Republican gubernatorial candidate David Vitter has been holding “leadership forums” across the state on issues ranging from higher education to transportation.
Vitter, currently in his second term in the U.S. Senate, wants you to know that. The events were publicized by his gubernatorial campaign weeks in advance — time, date, location, attendees, many of whom are the state’s top leaders and experts in key issues.
But the “forums” aren’t open to the public.
The Advocate was the only media outlet to attend — and attempt to enter — one of these recent events on the topic of higher education.
Attendees were among the loudest voices on higher education topics in the state: LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander; state House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter; Senate Education Committee Chairman Jack Donahue; Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Monty Sullivan; University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley; Phyllis Taylor, of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation; Xavier University President Norman Francis; and Tulane President Michael Fitts; as well as representatives from the Council for a Better Louisiana, Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
When asked why the forum was a closed event, Vitter said, “I think we can have a more frank discussion that way. … These are leaders from around the state — many of them in public positions. I just think, in general, this is the sort of setting that elicits the best discussion.”
Vitter said the panel discussed “all sorts of ideas,” including the budget and Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, a generous scholarship program the state offers to encourage Louisiana high schoolers to attend Louisiana colleges.
The Advocate briefly was allowed into the room for the final wrap-up of the talk, then was ejected at Vitter’s request.
“It was a great discussion, very helpful to me,” Vitter said after he emerged the meeting for a scheduled “press availability” that, again, no other media attended.
Vitter, who has had a rocky relationship with the media thanks — at least in part — to a highly publicized prostitution scandal in 2007, announced plans to run for governor in June. A recent article in the Washington, D.C.-based National Journal identified him as the apparent “gold standard for surviving a political scandal” — having won re-election to the Senate in 2010 after largely lying low and letting the public embarrassment of what he referred to as “a very serious sin” blow over.
He told The Advocate that information gleaned from his closed-door “leadership forums” will evolve into a gubernatorial campaign platform, but he needs a chance to consider what he’s being told before taking a strong stance on many of the discussions.
He supports TOPS and wants to ensure its future. He thinks the higher education budget needs to be stabilized. University research can help spur economic development. More outcome-based measures could be a good route for doling out state funds to colleges and universities.
“I’m not in the weeds yet, by a long shot,” he said. “The top priority is stabilizing the budget.”
Without giving details, Vitter said he’s open to budget reform, as well as tax reform.
“I’m thinking a lot about what sort of spending, budget reform and tax reform could do that — stabilize and grow revenue for our future.”
Elizabeth Crisp covers Louisiana politics and state government for The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. Check out our Louisiana Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.