It was after several drinks with new friends that I found myself bouncing on the bed of the vice president.
This was a few decades ago and the bed was in a room at The Houstonian, the tony hotel that served as the official address for Vice President George H.W. Bush.
A few days before he arrived in Houston, for one of his rare visits to his registered hometown, the Secret Service would secure the room. Otherwise, it was open for tipsy voyeurs. Photos of George and Barbara, the children, the grandkids, all taken at Kennebunkport, Maine, which the family visited far more often than Houston, were arranged on the desk next to the TV remote control.
Politicians we send to Washington tend to set up housekeeping there and have only a nominal presence in their hometowns, particularly if they want to keep up the family life treasured by so many. It’s now fodder for political attacks.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu has been weathering these assaults for more than a decade. Ironically, perhaps, but Tony Perkins was the first politician to criticize Landrieu for choosing to buy a home and live with her family in Washington, D.C., instead of being a weekend mom in New Orleans.
Then a Republican state representative, Perkins now heads the Washington-based Family Research Council, the conservative Christian group that lobbies for what it calls traditional family values. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of Louisiana, because you are out of touch with the needs of the community,” Perkins said back in 2002 about bringing the family to D.C. He pledged to commute to his East Baton Rouge Parish home on the weekends, if he replaced Landrieu in the U.S. Senate.
Landrieu, who is running for her fourth term in the U.S. Senate, claims as her official residence the home in which she grew up while her father was mayor of New Orleans. She now owns the house with her siblings, one of whom is the current mayor of New Orleans.
Political pundits, quoting academics and strategists, say this clamor over Landrieu’s residence is all “much ado about nothing,” though their pronouncements also include “but maybe not” caveats.
Closer to the ground are aldermen and police jurors, for whom keeping up with what local voters think from moment to moment is critical to their success.
“I’m hearing the talk on the street about what’s being said, and I can tell you that this residence thing has hit a nerve,” Reggie Tatum, an alderman in Opelousas, said last week.
But, it’s not that Landrieu chose to keep her school-aged children with her when she was sent to do a job 1,100 miles from home. “People understand that,” he said.
The issue reinforces the feeling among many voters that Louisiana politicians these days are too aloof, Tatum said.
Landrieu is not alone in this. Her colleague, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, and her chief opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, even Gov. Bobby Jindal, don’t routinely wade into unscripted scenarios with regular voters, preferring instead speeches, prepared statements and “town hall” meetings that are carefully, and tightly, controlled.
“What I’m also hearing is that they want to know their elected representatives,” Tatum said. “They know where I live, and they come knock on my door. They want to see me in the stores. They want to know my phone number. They don’t want to have to track me down.”
Luke Welch, a councilman in Cottonport, recalled a similar theme discussed at a dinner last week with 15 Avoyelles Parish leaders.
“What’s hurting Sen. Landrieu the most is that she has been around there too long,” Welch said. “They’re tired of her.”
As usually happens in these situations, Welch didn’t contribute to the conversation, just listened. But he has a better-than-average understanding of what seasoned experience in a congressional system that relies on seniority means to acquiring and maintaining federal support for local services.
So Welch pushed away from his steak and asked: If not Landrieu, then who?
It wasn’t Cassidy, the Baton Rouge candidate that establishment Republicans have pinned their hopes on, Welch said. He’s boring and pretty much the same as Landrieu.
Nor was it really Rob Maness, whose tea party supporters turned off many at the table, Welch recalled. But Maness won the table’s poll, if only slightly, because he had never held office and had served in the military.
Ominously for Landrieu’s re-election chances, Welch concluded: “What I got out of this conversation, is that she’s been there too long. She’s become too Washington.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.