Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Charlie Melancon enters the ring, challenging David Vitter

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Charlie Melancon may be the first major political candidate from Louisiana to announce a bid for office from his dining room table. That all of his supporters, the state's media and other political onlookers were able to fit into his charming Napoleonville home was even more remarkable. But that, as they say, is the magic of the Internet.

  Last week, Melancon told the world via email that he would challenge U.S. Sen. David Vitter. His message also provided a link to a YouTube video posted on his campaign's site.

  Click. (Cue piano) "Hello. My name is Charlie Melancon. I'm a businessman who's been an ambassador for our state's sugar industry and I've owned and run several successful businesses. I'm a proud family man, the father of two great children, and Peachy and I celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary just last week."

  Peachy didn't enter the frame with a tray of fried catfish or Natchitoches meat pies, but it would have been a nice touch. The video, however, does play into the image of Melancon that his GOP opposition has floated recently: that of a detached U.S. congressman who's avoiding town hall meetings.

  Meanwhile Vitter, a Republican from Metairie whom Melancon will face next fall, is in the trenches and holding one public meeting after another — sort of. He has certainly conductd more than a dozen face-to-face gatherings around the state, but he has carefully choreographed them by having his staff pre-screen questions from the audience — no doubt to avoid or at least minimize potential questions about his connection to a Beltway-based prostitution ring that was run by a madam who killed herself last year. When questions about the sex scandal arise, Vitter obliquely says that he has admitted his transgressions and apologized for them — and obtained forgiveness from his wife. Critics say he has never fully fessed up to the nature of his "serious sin."

  Then there's Melancon. Here and elsewhere, Congress is in the throes of its most volatile recess in memory, thanks to President Barack Obama's controversial health care reform plans. Melancon held regular town hall meetings in the past, but offered only telephone town hall meetings this summer. Voters had to dial in to participate.

  Melancon has every reason to be weary of town hall meetings. Earlier this year, The Daily Iberian wrote of one contentious gathering: "U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon 'took a beating' from a crowd of fiery residents Thursday night as he defended his recent voting record on several bills in Congress, including the economic stimulus package, corporate bailouts and the federal budget."

  Here's another account, just last week, from The Houma Courier: "More than 200 people protested proposals for national health-care reform [in front of Melancon's district office and] there were chants of 'We want Charlie,' 'Chicken Charlie' and 'Where is Charlie?'"

  Robin Winchell, Melancon's D.C. spokesperson, says the congressman was never informed of or invited to the event. Winchell also issued a prepared statement from Melancon about his whereabouts: "This August, I have been driving around south Louisiana, attending dozens of public events and meeting people where they are — at festivals, Rotary Club meetings, schools and community centers — and listening to what they have to say." Information obtained from Melancon's scheduler confirmed such events, practically on a daily basis during the entire recess.

  Nonetheless, Melancon's opponents are already beating the drum and calling him an absent candidate, charges that dogged even Gov. Bobby Jindal during his 2007 gubernatorial campaign. If town hall meetings matter, they appear to be boosting Vitter's image, energizing his base and contrasting him to Melancon. Louisiana voters, particularly Democrats, needed to see Melancon announce in public, on a sunny August day with as many people around him as possible. He's not the incumbent in this race, and he shouldn't act like one, says Joshua Stockley of Thibodaux, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, who has extensive knowledge of the district.

  On the other hand, Stockley says Melancon's decision to announce via the Web ("it's cheap and accessible"), coupled with a strategy of steering clear of town hall meetings, shows the campaign's skill at "crafting an image and controlling the setting," even if it could potentially backfire. "Charlie Melancon has been very visible in the district recently without holding town hall meetings, which is perhaps a good strategy," Stockley says. "A lot of the town hall meetings being held right now are very animated and anti-health care, and while Melancon hasn't endorsed Obama's plan, there's a risk that the cameras would roll on the anti-health care sentiment and the viewers would interpret that as anti-Melancon sentiment."

  If Melancon's low profile represents a strategy, it's probably a short-term approach. Sources close to both campaigns suggest the mud could start flying later this month when lawmakers reconvene in Washington. To be fair, Vitter has had his own public meeting problems. Last week he was asked not to address a Metairie Tea Party event that he had partly billed as his own.

  No doubt that's small potatoes compared to what Democrats have in store for Vitter. The subtext in Melancon's announcement made it clear that he'll hit Vitter where it hurts. After all, a "family man," as Melancon calls himself in the video press release, would never do some of the things Vitter has (sort of) admitted.

  "Louisiana needs a different approach," Melancon says in the video. "More bi-partisan. More disciplined. More honest and with a whole lot more common sense."

  Get used to hearing that message. It will mark the end of Melancon's low profile — and the beginning of a long, hard fight for Vitter's seat.

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

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