Fire Starters

It was only a matter of time before John Kennedy and Mary Landrieu crossed swords, but few guessed it would happen over the issues of earmarks and teachers.


At the request of a New Orleans teacher with Democratic ties, the Louisiana Board of Ethics may be looking into whether GOP state Treasurer John Kennedy is having state employees work on his campaign for the U.S. Senate, either directly or indirectly. But Chris Stowe-Serge is probably better known for cracking the squeaky-clean veneer of Gov. Bobby Jindal by exposing his only campaign finance violation to the ethics board earlier this year.

Now Stowe-Serge says Kennedy shouldn't be pushing legislation on the treasurer's Web site that seeks to have elected officials assist public school teachers in the classroom. He contends a state employee had to post the "campaign rhetoric on the site, through a press release," thus doing the bidding of Kennedy's campaign. "This has nothing to do with his job as state treasurer," says Stowe-Serge.

The treasurer's press release went out on April 23 in support of a bill by House Education Chair Don Trahan, a fellow Republican from Lafayette. Two days later, an email blast was sent out from the campaign noting the endorsement and providing a link to the press release. "This is absolutely, positively, perfectly legal. It's silly is what it is," says Leonardo Alcivar, the Kennedy campaign's communications director.

True to form — and law — Ethics Administrator Richard Sherburne Jr. would not confirm if Stowe-Serge's request had been received or acted upon. Even if he wanted to do so, Sherburne is duty-bound not to confirm whether an ongoing investigation is questioning Kennedy about intent or a state employee about instructions provided by management.

It may indeed be political silliness, the kind that keeps operatives well-fed and paid, but it's also further evidence of the headaches press releases have caused Kennedy in his effort to gear up for his race against 12-year incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat. In March, the treasurer issued a press release supporting an earmark reform bill by Republican state Rep. Dan "Blade" Morrish of Jennings, which was filed for the current session.

Morrish says he alone drafted the bill and added that he hadn't heard from Kennedy the "entire session." Still, the Louisiana chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a Washington nonprofit, spent $200,000 on radio ads touting Kennedy's support for the legislation. AFP likewise dropped a mailer doing the same, only with Kennedy's mug near a headshot of Ronald Reagan. It's the sort of pairing that would have sunk Kennedy's 2004 Senate run, when he was a liberal Democrat running against Republican David Vitter. Today, though, it makes perfect sense.

In an April interview regarding the press release, Kennedy said he was planning to testify on behalf of Morrish's bill when it came up for committee debate. But when the legislation had its scheduled hearing last week, Morrish flew solo and complained to the committee that his bill was being politicized. It failed along party lines.

Alcivar says Kennedy was in Baton Rouge for the hearing, but didn't want to impair its chances by showing up. "When you're talking about playing politics with a good-government bill, it doesn't make sense to further that."

Landrieu and Co. spent the next 48 hours celebrating by taking jabs at Kennedy through their own press releases. "John Kennedy doesn't even have a vote in the Legislature, and he still killed this bill," says Landrieu campaign spokesman Scott Schneider. "He uses his office to further his political career, even at the expense of sabotaging legislation that would help put Louisiana on the path to reform."

It was a sure sign that earmarks as a political issue were being turned upside-down. Good-government groups lashed out at Landrieu this year for securing a $2 million earmark for the Voyager reading program after she received $30,000 in campaign contributions linked to company officials. Now she's the source of talking points that proudly promote the millions of dollars the senator has secured for Louisiana over the years, particularly after Hurricane Katrina.

It's a fundamental debate on the good and bad that come from so-called pork-barrel spending, the power of a veteran lawmaker to reach into the federal budget and tap a pot of dollars for her own state or pet programs. After all, one lawmaker's hot air balloon race is another's drainage project. For Alcivar, the issue is much more definitive, however. "Sen. Landrieu has a clear, 12-year record in staunch defense of earmarks," he says. "We wish her good luck with that."

Of course, earmarks and teachers with ethics complaints won't be the only issues in this fall's election. A great deal more will compete for voters' attention, no doubt. Meanwhile, for those who like the horserace aspect of elections, the Evans-Novak Political Report, which normally has a conservative bent, has Landrieu as an odds-on favorite to win following "another (GOP) recruitment failure." On the other hand, Charlie Cook, a non-partisan political handicapper, recently rated the seat as merely "lean Dem." A May 28 poll by Rasmussen Reports, a leading pollster, had Landrieu leading by only three points. In short, the field is still in gallop.

For now, the jury is still out on the presumed ethics investigation, and AFP has pulled its ads touting Kennedy and the earmark legislation. Still, these developments are noteworthy because they mark the opening salvo of this highly anticipated Senate election. What happens next is up to the candidates — and the voters.

The race is on between U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and State Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican who wants her seat in Congress. Although political observers predict Landrieu will prevail, they indicate it should be a lively contest.
  • The race is on between U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and State Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican who wants her seat in Congress. Although political observers predict Landrieu will prevail, they indicate it should be a lively contest.

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