Late this morning, only a couple of hours before the kickoff of the LSU and Auburn game, Sen. David Vitter launched three new campaign commercials. Vitter has out-raised all of his opponents for governor by a substantial margin and has been widely expected to use his campaign fortune, primarily, on television. Earlier this month, at a candidate forum, State Rep. John Bel Edwards, the Democratic challenger, joked, “David, it is especially nice to see you (at this event).” The Senator had been absent from previous forums and had been, up until that point, running a relatively low-key campaign. “Just turn on the TV, John Bel,” Vitter responded. “You’ll see me there all the time.”
If the campaign commercials launched by Sen. Vitter today are any indication, Louisiana will soon be inundated with thinly-veiled racist attack ads, targeting his Republican challengers and largely intended to shore up Vitter’s white conservative base. Perhaps this should not be too surprising. Sen. Vitter has already written a series of open letters for The Hayride, a regularly discredited conservative online tabloid, and invested in radio ads urging New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to scrap his proposal to remove public monuments glorifying the Confederacy and white supremacy, arguing that Landrieu, merely by jump-starting a discussion on these monuments, is somehow neglecting violent crime. The conflation of these two issues, as I’ve previously argued, is a dog whistle.
Racist campaigns, unfortunately, are still effective in Louisiana. In 2003, Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial campaign team privately blamed his defeat on racism in North Louisiana; they spent the next several years aggressively courting rural and suburban white voters and far-right religious conservatives, and it worked.
Congressman Steve Scalise once bragged to reporter Stephanie Grace that he was “David Duke without the baggage,” a statement that gained national attention after I reported about his attendance at a 2002 white supremacist convention. And speaking of David Duke: In 1990, when he ran for U.S. Senate against J. Bennett Johnston, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan won 60% of the white vote. A year later, in his bid for governor and with the eyes of the world on Louisiana, Duke received 55% of the white vote.
24 years later, Louisiana is still home to hundreds of thousands of people who supported both the senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns of the county’s most outspoken, virulent, and well-known white supremacist. And ten years after the Hurricane Katrina diaspora, there are now 100,000 more white people in Louisiana and only 10,000 more African-Americans. “The (Louisiana) Democrats’ margin of victory is living in the Astrodome,” an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation quipped a few days after the storm.
David Vitter was first elected to public office, as a state representative, in 1992. His predecessor in District 81? David Duke. By all accounts, the two men cannot stand one another. When Mayor Mitch Landrieu pointed out that Duke and Vitter were on the same side of the Confederate memorial issue, Vitter returned fire. “Rather than taking strong, bold action on the out-of-control crime problem, however, you send out a hateful email to create a distraction and play the race card,” he wrote to Landrieu. “It attacks and insults not just me, but countless concerned citizens who feel as I do. That’s not leadership, it’s pure political cynicism.” The letter, ironically, was published in The Hayride underneath an altered image of Landrieu dressed as a bearded Muslim terrorist. According to Sen. Vitter, mentioning David Duke, his Republican predecessor in the state House of Representatives, is playing “the race card” and “political cynicism,” but dressing up the Mayor as a foreign terrorist and defending monuments honoring white supremacy somehow qualifies as civil discourse.
The truth, as the Senator made abundantly clear with his three new television commercials, is that he is much more like David Duke than he possibly realizes. As Steve Scalise may say, David Vitter is David Duke with different baggage.
The first ad, “Back to Work,” recycles the usual tired tropes about welfare abuse.
“Food stamp fraud in Louisiana is extensive,” the ad blares, quoting State Treasurer John Kennedy. How extensive is it? According to Kennedy’s own numbers, there are 900,000 Louisiana citizens who receive food stamps. Of those 900,000, 322 earned too much to qualify; 1,761 people in jail received food stamps (their incarceration does not necessarily mean they are disqualified); 84 drug felons were able to get food stamps; 1,573 people received assistance in Louisiana and in another state, and 3,060 recipients spent most of their benefits in another state (likely because they live near the border of another state).
