Editor’s Note: This is second of a series of profiles examining the major candidates in the U.S. Senate race.
In a state known for its colorful politicians, Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy pushes earnestness in his bid for the U.S. Senate.
Though he lives at the gates of the LSU Baton Rouge campus, Cassidy doesn’t do wobble dances at tailgates. He attends wearing khakis and starched buttoned-down shirts. The colleague with whom he shares representation of Baton Rouge, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, called him “weird” in a Politico article.
Nerd or not, during the past eight years Cassidy has moved from a charity hospital physician to a state senator to a U.S. congressman and now could very well become a U.S. senator.
If polls are to be believed, Cassidy and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who is seeking her fourth term, will come out of Tuesday’s election, ahead of the other six candidates, to face each other in a Dec. 6 winner-take-all runoff.
Cassidy said he would spend that penultimate December runoff-election Saturday in a classroom learning about new electronic medical records systems. “Frankly, that is part of my administrative responsibility,” he said.
He admits that he’s not charismatic in the traditional Louisiana political sense. But Cassidy says he gets things done.
Kenny Freeman of Petrin Corp. reaches back 40 years to explain how Cassidy works.
The 1974 football team at Tara High School in Baton Rouge had lost its first four games when a handful of seniors, including Cassidy — then a floppy haired, 190-pound defensive end — charted out what changes needed to be made, what plays needed to be emphasized in order to win the next game. The Tara Trojans won by one point. The group of seniors met again to consider the next game, and so on. The team eventually won the state championship.
“That’s the type of leader Bill Cassidy was and that’s the type of leader Bill Cassidy is,” Freeman told the Pelican Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors at a luncheon on the LSU campus.
On the campaign trail, Cassidy regularly points to a bipartisan effort to soften the impact of the flood insurance premium increases. Congress made sweeping changes to the flood insurance program, which was $24 billion in debt, to make it more fiscally stable.
But the formulas used to raise premiums dramatically increased prices for many Louisiana homeowners, on the magnitude of tens of thousands of dollars. Even selling property would have been problematic, since the new owners would have to pick up much higher flood insurance premiums.
In May 2013, Cassidy formed the Congressional Home Protection Caucus to lobby congressional leaders about the impact, wrote U.S. Rep. Michael G. Grimm, R-N.Y., and cosponsor of the Grimm-Cassidy amendment. Cassidy lobbied realtors, bankers and homebuilders to call others in their industry. He reminded other congressmen whose districts are far from the coast, say Colorado, that weather calamities hit their neck of the woods too. Gradually, enough representatives, including a lot of Democrats, backed the legislation to the pass the House, which had started out against the idea.
The bill the president ultimately signed into law protected homeowners from abrupt and dramatic premium increases.
“This effort was undertaken at a time when no one thought it would be possible to do anything to help flood-prone residents avoid devastating premium hikes and foreclosures,” Cassidy said. “We got flood insurance through a divided Congress.”
(To be fair, Landrieu also took a leadership role in the Senate effort. Both candidates routinely acknowledge and then minimize the other’s participation in their campaign rhetoric.)
Working across the aisle is one thing. But Cassidy has struggled with energizing the more conservative wing of his own party. Many Republicans can’t forget that Cassidy has supported Democrats in the past and has taken more moderate positions on some issues.
Tony Perkins, who heads the religiously conservative Family Research Council, puts Cassidy in the “Democrat light” category of establishment GOP candidates who don’t embrace full-throated conservatism. Perkins backs Republican Rob Maness, a retired U.S. Air Force officer.
Maness has the endorsement of the California-based Tea Party Express and the support of a few of the local tea party groups around the state, but not the largest, the 15,000-member Tea Party of Louisiana.
Part of the problem is that many in the Louisiana group know and like Cassidy, said Bob Reid, the retired corporate executive who heads the Tea Party of Louisiana.
Choosing between Cassidy and Maness, a relative unknown, would have caused too much friction among members, so the Tea Party of Louisiana opted to stay neutral in Tuesday’s election and support whoever is in the runoff, he said.
Personally, however, Reid said he voted for Maness even after years of backing Cassidy. He was troubled that Cassidy was one of the 18 Republicans who helped pass an expansion of hate crimes. HR1913 allows federal assistance to state and local governments to investigate and prosecute violent crimes motivated by prejudice of a number of factors, including sexual orientation.
Reid and other evangelicals argue that the law could be used to persecute those Christians who believe homosexuality is a sin.
While in Congress, Cassidy also proposed legislation to help develop natural gas as a transportation fuel; backed hyrdo-fracking; and pushed for the building the Keystone Pipeline.
As a physician who worked with lower income patients in a charity hospital, Cassidy became the go-to expert for Republican opposition to the president’s Affordable Care Act. He appeared frequently on Fox News and on conservative talk shows. Cassidy’s biggest donors are in health care professions, contributing $630,465 to his campaign out of a $10.9 million total through Oct. 15.
Cassidy says he got involved in politics because he’s doctor. He specializes in liver disease and gastroenterology.
“My passion has been, ‘How do we get health care to those who do not have it?’” he said.
During his two decades at the LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center, Cassidy organized programs to inoculate school children and to protect clinics based in schools. He led an effort to refurbish an abandoned inner city K-Mart to help provide health care after the 2005 hurricanes. He was on the committee that vetted candidates for the secretary of Department Health and Hospitals under Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco and was considered for the job by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
He ran for the state Senate in 2006 and for Congress in 2009, winning both times.
After becoming a congressman, Cassidy continued to teach at LSU, which allowed him to see patients, at least through the residents he was teaching. House ethics rules forbid physicians from opening office and practicing, but the treatment provided by “residents” — newly minted doctors — must be overseen by a teaching physician.
LSU paid him $20,000 a year and he would see patients for a few hours, sometimes on Monday, but usually on Tuesday morning. He then would catch a flight to Washington.
Because Cassidy worked at LSU, he often saw inmates from state prisons.
“I did a liver biopsy to a patient handcuffed to a bed, great conversation. I took off my gloves, got on the plane, flew to D.C., put on my tuxedo and went to the White House Christmas party,” he said.
He stopped being paid in April, because of the campaign, but says he still occasionally treats patients with residents and reviews charts.
“I’m working for free now, man. I love to do it,” Cassidy said, adding that in addition to the medicine, it gives him an opportunity to talk intimately with someone of a different community.
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