Bill Cassidy 072420

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, addressed the press after qualifying to run for reelection on Friday, July 24, 2020.

Bill Cassidy still remembers a girl he noticed in the halls of Baton Rouge’s Tara High School back in the 1970s.

“She would walk down the hallway looking at the wall and not looking at anybody else,” Cassidy recalled Wednesday. “And I remember she was such a pretty girl; I would think that she would be popular and everyone would be asking her out.”

Cassidy went on to become a physician, working at Baton Rouge’s charity hospital when the girl walked in years later as a patient.

“Turns out she had had undiagnosed mental illness all through high school. Her life after high school was predictable, predictably tragic. And I thought wouldn’t it have been great if somebody not only recognized her mental illness but had the ability to intervene early on?”

As a Republican U.S. senator seeking reelection to a second term on Nov. 3, Cassidy has the reputation as a policy wonk. During his first term, Cassidy was involved in a myriad of issues from flood insurance and mitigation to addressing suicide among veterans to most recently helping local governments overcome the steep drop in revenues because of the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the legislation Cassidy is most proud of, which he worked with a Democrat, gave federal assistance to local and state governments, along with private agencies, to identify and treat mental health problems early. The bill was passed as part of the 21st Century Cures Act and was signed into law in December 2016.

The legislation also changed structures and rules, such as, Medicaid’s “one visit” regulation. If a Medicaid patient visited a family practitioner who noticed symptoms of mental illness, the government insurance that covers about 20% of the nation’s population, doesn’t allow that physician to walk the patient down the hall to see a psychiatrist.

“We would like the first episode with mental illness to be the last and when somebody at 50 (years old), they look back on that episode as a distant memory but not as a life defining event that led to a deteriorating life,” Cassidy said.

Though Cassidy misses few opportunities to criticize his Democratic colleagues, his policy pragmatism hasn’t endeared him to the far-right wing of Louisiana’s Republican Party. He was described as “Democrat light” by Tony Perkins, the former Baton Rouge representative who heads the national Family Research Council, a self-described Christian conservative policy and lobbying organization. And though several candidates to right of Cassidy talked about running, none did.

And his frequent televised appearances, mostly on Fox News programs, involve policy discussions, not red meat quotes. He’s called as an expert on variety of issues. Health-related, of course, but he has been brought in to opine on logistics of confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, reducing the Federal Reserve interest rates, Canadian trade advantages, even congressional war powers.

Cassidy remains a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, not an unpopular position for a conservative state safely in the Republican column.

“When I need to know about health insurance, preexisting conditions and individual mandates, I call Bill,” Trump has said.

Cassidy unsuccessfully pushed an attempt to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act and replace it with a program that would rely more on states.

His latest proposals have included a paid family leave option that would allow parents to borrow against a child tax credit to take time off work when a child is born or adopted. He's also pushing a measure to eliminate the surprise charges people face for unexpected medical treatment outside their insurance network.

In March, Trump endorsed Cassidy’s reelection.

And Cassidy reciprocates.

“Donald Trump, before the COVID crisis his policies, with the help of the Republican senate, had created an economy in which there is record low unemployment for, fill in the blank, for veterans, for women, for the disabled, for high school drop outs, for African Americans, for Hispanics,” Cassidy said.

While the country’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.5% in the fall of 2019, the lowest rate since December 1969, the unemployment rate was at 1.2% during World War II. And many economists say no evidence shows the GOP fiscal or regulatory policies caused the record low as the unemployment rate had been steadily declining since before he took office in 2017.

But Cassidy isn’t buying that critique. He argues that voters should give more weight to those economic policies than to Trump’s statements or the president’s refusal to condemn white supremacist groups.

“The Republican Party should continue the sort of policies that brought that prosperity to working Americans. That is independent of who votes for us, that is for the good of the United States. By the way, I find that if you do things that are good for the United States of America, it’s good for politics. But your primary purpose is to do things that is good policy,” Cassidy said, adding flatly that white supremacy should be condemned.