That’s a grand total of 6,800 people.
How extensive is food stamp fraud in Louisiana? It’s less than 1% (0.75%, to be precise).
Kennedy and Vitter’s talking point isn’t really about food stamp fraud, though. It’s about reflexively opposing government programs intended to economically benefit and assist poor and predominately minority citizens. It’s about stoking the resentment of middle-class and upper-middle class white voters, and ultimately, much like the phantom menace of voter fraud, it’s about marginalizing and politically silencing poor people and minorities.
Vitter’s second ad, titled “Dangerous,” attacks Republican challenger and Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, accusing him of being a liberal, of “voting for abortion” six times (a specious and false claim, considering the Supreme Court settled this issue 42 years ago), and of voting in favor of tax increases 21 times (also a specious and false claim).
Most astonishingly, David Vitter claims Lt. Gov. Dardenne, as a member of the Louisiana State Senate, voted in favor of a bill that allows illegal immigrants to come to Louisiana “to take our jobs.”
Vitter is referring to Senate Bill 753 from 2006. Go read the bill. It, in no way, promotes the influx of illegal immigration. In fact, the bill actually sets up a mechanism in which state agencies can issue cease and desist orders and fines against employers who hire illegal immigrants. That’s what Jay Dardenne voted in favor of.
But again, this really isn’t about the facts for Sen. Vitter; it’s about stoking resentment against black and brown-skinned minorities, in this case, Hispanics and Mexicans. Lt. Gov. Dardenne never supported illegal immigration, but the Vitter campaign needs to talk about black and brown-skinned people if they are to win; the facts don’t really matter.
In the third ad, “Twins,” Vitter goes after his other Republican rival, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. Angelle, the ad claims, is just like Barack Obama. How? Scott Angelle was, for most of his life, a Democrat, and as it turns out, he sometimes showed up to vote in elections, which, apparently, is an act of sedition.
Angelle, Vitter claims, increased government spending by 92%, an outrageous claim made even more outrageous when you discover that Vitter is actually referring to the fact that Angelle, as the head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, was merely administering federal grants. That’s why expenditures were up: His department was the beneficiary of $90 million in grant money.
But Vitter’s distortion of the facts does not end there. He also claims that Angelle, as a Public Service Commissioner, voted in favor of a resolution to bring “Obamaphones” to Louisiana. The term “Obamaphone,” for those who may be unfamiliar, refers to a government program, established under President Reagan, that subsidizes phones for the indigent, the elderly, and the poor. It’s a thirty-year-old program that was created by a Republican President but has recently been rebranded by conservative pundits after the current President, who, incidentally, looks nothing like Ronald Reagan. This rebranding, no doubt, was informed by racial animosity and the idiotic and racist belief, perpetuated in the far-right fringes of the Internet, that black folks are receiving free phones from the black President. David Vitter is happy to play ball.
Angelle, though, didn’t actually vote in favor of anything related to the phone program. In July, on the same day the White House revealed an innovative public-private partnership aimed at developing broadband infrastructure in low-income communities, Scott Angelle, as a member of the Public Service Commission, voted in favor of a resolution urging the federal government to bring the program to Monroe.
The pilot program is launching in twenty-seven cities and one tribal nation and will initially reach over 275,000 low-income households – and nearly 200,000 children – with the support they need to access the Internet at home. Internet Service Providers, non-profits and the private sector will offer broadband access, technical training, digital literacy programs, and devices for residents in assisted housing units.
David Vitter is opposed to that. David Vitter, who recently sent this mailer out, bragging about how much federal money he has brought back to Louisiana…:
I wonder why that is.
When David Duke ran for governor in 1991, he had a clever way of concealing his racism in coded language. He spoke about welfare fraud, about the scourge of violent crime in New Orleans, about the outrage of illegal immigration. By that time, though, he had stopped talking about Confederate monuments. That’d be too obvious.