Louisiana’s congressional delegates typically have kept their distance from legislative business in Baton Rouge, focusing their attention on political affairs in Washington, D.C.
Not Sen. David Vitter.
After winning his Senate seat in 2004, Vitter created a political action committee that has played an unprecedented role in recruiting and helping elect Republicans to the Louisiana House and Senate — a crusade during which the state Legislature flipped to Republican control for the first time in more than a century.
Vitter also has used his Senate perch to push Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislators to approve measures to his liking.
Now, in the wake of Vitter’s announcement last week that he plans to seek Jindal’s job next year, pundits and politicians anticipate that we’ll see more of the same. Vitter, the early speculation goes, will latch on to two or three major issues during the 2014 legislative session that begins March 10. Those issues are likely to be budgetary — and, just as surely, a thumb in Jindal’s eye, given the long-simmering tension between the state’s top two Republicans.
The Jindal years have been marked by deep cuts in funding for state hospitals, colleges and universities — cuts that have caused his public approval ratings to slide. A tax amnesty barely allowed him to avoid another round of midyear cuts earlier this month.
Vitter’s natural allies appear to be conservative lawmakers colloquially known as Fiscal Hawks.
Attacking Jindal from the right, the Hawks have complained that the governor regularly resorts to accounting gimmicks to balance the budget and has drawn down the state’s rainy day fund, which will have to be replenished.
“We’re representing the taxpayer and the little guys, who have suffered from midyear and end-year cuts,” state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said during the 2013 session’s tax fight with Jindal. Harris, a Fiscal Hawk, heads the Republican House delegation.
The Hawks forced the governor to accept several changes in how the Legislature writes the state budget, which will limit his ability to maneuver.
“I welcome any help by Sen. Vitter; he has given us good information in the past,” said state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Houma, who added that it’s too early to discuss specific issues.
Failure to address budget problems now could leave the next governor in a jam.
“David Vitter needs to get involved sooner rather than later,” said C.B. Forgotston, a former House staff budget analyst who is an attorney and blogger based in Hammond. “Not fixing the problems now just makes them more difficult to solve down the road.”
Added Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge-based political consultant for legislative candidates: “If Jindal leaves a lot of holes in the budget, why wouldn’t David Vitter speak out?” Vitter “has built up some friendships [in the Legislature]. He raises money for them. If he wants to, he could be a headache” for Jindal.
Vitter squeezed Jindal in 2012, saying he had a “big problem“ with the governor staying neutral on lawsuits filed by coastal landowners seeking damages for past oil spills. “I just think he has been very counter-productive,” said Vitter, who advocated a full-court press in support of oil and gas interests. Jindal ultimately helped forge a deal that gave something to both the landowners and the oil and gas companies.
A Rhodes Scholar and Tulane law school graduate, Vitter, 52, represented Metairie in the state House from 1992 until 1999, when he narrowly won a special election to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2004, he won an open Senate seat and has held it ever since.
Seemingly immune to personal scandals, Vitter has used his office as a rostrum for orchestrating powerful alliances at the state level, his overarching goal being to create a Louisiana Legislature more sympathetic to his conservative vision.
In 2005, Vitter created the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority to aggressively recruit candidates and help finance campaigns. He tapped wealthy individuals and businesses for funding, convincing the faithful that conditions were ripe for a Republican takeover of the state Legislature, thanks in part to a measure he sponsored 10 years earlier when he was in the state House.
The 1995 law — which was approved by voters as a constitutional amendment — limited lawmakers to no more than 12 years in their chamber. As a result, in 2007 slightly more than half of all House members — mostly Democrats — had to relinquish their seats by retiring or running for another office. Vitter has calculated that it would be easier to win an open seat than defeat a Democratic incumbent.
Leading up to the 2007 legislative elections, state Rep. Jim Tucker of Algiers, who headed the Republican delegation, and John Diez, who headed Vitter’s political action committee, traveled the state to seek Republican candidates.
They focused on districts that had voted Republican in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections but were represented by Democrats in the state Legislature. In many cases, the candidates they recruited switched from the Democratic Party.
In the meantime, to develop an agenda with strong voter appeal ahead of the 2007 election, Vitter and Tucker had been regularly discussing which issues to push in the state House.
Vitter also intervened personally on behalf of at least one candidate, Cameron Henry, who was running in Metairie, where Vitter lived. Shortly before the election, Vitter hosted a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., that Henry estimates raised $10,000 to $12,000 for his successful campaign.
“When you’re running for office, you’re looking for people willing to contribute to your campaign, to get your message out,” Henry said. “You’re grateful to individuals before you’re an elected official who have faith in you.”
