Sexual harassment, extramarital affairs, drug use and prostitutes. In the white-hot race for lieutenant governor, these are the issues you haven’t heard much about. But they’re out there in the political ether, being floated to reporters and editors by operatives hoping the allegations will make their way into headlines — and then into attack ads.
As the Oct. 22 primary draws near, the operatives working to support and protect incumbent Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne of Baton Rouge and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser will be pressing these sensational attacks harder than ever. In a race that’s heating up — and possibly tightening up — both sides hope the “shock and awe” strategy will shake the undecided voter their way.
This week, that strategy hit new levels of intensity — and new lows as well.
On Oct. 11, Nungesser’s San Diego-based campaign consultant, Kent Gates, filed a “discipline complaint” with the Louisiana State Bar Association accusing Dardenne, who is married and an attorney, of having an “affair” with a former client. Gates says the woman, Mary Jennings, told him about the alleged affair during a phone conversation. (Gambit has left repeated voice messages for Jennings, who has not returned the calls.)
“It’s a despicable act by a desperate campaign,” said Dardenne campaign manager George Kennedy. “It has no basis in fact.”
(Download the complaint: Dardenne_Discipline_Complaint.pdf)
Dirt on Nungesser, meanwhile, is just a click away. In 2008, local radio talk show host Jeff Crouere interviewed Jeanette Maier, the Canal Street Madam, who mentioned Nungesser by name. “His proclivities can’t even be mentioned on radio … women, men and a bunch of coke,” she said.
In interviews throughout the years, Nungesser has denied Maier’s claims and labeled any related fodder as lies — noting that this is a matter of his word against an admitted prostitute who has been convicted of federal crimes. “I’ve never been to that place” has been his standard line regarding the Canal Street brothel. He repeated it during an Oct. 5 interview at Gambit's offices. Asked to state on the record whether he was ever a client of Maier’s — either at the brothel or elsewhere — he denied that as well, and said he “didn’t believe” he’d even met her at any point.
Nungesser’s denials notwithstanding, one has to wonder why he would choose to make alleged sexual transgressions a front-and-center issue. Especially if he has anything else around out there that needs explaining — which, as it happens, he does.
In 1997, Nungesser was sued for damages by a man named Ryck H. Soto, who had previously worked for Nungesser’s General Marine Leasing. According to the suit, which was filed in Orleans Civil District Court, Soto alleged that he was “wrongly terminated” after Nungesser allegedly made “sexual advances.” Nungesser denied all the allegations, which included requests for oral sex and “exposing his genitals.”
Nungesser’s consultant, Gates, said the suit was withdrawn by Soto. “The allegations alleged are completely false and (the plaintiff) will corroborate that,” Gates said.
(Download the court filing: Nungesser_Sexual_Harrassment_Case.pdf)
Soto did, in fact, confirm to Gambit he “had a kind of humbug that was personal with Billy, and I was honestly trying to embarrass him. ” Soto added, “I don’t remember all the particulars, but we’ve made up. I’m campaigning for him now.”
Asked if he had received any money or settlement from Nungesser, Soto sighed heavily: “I wish.”
Given these kind of political grenades that could be lobbed against him, why would Nungesser be the first to fire sex-related shots in this race?
Maybe it reflects the old maxim: the best defense is a good offense. It may also reflect, as Dardenne’s camp asserts, that Nungesser has gotten “desperate” in the face of an independent poll by WWL-TV, conducted Oct. 5-7, showing him trailing the incumbent by 13 percentage points.
If nothing else, the intensity of the attacks in the lieutenant governor’s race reflect the importance of the race itself. Everyone expects Gov. Bobby Jindal to be re-elected, but no one expects him to stay in the job for four more years. That effectively makes the race for lieutenant governor a race for the top job.
In other words, the stakes couldn’t get any higher — and it explains why the allegations couldn’t get any nastier ...
Even if Jindal serves out his second term, the contests for lieutenant governor and secretary of state are all about who will succeed Bobby Jindal — regardless of whether it happens mid-term or in the next round of statewide elections in 2015 — and who will lead the Louisiana GOP going forward. As for the political dynamics, it all comes down to a trio of teams.
That’s three factions fighting over two jobs. It’s like a game of musical chairs, but one in which only Republicans play and the music sucks. Depending on what transpires Oct. 22, the game could prove costly for some.
