Nungesser works the room at the recent Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Photo by Gage Skidmore

Outspoken Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser is picking up endorsements from prominent Republicans as he runs for Lieutenant Governor against incumbent  Jay Dardenne, who is himself a Republican.

The first nod was from U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who called Nungesser a “conservative reformer.” Nungesser responded jubilantly: “Like Senator Vitter, I am a true conservative.”

Clearly Nungesser sees a path to victory on Dardenne’s right and aims to highlight his conservative credentials on various issues, even if they have nothing to do with the Office of Lieutenant Governor (read: Dept. of Tourism). For example, one of Nungesser’s campaign ads borrows from Vitter’s playbook and attacks Dardenne for being an “illegal lovin’ ” liberal who delights in seeing border-crossers “steal” American jobs. How is that smear directly relevant?

Another ad touting Nungesser’s fiscal conservatism features a man vomiting into a toilet. (Maybe the gross-out imagery is a harbinger of the esthetic Lt. Gov. Nungesser would use in TV and print campaigns to market Louisiana? )

The Advocate of Baton Rouge asked Dardenne about Vitter’s endorsement of his opponent, as well as Nungesser’s attacks. He responded:

I wonder if Billy failed to tell [Vitter] that his records of parish president have been subpoenaed as part of an ongoing federal investigation; that he contributed to several national Democratic figures, including Barbara Boxer, one of the most liberal (U.S.) senators; and that his marina benefited from BP through the oil spill.

LSU professor and blogger Jeff Sadow complains about Dardenne’s feisty responses to these endorsements and reminds everyone that conservatives question Dardenne’s “character” and his adherence to “conservative principles.”

So we’re being told that Nungesser is the principled politician and Dardenne is the Republican with character problems?

Good gracious.

Sometimes I wrongly assume everyone remembers James Gill’s Jan. 12, 2003,  column in The Times-Picayune, but it appears only a few do. Here’s a refresher: Gill was describing the end of the Canal Street brothel case when he disclosed an intriguing little nugget (my emphasis):

The cathouse caper is over, not with a bang but a whimper. When the feds threw in the towel, you’d almost have suspected they had something to hide….

At the hearing, attorneys on both sides said that the list of brothel customers provided by the madam includes Billy Nungesser Jr., son of the former state Republican Party chairman.

Had the case gone to trial, therefore, defense attorneys were evidently prepared to argue that acting U. S. Attorney Jim Letten, if he wanted to be confirmed in his job, had an apparent incentive to go easy on the johns, since the elder Nungesser is an old hand at doling out federal patronage.

The elder Nungesser, however, stepped down as party chairman 10 years ago, and may no longer be quite the force he was in the old days when time came to appoint a new judge, say, or U.S. attorney. Neither Nungesser Sr. or Jr. could be reached for comment. Whether the threat of a recusal motion would have been enough to induce fear and trembling at the U.S. Attorney’s Office is hard to say.

Now, some may remember the time Vitter appeared on Jeff Crouere’s WGSO radio show and famously denied extra-marital relations with prostitutes. Later, after Vitter’s phone number implicated him in the D.C. Madam scandal, Jeanette Maier– New Orleans’ own Canal Street Madam — told the press that Vitter was also one of her clients. Jim Letten made the unusual move of telling the press that Vitter’s name “never surfaced” on Maier’s list (which doesn’t preclude the possibility that Vitter was a client before she began compiling a list to protect herself). Vitter never came back on Crouere’s conservative talk after the scandal broke.

There’s an interesting parallel here because Nungesser, like Vitter, was confronted about prostitutes on Crouere’s radio show, denied any association, and never again appeared on the program. Talk radio enthusiast David C. Bellinger heard the exchange, and recounted it last year in his characteristically restrained manner:

Astonishingly, on the Jeff Crouere program, on AM 990 WGSO on 3/18/2008, Billy Nungesser claimed that he never heard of the Canal Street brothel! And Nungesser has been a stranger from the Jeff Crouere talk program ever since -– quite a feat considering I know of no “bigger” publicity hound than Nungesser!

