Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Cattle Call

The congressional landscape in south Louisiana is fertile ground right now, and all sorts of political bulls are coming out to graze

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Whodathunkit? Brigadier Gen. Hunt Downer and Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle are being encouraged to launch separate bids next year for the 3rd Congressional District seat. In interviews last week, neither would reject the idea of a run, but both sounded surprised to be thrown into the mix.

  Why should you care about the 3rd Congressional District, which presently is anchored by Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes? After the 2010 U.S. Census, part of it could be in your congressional district. Because of post-Katrina population changes, the district is expected to either shift farther eastward into the New Orleans area, farther westward into southwestern Acadiana and/or a bit north, possibly into the Baton Rouge area.

  Current speculation is driven by the assumption that U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, will vacate his congressional seat next year to challenge junior Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie. Melancon has not made it official yet, but he suggested in a prepared statement two weeks ago that the gears are already turning. "I am discussing this opportunity with my wife and kids and will be making an announcement in the coming weeks," he said.

  The congressman publicly flirted with the race in 2008 before announcing earlier this year that he was leaning against it. Since then, national Democrats have convinced him of what he already knew: His once-promising career in the House may not be so promising after redistricting in 2011.

  Meanwhile, two other Democrats are gunning for Vitter: Shaw CEO Jim Bernhard and adult film star Stormy Daniels. Both are well endowed — with cash, that is. Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, a Baton Rouge Republican, is also eyeing the race.

  Last week, yet another name surfaced, one that could cause headaches for Melancon. State Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, is being urged to enter the fray, according to Crescent City operatives. While she wouldn't comment, many consider it unlikely because her entry would make the all-important New Orleans base a wash for Melancon.

  All this Democratic intrigue is yet another instance of infighting among Bayou State Donkeys. Internecine wars have cost Louisiana Democrats more than one congressional race recently. "[Melancon] wants to avoid that, and he's been seeking support from every major Democrat in the state," says a well-placed source. "That's something he's been focused on. He's even discussed the race with Rep. Peterson."

  Up the bayou in Acadiana, rumor has it that a group of oilmen assembled a sizeable pool of money to coax — if not threaten — Melancon out of his congressional seat. As for where that money might land, the odds-on favorite is Angelle, although he says he hasn't been approached.

  Angelle, a Breaux Bridge Democrat, is the legislative liaison for Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, but is better known as the current secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources and the former president of St. Martin Parish. Two years ago, his name was briefly floated as a candidate for lieutenant governor, but he has stayed on the bureaucratic side of the political fence since he went to work for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

  In a brief interview last week, Angelle said he couldn't comment on anything other than the legislative session, which wrapped up last Thursday. "I'm not going to consider anything right now," he said. "I can't take my eye off the ball for one second up here." A source close to Angelle adds, "Scott is being flooded with calls about this, but I'm not so sure he'd want to run against Downer."

  Which brings us down the bayou, where Downer, a Houma Republican and former speaker of the Louisiana House, said by phone last week that he found the situation "intriguing" and has been encouraged to get back in the game. One of the folks behind the drive believes Downer could be the candidate to protect the current district during reapportionment. That will be a major issue during next year's campaign.

  In 2003, Downer ran unsuccessfully against Blanco and went on to serve in her administration in various capacities, including as legislative liaison. "I'm flattered and it's something that I may be considering later," Downer said. "It's still a year away."

  Earlier this year, businesses in the Gonzales area tried to recruit Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, a Democrat, to run against Melancon, but at the time Wiley said it wasn't in the cards because of Melancon's strength. Elsewhere, state Rep. Nickie Monica, R-LaPlace, was courted by the National Republican Congressional Committee before the legislative session began. In an interview last month, Monica said he was gearing up and getting ready to run. Another name being mentioned in that part of the district is state Rep. Gary Smith, a Democrat from Norco.

  Whoever does run in the 3rd District next year will find it uniquely challenging. Not only will candidates have to campaign in three media markets, but they'll also have to pay attention to the outlying areas, because no one knows what the district might look like two years later.

  Melancon also would be wise to keep a hand in the congressional race. After all, just because he's looking at the U.S. Senate right now doesn't mean he won't change his mind again. He may yet need a place to land if Vitter manages to shake off Hookergate and defy his many critics before qualifying, which is more than a year away.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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