News flash: Mary Landrieu works in Washington, D.C.
What, you knew that? Perhaps you’re even thinking, “Isn’t that what we hired her to do when we elected her to the Senate?”
If so, congratulations for keeping your eye on the ball.
If not, let’s talk about what we’re really saying when we debate, once more, the fact that Landrieu owns a townhouse on Capitol Hill but votes at the New Orleans home where she grew up and where her parents still live, a house she owns along with her mother and siblings.
Despite the recent flurry of national press accounts, doomed legal challenges and inevitable political attacks on the subject, Landrieu’s home base is hardly a new issue. Six years ago, GOP operatives went so far as to photograph her grocery shopping in Washington during campaign season — which proved, I guess, that she sometimes shops for groceries.
Nor is it anything more than a sideshow in a campaign where so much is at stake.
It’s true that, in other states, attacks over even more tenuous housing arrangements have helped challengers score points against incumbents. In those cases, the people in question — Indiana’s Richard Lugar, whose passion was foreign policy, for example — were already vulnerable to accusations that they forgot where they came from.
But Landrieu’s the opposite of Lugar. Never mind her deep roots in Louisiana politics; any intellectually honest assessment of her record has to conclude that she’s made taking care of the state her top priority during her three terms. A damning Washington Post story focused on the fact that she wasn’t involved in her flooded neighborhood’s efforts after Katrina, but I strongly suspect most neighbors understood that the uphill battle for help from Washington demanded her full attention. She runs toward local issues, whether it be disaster aid or oil and gas policy, and steers clear whenever possible of most national issues — particularly the ideologically fraught ones.
Landrieu does vote on those partisan issues, though, which is the basis for her opponents’ allegations that she’s not in tune with the state. Her support for the Affordable Care Act is one example of a stance that many of her constituents dislike. Her support for Harry Reid as majority leader, not to mention the policy implications of keeping a Democratic majority, is another. So if Republicans want to point to votes like that to argue she’s out of touch, that’s fair game.
The residency issue is designed to play out as a scandal-tinged stand-in for that argument, and it seems to have put Landrieu on the defensive in a race in which she has no room for error. But if we’re going to talk about it, it’s only fair to talk about the flip side.
If there’s value in elected representatives heading back to their state whenever possible, there are also advantages to spending a little more time around their co-workers. Fewer members of Congress are moving their families to Washington than in the past, and the House of Representatives in particular compresses votes into as few days as possible, the better to allow its members to get out of town. But many congressional veterans lament that the new normal has kept people from developing working relationships and has contributed to an atmosphere in which Democrats and Republicans often demonize one another.
Then there are the family considerations. Landrieu and her husband were raising school-age children during much of her time in the Senate, and she said she moved her family to Washington so that she could be around for dinner and homework (her son is now out of school, and her daughter is attending high school in New Orleans, but the decision was made when they were much younger). Others in the Louisiana delegation have made a different choice; they’ve flown to Washington during the week and joined their spouses and kids during downtime and on weekends. That group includes Bill Cassidy, a congressman and Landrieu’s lead opponent, as well as several other fathers of school-age children.
Let’s be honest. Neither option is ideal, and each choice reflects a desire to find the right work-life balance under challenging circumstances. Incidentally, let’s not pretend that all those people who applaud congressional dads for spending so many nights apart from their children would react the same way to watching a mom do it.
And while we’re at it, let’s get back to talking about the candidates’ professional choices, not their personal ones. Isn’t that what elections are supposed to be about in the first place?