During the 2012 legislative session, Henry hosted a Baton Rouge breakfast for Vitter at the Pentagon Barracks, next to the state Capitol, where Republican lawmakers and Jindal discussed state and federal issues.
All told, the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority raised $1.2 million to assist Republican legislative candidates in the 2007 elections. Metairie bank owner and developer Joseph Canizaro served as chairman. Among the donors: Lockport-based Bollinger Shipyards ($27,500), New Orleans oil and gas executive and philanthropist Phyllis Taylor ($27,500) and Kansas-based Koch Industries ($100,000).
The PAC spent money on behalf of 12 Republicans running for the state House and two seeking state Senate seats, campaign finance records show.
One of them was Mike Walsworth, who received a phone call from Vitter after Walsworth announced plans in 2007 to run for a state Senate seat in northeast Louisiana.
“What can I help you with”? Vitter asked Walsworth, a Republican then locked in a tough race to represent a West Monroe House district.
Vitter’s political action committee spent $14,735.48 for ads on 16 different radio stations before the general election, records show. It also lined up campaign donors, Walsworth said, adding that Vitter’s PAC did not coordinate its efforts with Walsworth’s campaign — that would have been illegal.
Republicans picked up 10 seats in 2007 in the 105-member House, whittling the Democrats to 53 seats compared to 50 Republicans (and two independents). They also gained in the Senate, but Democrats retained a 24-15 majority.
The tipping point was reached three years later. Republicans won their majority in the state House through a combination of party switches and a special election victory. They won a majority in the state Senate in February 2011 by winning a special election.
Republicans had not held a majority of the seats in the Louisiana Legislature since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
“David Vitter did everything he could for us to eventually build a majority,” said Tucker. “We wouldn’t have taken the majority then without Vitter.”
Jindal deserves some credit, too, Tucker added, noting that while the would-be governor didn’t raise much money for fellow Republicans, his anti-tax rhetoric helped strengthen the Republican brand.
Vitter’s PAC and the Republican Party engaged in hardball tactics to get that majority, Democrats say.
Those who became Republican “did that after being threatened – ‘if you don’t switch, we’ll raise a lot of money to defeat you’ – and were promised that if they did switch, ‘we’ll help you out,’” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite, the leading Democrat in the House and an announced candidate for governor.
For the 2011 legislative elections, Vitter’s political action committee sought to expand the Republican majority by targeting white-majority districts still held by Democrats, though less favorable to Republicans. This time, Vitter made little headway. Rep. Robert Johnson of Marksville, Rep. James Armes of Leesville, Rep. Bernard LeBas of Ville Platte and Rep. Jack Montoucet of Scott all beat their Republican challengers.
Stephen Ortego of Carencro and Gene Reynolds of Minden — both Democrats — also won open seats against Vitter-backed Republicans.
“We won every race they targeted,” said Edwards, who chaired the House Democrats’ campaign effort.
Through his PAC, Pinsonat said, Vitter played a much more aggressive role in state legislative campaigns than any other congressman or senator in recent memory.
“Occasionally, a U.S. senator got mad at someone and raised a few dollars to make life difficult,” Pinsonat said. “But this was the first time we had seen such a concerted effort. It was a new phenomenon in Louisiana. They came after you. It didn’t matter what your voting record was if you were a Democrat.”
To be sure, party identification still matters much less in Baton Rouge than it does in Washington. Democrats who support Jindal can chair powerful committees, such as state Rep. Jim Fannin of Jonesboro, who heads the committee that writes the House’s version of the state budget. Fannin, however, recently made the switch to the Republican Party in anticipation of running for the state Senate in 2015. Fiscal Hawks forged an alliance with Democrats in the House last year to force several changes in the budgeting process that Jindal had opposed.
Electioneering aside, Vitter has also continued to exert his influence over the Legislature’s agenda. In addition to lobbying for the measure that protects oil and gas companies against oil spill claims filed by landowners, he has been active in efforts to expand the state’s school voucher program and to lean more heavily on teacher evaluations in determining a school’s overall performance score.
Vitter’s spokesman, Luke Bolar, gave a noncommittal answer when asked what role the senator will play in the 2014 legislative session.
“Sen. Vitter is focused on his work in the Senate and listening directly to Louisiana families about what most concerns them,” Bolar wrote in an email.
Edwards, though, expects Vitter to keep a close eye on the session and to intervene at opportune times, though it’s too early to know which issues.
“He has certain legislators who are more receptive to his suggestions,” Edwards said.
Montoucet is not among them.
“He’s destructive,” Montoucet said. “We’ve already had enough discord and infighting over the past six years with Jindal. We don’t need all of this partisan stuff.”
For him to support a Vitter-backed measure, Montoucet said, “it would have to benefit my district a lot.”