Stephanie Grace: Old rivals renew fight with U.S. Sen. David Vitter _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Running for governor, David Vitter, right, answers questions from the media after receiving the endorsements of some Republican elected officials and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Last month’s comically bizarre “Spy vs. Spy” episode in a Metairie coffee house brought gubernatorial candidate U.S. Sen. David Vitter face to face with his past. And no, I’m not talking about the prostitution scandal that just won’t die.

If we take Vitter and the private detective who was caught recording a motley tableful of insiders at their word, the intended target of the Vitter campaign’s surveillance was lawyer John Cummings, a donor to the senator’s runoff opponent John Bel Edwards. This despite the fact that the group also included Danny DeNoux, a fellow P.I. who was investigating new claims about Vitter’s private life for an unnamed client, as well as a couple of longtime Vitter adversaries, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and state Sen. Danny Martiny.

Yet if Cummings was the target — for reasons that the Vitter camp won’t name and that remain a murky mystery — then Normand’s happenstance presence at the table amounts to some spectacular bad luck, and not only for Vitter’s hapless hired gun. Even though Vitter wasn’t there, the episode managed to reignite a long-smoldering feud that dates back to Vitter’s earliest days in politics.

Vitter was first elected to the state House in 1991, the same year ethically compromised Edwin Edwards returned to the Governor’s Mansion for a fourth term. The young, ambitious legislator from Metairie wasted no time positioning himself as a prominent adversary to the governor, largely on issues surrounding the state’s fledgling gambling industry and other ethical matters.

Vitter also aimed his ammunition closer to home, including at the parish’s then-sheriff, the late, larger-than-life Harry Lee. Lee was a member of Edwards’ circle, a supporter of gambling and a man who saw no conflict in his job as chief law enforcement officer and, say, his personal friendship with a convicted felon. Lee viewed Vitter as little more than a self-righteous grandstander. He and Vitter clashed repeatedly and wound up in court several times, and it was Vitter who inspired one of Lee’s most memorable quips.

“My job is to catch crooks,” Lee said, and “my hobby is to expose hypocrites.”

Normand was Lee’s top aide in those days and close confidant, and Martiny, then a member of the state House and a lawyer for the Sheriff’s Office, traveled in that circle, too. The bad blood with Vitter carried down through the years, and while many top Republicans reserved judgment as three GOP candidates competed in this year’s gubernatorial primary, Normand and Martiny bypassed the local guy and supported Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, of Baton Rouge.

It wasn’t just Vitter’s habit of targeting fellow politicians, his push for term limits and sunshine on their cozy Tulane scholarship insider deals, and his habit of filing ethics complaints that made him an outcast, his enemies would say. It also was his personality, his adversarial attitude, his willingness to do anything to grab a headline or simply to win. When Vitter ran for Congress in 1999, most of his colleagues opposed his bid, and Martiny told me it would be a mistake to elect someone who had no interest in building productive relationships.

Vitter won anyway, ascended to the Senate five years later and even won re-election after his phone number was discovered in the records of a Washington, D.C., madam. During the intervening years, he’s managed to smooth over some old relationships and build new ones with the younger Republicans he helped elect, including the generation that benefited from his term limits push to clear out the old guard. Even some former adversaries resigned themselves to his prominence and came to grudgingly respect his strategic acumen.

The governor’s election seems to have brought out the old go-for-broke, slash-and-burn Vitter, though, and Normand probably was the last person his detective should have crossed, even inadvertently. The sheriff confronted the man, had him arrested on misdemeanor charges after he fled to private property and is looking into whether he can charge him with eavesdropping. He also came out and reminded the world that he thinks Vitter would be “the worst governor in the history of the state of Louisiana.”

That’s pretty damning stuff coming from a fellow Republican so popular that he just won re-election with 88 percent of the vote, in a parish that on the same day gave Vitter only 38 percent.

Once upon a time, Vitter thrived on confronting his political foes, largely because voters felt he had the moral high ground. He doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on here, though. And even if they agreed with Vitter back in the day, I’m not sure many people would blame Normand for crowing that he and his allies were on to something all along.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.