On Sept. 21, 1993, at a town hall meeting in Metairie, Louisiana, then-State Rep. David Vitter physically assaulted Mercedes Hernandez, one of his former political opponents, after she questioned his vote against killing a bill that would have protected gay and lesbian Louisianians against employment discrimination. According to recently resurfaced court documents, after a trial in 1997, Vitter was ultimately found liable and forced to pay the woman “$50 plus all costs and interest.”
Vitter satisfied the judgment on March 4, 1998, and the bizarre story, which also involves accusations of a political conspiracy concocted by two prominent Louisiana Republicans, largely disappeared, though it was once referenced in a 2004 article in Salon.
Hernandez claimed that Vitter “became agitated and enraged” after she began questioning his vote against tabling House Bill 1031, and rushed toward her, pushing aside chairs, and grabbing the portable tape recorder she was holding in her right hand. Although the court eventually ruled in her favor, the $50 judgment seems to reflect the belief that she had not been injured as a result of the assault (which, for the purposes of the law, is defined as any “unwanted touch”) and that she had exploited the incident for her own political gain. Quoting from Salon‘s 2004 article:
“The court finds that Mr. Vitter’s demeanor changed when he saw the tape recorder. He became angry, agitated and excited,” the judge wrote. “He thought Ms. Hernandez was using her question [about gay rights] as a ruse to ‘set him up’ and embarrass him.” But the judge also admonished Hernandez. “It appears that Ms. Hernandez was rather enjoying the political advantage she seemed to have perceived herself to have gained.” Hernandez, who is still active in Republican politics, did not return phone calls from Salon seeking comment.
Hours after the confrontation, Hernandez reached out to John Treen, the brother of former Louisiana Gov. Dave Treen, and they met the next day, along with “several other people, including Vincent Bruno.” Hernandez initially decided to file criminal charges against Vitter, and police were dispatched to her home at 1AM on Sept. 23rd. However, when police officers advised her that they would have to arrest Vitter in his home, she “then declined to swear out the complaint.” Instead, Hernandez went to the media and sued Vitter in civil court.
Vitter, for his part, believed that he was the victim of a political conspiracy. He countersued Hernandez, alleging, among other things, that she had caused him “mental anguish” by claiming he supported gay rights. He also wrote then-U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston, declining the Congressman’s invitation to support the East Jefferson Parish Republican PAC and informing him that the PAC’s leaders, specifically John Treen and Vincent Bruno, had colluded with Hernandez. “I can easily tolerate sincere disagreements with people,” Vitter wrote Livingston. “I can even tolerate serious disagreements which lead to litigation. But I will have nothing to do with people who pervert the judicial system to harass me, carry out a personal vendetta, and directly harm not only me but my wife and child as well.”
At the time, Vitter seemed particularly distraught by the notion that he had ever supported gay rights. Although he did, in fact, vote against tabling a bill that would have ended workforce discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, he never explained his motivation or intention. Some have speculated that Vitter’s vote was either cast in error or was procedurally misguided.
In his filings with the court, Vitter claimed, without a hint of irony, that the accusations he supported gay rights were “false, malicious, and damaging” and that they had caused him to suffer “mental anguish, deprived him of public confidence, and injured his reputation.”
The court had none of it.
Today, as Vitter campaigns to replace Bobby Jindal as Louisiana governor, his record is, once again, under the microscope.
Vitter, somewhat improbably, has already survived a career-ending prostitution scandal that stretched from Canal Street all the way to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. He’s successfully dodged scrutiny over keeping, on his payroll, a man who had attacked his girlfriend with a knife, a man Vitter assigned to work on “women’s issues.”
Vitter may have not injured Hernandez, but he most certainly lost his temper with her and acted inappropriately. No grand political conspiracy was ever proven. No one believed Vitter had suffered “mental anguish.” The case did, as Vitter said to Rep. Livingston, “languish” in the courts for several years, but Vitter ultimately lost.
Hernandez didn’t win much, but nonetheless, she still won.
The Vitter campaign has not yet responded to questions.