When he wasn't working on a series of federal recovery grants last week, Congressman Charlie Melancon was making sure all of his princesses received their gifts. Between making his daily calls to the party leadership, he also handled requests for ball tickets and hosted a breakfast for Beltway royalty. Even though Fat Tuesday was still a coconut's throw away, Melancon was clearly knee deep in the pageantry and pomp of Carnival.
The annual Washington Mardi Gras Ball, hosted by the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians (also known at the state's congressional delegation), is one of the hottest events in D.C. each year, drawing an ever-increasing crowd from the Bayou State.
Melancon, who doubled as this year's ball chairman, was taking every constituent meeting he could during the festivities. Sure, the annual ball is a big party, but the Democratic congressman would otherwise have had to travel back home to Napoleonville to find as many Louisianans in one place. Even Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican former congressman, sought a sit-down with Melancon and the rest of the delegation. It was an unusually busy few days, but Melancon seemed to enjoy himself. "I'm lucky my wife doesn't mind helping out with this," he said with a laugh during a 30-minute break from the mayhem.
While it was certainly a lot to handle in just a few days, the organized bedlam of this year's festivities was par for the course. Washington Mardi Gras is always a colorful clash of revelry, politicking and positioning. Melancon says there was something distinctly different this year. Citizens and advocacy groups, many from other districts, were approaching him for help on a variety of issues, and it wasn't because he was ball chairman. Among Louisiana Democrats, Melancon may be the last man standing.
In the Senate, David Vitter, a Metairie Republican, is still reeling from being linked to a prostitution ring. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat, will soon be consumed by her bid for re-election this year. In the House, things are even less settled. Jindal recently vacated his seat, and two veteran Republican congressmen Jim McCrery of Shreveport and Richard Baker of Baton Rouge announced their retirements not long ago. Meanwhile, Democrat Bill Jefferson of New Orleans faces a trial on corruption charges in late February.
All of which makes for a Beltway power drain the likes of which Louisiana has never seen before.
For his part, Melancon has a clean slate and plenty of upside potential on The Hill. He was lobbied hard to run for governor last year he demurred after little contemplation " and he says he's being encouraged to run against Vitter in 2010, although the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee isn't officially knocking at his door just yet. "For right now, I'm the congressman in the Third District," Melancon says. "I feel like I started a job following hurricanes Katrina and Rita and I want to finish that job."
Joshua Stockley, former president of the Louisiana Political Science Association and professor of government at Nicholls State University, says it's only a matter of time before the DSCC DOES come knocking. With Kathleen Blanco on the sidelines after a tumultuous term as governor and Bob Odom's "kingdom as agriculture commissioner" officially over, Stockley says Melancon is becoming the go-to Democrat when major Louisiana offices open up.
"There's also another scenario to watch," he adds. "If Louisiana voters decide to boot Mary Landrieu this fall, then Charlie Melancon will become the man you need to know, the top Democrat. Also, more windows of opportunity will open up for him if the Democrats maintain control of the House and a Democrat ends up in the White House."
While he doesn't dispute that the cards could fall favorably for Melancon, state Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere says he is confident that a Republican will take the White House this year. If that happens, he says Reps. Charles Boustany of Lafayette and Rodney Alexander of Quitman would stand to gain political ground, not Melancon. "For starters, Congressman Jefferson has more seniority than [Melancon] right now," Villere says. "I think everyone in the delegation has learned to depend on each other and work together, and I don't see any one person becoming "The Man" anytime soon. We don't really know the dynamics of this situation, either. These are unusual circumstances and Louisiana has never seen turnover like this before."
To a large extent, Melancon's perch in the catbird seat is the result of great timing, a bit of luck, and other people's misfortunes not his championing of headline-grabbing policy issues or some heavyweight committee assignments. Melancon also owes his good prospects to his own political prowess. While lawmakers with twice his years in office have yet to lead a congressional leadership team on a tour through their districts, Melancon has done so twice in his district since Katrina's landfall in 2005, and he formed solid coalitions in the process. He has befriended House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California a liberal by any definition without angering his conservative base in south Louisiana.
Politically, Melancon has styled himself as a 'Blue Dog Democrat" who preaches pay-as-you-go financing and stays to the right on social issues. If you ask him directly, he'll tell you as much and then paint a picture of America as a centrist country that demands that its two political parties work together. That strategy seems to be the key to his success so far. To hear Melancon tell it, his climb up the Beltway ladder of power isn't something that was premeditated or even sought. "If I'm the go-to guy for a while, then so be it," he says. "But honestly, I wish we weren't losing Jim McCrery and Richard Baker and everyone else. And when it's my time to go, I'll just go, too. But if I don't do it on my own, at least my wife will have the common sense to push me in the right direction."
Correction: In 'Picking the Prez" (News & Views, Jan. 22), a quote regarding the email campaign Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waged to garner favor with GOP delegates was incorrectly attributed to Alan Philip, Romney's regional political director. It should have been attributed to Travis Cummings, Romney's director in Louisiana.
- To a large extent, Melancon's perch in the catbird seat is the result of great timing, a bit of luck, and other people's misfortunes not his championing of headline-grabbing policy issues or some heavyweight committee assignments. Melancon also owes his good prospects to his own political prowess.