Let’s start out with an overview of the players:
TEAM VITTER: Led by its namesake, U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Metairie, this group has gained the most attention. It’s backing major challengers in Nungesser for lieutenant governor and House Speaker Jim Tucker of Algiers for secretary of state.
TEAM JINDAL: This group is said to be a rival of Team Vitter, if you believe some of the state’s newspapers. Officially, Jindal is sitting out these two races, along with the state party. Jindal shows more interest in legislative races this go-round, for they will impact his immediate political fortunes. Still, the governor has a prominent role to play in the statewide elections.
TEAM DARDENNE: This is the umbrella group for the combined forces of Dardenne and interim Secretary of State Tom Schedler of Slidell. When Dardenne was elected last year, he positioned Schedler, then his top lieutenant in the Secretary of State’s office to become his interim replacement. Today, they share many of the same campaign resources.
While recent media reports have speculated that Vitter is trying to topple Jindal’s team from king-of-the-hill status by playing kingmaker himself in the statewide contests, the senator’s long-term plans may be much more personal: Many suspect he’s setting the stage to run for governor in 2015, at the end of Jindal’s second term.
If Vitter fails to elect both Nungesser and Tucker, a new storyline could emerge, one in which Dardenne’s brand takes center stage and the lieutenant governor becomes the antagonist to whatever plotline Vitter is trying to write for himself, the GOP and the state.
On the surface, at least for now, Vitter’s story is that he wants to help elect conservatives to the state Legislature. If he succeeds, he also will consolidate his power inside the state by redefining and controlling Louisiana’s Republican majority. As governor, Jindal wants the same thing, but Jindal is far less aggressive in his pursuit of that goal. Perhaps Jindal can afford to ease up: Many expect the governor to get a Cabinet post if the GOP captures the White House next year, or to make a run for the U.S. Senate against Mary Landrieu in 2014. Almost no one expects Jindal to complete his second term, despite his statements to the contrary.
In endorsing Nungesser, Vitter touts the Plaquemines Parish president as a more conservative politician than Dardenne. “I am strongly supporting Billy, not just opposing Jay Dardenne,” Vitter says. “Billy is just very passionate and a real leader who will go the extra mile, who will do a lot of things outside the box. Sort of like me. We have very different personalities in a lot of ways, but we also have the same sort of independent instincts. Secondly, I think Billy’s the real deal in terms of true conservative values.”
Lest anyone forget, Vitter may have yet another reason for backing Nungesser. Dardenne flirted briefly with the idea of running against Vitter in 2010 in the wake of the senator’s infamous sex scandal. And anyone who knows Vitter knows that he is slow to forgive — and quick to exact retribution.
But Dardenne has his high-profile endorsements too. “I know Jay Dardenne,” says LSU baseball coaching legend Skip Bertman, who endorsed the lieutenant governor last week. “This is a hard-working, stand-up guy who will do what’s right. Jay Dardenne loves Louisiana. He’s a true team player. I’m proud to have him represent Louisiana to the world.”
Not to be outdone, Nungesser last week trotted out an endorsement from movie star Kevin Costner, who was prominent in the wake of the BP oil disaster, often with Nungesser, demonstrating a device he and his brother invented that separated oil from water. Costner delivered a personal message from Copenhagen wishing Nungesser well in his quest. Nungesser’s other colorful video endorsements include entertainer (and former lieutenant governor candidate) Sammy Kershaw and Blaine Kern Sr., founder of Mardi Gras World.
Regardless of what happens to Jindal’s national ambitions, he’ll be out of office by January 2016 because of term limits, creating a huge power vacuum. The next lieutenant governor will be in a unique position to fill that void, which brings us back to the widespread speculation that this year’s race for No. 2 is really about No. 1.
A side story is the Louisiana GOP’s efforts to define itself. The party has been bolstered by big wins in recent years, wins enhanced by a host of Democratic converts and the passion of Tea Party zealots. But there’s an undercurrent to all that success: The Tea Party has some divisions within its ranks, and not all the former Democrats are seen as “real Republicans” by some party stalwarts.
“It is interesting how quickly the state moved from purple to red,” says Kirby Goidel, director of LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab. “The only question now is, What shade of red?”
That could come down to personalities — or teams, namely those led by Vitter, Jindal and Dardenne.