“Now, does the president have a problem with certain things? I guess he does. I guess you could look at polling and see that he does. But I see that as quite a separate issue,” Cassidy said.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, the New Orleans Democrat who shared representation of Baton Rouge with Cassidy when the senator was in the U.S. House from 2009 to 2015, has said that years of systemic racism is the reason the COVID-19 death rate among African Americans is twice that of whites, 88 per 100,000 cases to 40 per 100,000, according the federal Centers of Disease and Control Prevention. Richmond famously told a national publication that Cassidy was “weird”.

“Well, you know, that's rhetoric, and it may be. But as a physician, I'm looking at science,” Cassidy told National Public Radio. “If you're going to look at the fundamental reason, African Americans are 60% more likely to have diabetes.”

Both Cassidy and Trump have come down with COVID-19 – Cassidy in August and Trump earlier this month. On the campaign trail, Trump has reeled from his handling of the pandemic and revelations that the president knew of the coronavirus dangers before Mardi Gras, the super-spreader event that put Louisiana near the top of the world’s hot spots for a while, has spilled over on Cassidy during the campaign.

Louisiana’s senior senator gives Trump mixed reviews on his handling of COVID-19, which has infected 8 million people and killed 218,000 since March, with no end in sight. The administration should have stockpiled ventilators and personal protective equipment, but adds that President Barack Obama also carries some of that responsibility, he said.

“One thing, I think, the president handled extremely well is the rapid production development and approval of the therapeutics and the vaccine,” Cassidy said. “Could things have been done better? Absolutely. Will people look back on Operation Warp Speed as when government really learned, as when private industry really learned, how to bring a needed product to bear as quickly as possible? Yes. And in that regard, I think there will be the highest praise.”

Like many policy wonks, Cassidy parses questions when interviewed.

Is Cassidy going to debate any of his opponents?

“I assume you are asking whether there is going to be a debate between me and Perkins,” Cassidy replied, referring to Democratic Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins, the leading contender among the 14 seeking to unseat him on Nov. 3.

“Who would you pick, I think is a better question, to be on the debate, if not everybody?” Cassidy said.

But a debate is something of a moot point as no media outlet has proposed terms for a potential forum.

“We have not received a formal invitation for a debate,” Cassidy said. “At this point based on what we’ve seen I don’t anticipate that. But it might change. If something changes, absolutely.”

This likely will be first U.S. Senate race in Louisiana since 1998 in which the major contenders don't debate. The last time it happened, then-Democratic incumbent Sen. John Breaux, which won easily, refused to debate his main opponent, Republican Jim Donelon, then a state representative and later elected Louisiana's insurance commissioner.

Campaigning during a pandemic, mostly via zoom, television advertising an small gatherings, is right in Cassidy’s wheelhouse.

During his 2014 challenge to three-term incumbent Mary Landrieu, Cassidy kept a relatively low profile, speaking only at relatively safe engagements and largely avoiding the press – he slipped out the backdoor of WAFB-TV rather than answer questions after a televised debate. When Landrieu, and most other candidates braved gameday traffic to work the tailgaters at LSU, Cassidy was seen schlepping around his front yard with granddaughter – even though his 6,400-square-foot mansion on University Lake is almost at the gate of the Baton Rouge flagship’s campus.

Cassidy met Laura Layden of Mobile at a Bible study group while the two young doctors were interning in Los Angeles. She had gone to the University of Alabama for college and medical school. He went to LSU for college and medical school.

He brought his new wife, a surgeon, to Baton Rouge in the early 1980s and went to work at the Earl K. Long Medical Center.

In 1992, Cassidy took an America Medical Association course for doctors interested in politics. By 2000 his name was mentioned as a possible candidate when vacancies occurred. In 2005, he ran and won a seat in the state Senate.

Bill Cassidy

  • R-Baton Rouge
  • Age: 63
  • Education: Louisiana State University, LSU Medical School
  • Political experience: State senator, 16th District, 2006-2009; U.S. House of Representatives, District, 2009-2015; U.S. Senate, since Jan. 3, 2015.
  • Family: Married to Dr. Laura Layden Cassidy. three children
  • Campaign website: https://billcassidy.com/

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.