Furthermore, Nungesser has not accepted a challenge to undergo a lie detector examination when challenged to such by the Canal Street Madam – Jeanette Maier – and if the James Gill column is in any way or manner whatsoever a “slanderous” falsehood” — then why has Billy Nungesser not filed a libel suit against James Gill, The Times Picayune, and Jeanette Maier, hummmmm!!!!!!!

Bellinger then refers to another radio show where the Nungesser topic was broached, and a caller named “Shirley from Kenner” asked, “Where did Jeanette Maier ever find a woman willing to have sex with a ‘whale’?”

Ouch. As parting shots go, that one must be judged offensive on several levels. First, it’s juvenile to make fun of a fat man’s weight. Second, it’s sexist to assume that all prostitutes are women.

Maier has told me and others, in more than one conversation, that Billy Nungesser Jr. was on her list because he was a client of hers. In fact, she said this on Crouere’s show, which prompted him to call Nungesser, to get his reaction. Nungesser said that he’d never been to the Canal Street brothel (which might be true, since Maier occasionally took her act on the road to events like fishing rodeos).

But don’t take my word for it. She told WWL the same thing in a story that no longer appears in the archives (my emphasis in bold):

Canal street madam says Billy Nungesser Jr. was a client
Posted: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 3:10PM
Jay Vice Reporting

Jeanette Maier, the so-called “canal street madam,” says that her brothel serviced Billy Nungesser Jr., president of Plaquemines Parish, before he was a political figure.

Maier claimed today in an interview with WWL that Nungesser visited her establishment in the 1980s, and that his father, a long-time political figure, had to pay Nungesser’s $10,000 tab at the brothel.

Maier says the recent revelations about NY Governor Spitzer was one reason she’s making these allegations about Nungesser.

“I’m tired of the girls (prostitutes) going to jail,” said Maier. “I’m so sick and tired of the men walking away.

In a written statement, Nungesser said:

I have never been to that establishment. These allegations came up before and are old news; they started years ago when the political enemies of my father tried to attack him. During my campaign, my political enemies tried to revive those same allegations. I say then as I say now, I have never been to that establishment.

I’ve been told by two different associates that Dardenne’s camp was “trying to find” this information on Nungesser. Wow, what a crack team of researchers he must have! I wonder how much they’re getting paid? Let’s see, the state’s largest paper wrote about it in 2003, then Nungesser’s denial was broadcast throughout the metro area in 2008, then WWL reported on it, and the rest of it was preserved on the internet through the magic of bloggers.

The dirt’s out there, if you’re looking for it. But few apparently are. And the major media haven’t touched the topic this time around. All the while Nungesser is receiving endorsements from conservative pols and, also on his website, touting an endorsement from a conservative blog that once advised Louisianans not to re-elect Vitter because of his whoring. (We all saw how that advice panned out.) Worse, political analysts like Sadow raise question marks about Dardenne’s character while not considering the amply available evidence against Nungesser.

It used to be that Louisianans looked past questionable character in politicians as long as they were “one of us” or could crack a joke or play the political game like a round of Texas hold ’em. But now it seems like conservative Louisiana voters will forgive all sins as long as pols present themselves as consistently hard-right ideologues. Or worse: “character” itself is being redefined — collapsed, really — into an all-too-narrow, hard-right political box.

Dardenne might become the victim of this unfortunate phenomenon, unless he decides to get dirty (perhaps at Friday’s debate), or unless larger media outlets decide to resurrect the prostitute stories. The stakes are high, because neither of these men see their political future ending in the lieutenant governor’s office. Ultimately, they’re vying to succeed Jindal.

Nonetheless, Dardenne shouldn’t act surprised when Nungesser gets an endorsement from the likes of Vitter. As we’ve seen, Vitter and Nungesser aren’t such strange bedfellows. Not at all.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...