn.”
Al Ater, a Democrat from Ferriday, met Landrieu when he was elected to the state House in 1984, at 30. Although Landrieu was two years younger, she had already served a four-year House term, and she had grown up in a political family: Her father, Moon, was mayor of New Orleans for eight years while she was in high school and college.
Ater, with no family background in politics, was a bit awed by the Legislature, and impressed by Landrieu.
“I can remember vividly Mary walking the floor, making a point to speak to people,” he said. “She’s always had the knack of maintaining her composure and yet at the same time knowing how to win.”
Ater contrasted her approach with the “more caustic” style of her brother Mitch, who succeeded her in the state House and now is mayor of New Orleans.
A conservative Republican House member from Dry Creek, James David Cain regarded Landrieu as a solid legislator when they served together in Baton Rouge.
“She was just a young girl in the House,” Cain said. “The only thing I ever told her was ‘I wish you wouldn’t smoke on the House floor.’” Cain was concerned about the impression that gave to the public.
“I thought she was going to smack me, but she didn’t,” he said. “She was real nice.”
But Landrieu herself admits to a “temper,” and in Washington, she has a reputation as someone who can be hard to work for, and who is known to employ yelling as a staff-management technique.
Landrieu recently was graded by a national political outlet as one of the most effective U.S. senators, based on her co-sponsorship of bills ultimately signed into law. She points to a sizable list of accomplishments, not all of which included her name on the legislation: sharing of federal offshore energy production revenue with the Gulf states; dedication of potentially billions in federal fines for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to coastal restoration in Louisiana, and creation of a second program that provided $500 million for restoration; expansion of drilling activity in the Gulf; securing billions for Katrina relief, and winning forgiveness of nearly $400 million in federal Katrina-recovery loans to parishes; and obtaining more than $1 billion over the last 10 years for the Fort Polk Army base in west-central Louisiana.
Landrieu also cites her success in winning federal money for building ships and military vehicles and other projects in Louisiana. That’s helped gain her distinction as the “queen of pork,” a label she was asked about at the Monday debate.
“Pork is in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “I make no apology” for winning federal dollars for the state.
Her performance at the debate was classic Mary Landrieu: She was by turns earnest and humorous, sharp-tongued and playful, candid (she admitted her latest position on the Senate’s Democratic leadership contradicted her earlier statements), and politic, and vigorous and engaged throughout.
At a social event in September, Mitch Landrieu acknowledged his sister is dealing with a tough campaign, but said she’s a savvy veteran of the political wars. And if she loses, he said, life will go on.
“The Landrieus,” he said, “never confuse what they are with who they are.”
Follow Gregory Roberts of The Advocate Washington bureau on Twitter @GregRobertsDC