“Within the current context, the real question is who leads the Republican Party,” Goidel says. “Ideologically, I am not sure there is much difference, so this is really about their role within the Republican Party and how the party should be used to further partisan political ends. If they lose or if the verdict is mixed, the battle will continue into the next several election cycles. Regardless, this election is all about who is going to win the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”
The most amazing thing about the race for secretary of state is how little the voters know about the candidates. Both Tucker and Schedler are well-known in political circles, but, polls suggest, not to voters. According to a recent statewide poll conducted by Clarus Research Group of Washington, D.C., for WWL-TV, Tucker leads Schedler by a margin of 25 percent to 20 percent. And the rub? A whopping 55 percent remain undecided.
A closer look at the Clarus survey shows Tucker leading among Republicans by 5 point, among Democrats by 8 points, and among Tea Party supporters by 9 points. Tucker also holds a substantial lead among men (30-21 percent), but the two men are virtually tied among women voters (21 for Tucker, 19 for Schedler). Along racial lines, Tucker leads among whites by a slim 24-21 percent margin, but he leads Schedler among black voters 30-19 percent.
“Tucker’s statewide edge rests largely on his higher name recognition and his relative strength among men, blacks, Tea Party supporters, and in all parts of the state outside Acadiana,” Ron Faucheux, Clarus president, says.
Faucheux, who was elected to the Louisiana Legislature as a state rep from eastern New Orleans in the 1970s, confirmed that the large undecided vote reflects a lack of familiarity on the part of voters toward both men. “That makes the final two weeks of this campaign crucial,” Faucheux says. “Either candidate can still win this race. The candidate with the strongest campaign close will likely prevail.”
Faucheux adds that “late-breaking shifts among undecided voters” could well determine who wins. That makes the late-breaking attack ads from both camps all the more critical. It’s also significant that Dardenne hasn’t endorsed his former right-hand man, which shows the lieutenant governor is playing it safe.
The first attack in this contest came in early August, just as Tucker was announcing his candidacy to the Baton Rouge Press Club. Schedler fired off a press release just moments before Tucker took to the podium to deliver his remarks, which included referring to Schedler as a “friend.”
In his release, Schedler lashed out at Tucker for supporting a pay raise for legislators and suggested that his campaign for secretary of state is nothing more than “his plan for getting the pay raise he always wanted.”
On the heels of his earlier pleasantries, Tucker initially made light of Schedler’s attack. “Sometimes friends make mistakes,” Tucker said with a laugh. Then he explained his stance. In 2008, Tucker said he would donate any pay hike to charity. Moreover, he argued that his stance became better defined a few years later when he promoted a constitutional amendment that would ban lawmakers from accepting raises in the same terms they approved them.
Then the gloves came off.
Tucker has since taken to calling his opponent “More Money Schedler,” a jab at Schedler’s past support for higher income taxes, for his appeals to the Legislature for more money to run the Secretary of State’s Office, and for cutting back on state museums run by the secretary of state’s office. Tucker’s media team even produced a humorous Halloween-themed cartoon ad featuring a ghoul with Schedler’s face ham-handedly pasted in. The ad blasts Schedler for voting for tax hikes and for having two homestead exemptions on properties he owns in St. Tammany Parish.
Schedler shot back that the homestead exemptions were the mistake of the parish assessor and that he immediately paid past-due taxes, plus interest and penalties, when he learned of the error. St. Tammany Parish Assessor Patricia Core took full responsibility for the snafu. On the issue of the museums, Schedler says Tucker did nothing to protect the museums as House speaker; Tucker contends Schedler decided to cut the museums on his own.
Like the contest for lieutenant governor, this race features a lot of back-and-forth between two guys who claim to be the same kind of conservative.
Dr. Joshua Stockley, a political science professor and director of the honors program at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, says this sort of internecine warfare could continue for a few more election cycles — but the political subtext will remain the same.
“Without a Democratic Party or a Democratic personality to continually compete against, Republicans are left to compete amongst themselves about what it means to be a Republican, who best embodies what it means to be a Republican, and who can best lead Republicans,” Stockley says.
It’s unlikely Democrats are dead in Louisiana, Stockley adds. But the more Democrats are marketed as a party that appeals strongly to minorities, the less attractive the party is to white voters. All of this did not occur overnight, Stockley says, but over generations. It therefore will take time for Democrats to recover — and that recovery cannot begin until someone steps forward to lead Louisiana Democrats.
For now, the big fight appears to be between GOP factions, and developments in the last week show just how personal — and how nasty — this election cycle has become.
“This competition will be fierce, bitter and tense,” Stockley says, “because the winner gains the upper hand in state politics and the direction of policies in Louisiana.”
— Jeremy Alford’s website is www.jeremyalford.com.