Last Friday, the day before the Louisiana jungle primary, U.S. Sen. David Vitter left the scene of a traffic accident in his hometown of Metairie. Vitter, a candidate for governor, was running late for a lunch appointment. The police said they’d question him later. I don’t know what caused Sen. Vitter’s driver, a staffer whose home address is also the address of Vitter’s SuperPAC, to run a red light and wreck, but I wonder if it has anything to do with another story that made headlines on Friday.
Robert Frenzel, a private investigator hired by the Vitter campaign, had just been arrested. Frenzel had been secretly recording a conversation between Newell Normand, the sheriff of Jefferson Parish, State Sen. Danny Martiny, John Cummings, a lawyer, and, believe it or not, another private investigator, Danny DeNoux, at a local coffeeshop. When confronted about the recording, Frenzel bolted. But instead of simply getting in his rental car and calmly driving away, he set out on foot. Like any other rational human being, Sheriff Normand thought this was a little suspicious, and because he’s the sheriff, he was able to get a few deputies to follow the guy. I first broke this story on Friday night, and since then, others have filled in the gaps.
The Advocate reported that Frenzel had been recording the sheriff’s “breakfast club,” but, as Jeffrey Bostick points out, the story is less like The Breakfast Club and more like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Frenzel allegedly trespassed through several places, hopping fences and running through backyards. Eventually, he was caught hiding behind someone’s air conditioning unit.
Totally not suspicious, right?
In 2004, Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post worried that Louisiana politics was “slipping into the monotony of the mainstream.” At the time, former four-term governor Edwin Edwards was still in prison. The state had recently elected a moderate Democrat, Kathleen Blanco, over a relatively unknown wunderkind. You can’t blame Yardley for his assessment, which was offered in the context of a tribute to A.J. Liebling’s uproarious and seminal book, The Earl of Louisiana, first published in 1960.
Back then, Louisiana politics was a bizarre curiosity, with its strange customs and cadence and even stranger characters. Earl Long, the governor and the subject of Liebling’s book, had just been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Then, somehow, using his power as governor, he managed to get himself released. Liebling was in Louisiana to cover Uncle Earl’s comeback campaign for Congress. Earl won, by the way, and then died only a few days later.
In 2004, I imagine things in Louisiana seemed boring by comparison.
But ten years after Hurricane Katrina and five years after the BP oil spill, there is nothing monotonous or mainstream about Louisiana politics. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American who was raised as a Hindu, was that wunderkind who lost in 2003. Today, Gov. Jindal is running a quixotic campaign for president, framing himself as an anti-immigration, evangelical Christian conservative. Edwin Edwards is now out of prison. He’s 88, recently married to a woman in her thirties, and together, they have a son, Eli, who turned two last week. Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans and a man who became nationally famous during the storm, is now in prison, and so too is former Congressman William Jefferson, who was caught with $90,000 in bribe money in his freezer. If he were still alive, A.J. Liebling would be pleased to know that Louisiana politics still makes for great material.
On Saturday night, sadly, Mike “Chicken Commander” Boyter came up short in his campaign for state representative, but there is some good news. Mac “Rooster Lips” Edmonston narrowly edged his way into a runoff for Ascension Parish Council. And yes, both nicknames appeared on the official ballot.
But “Chicken Commander” and “Rooster Lips” weren’t the story of the night. The story was that David Vitter only captured 23% of the vote and that John Bel Edwards, a Democrat (gasp), had somehow finished in first by double digits, with 40%. This was never supposed to happen. Louisiana is supposed to be a red state. David Vitter, the two-term senior United States Senator, was supposed to finish first by a wide margin.
One year ago, David Vitter was the most popular elected official in Louisiana, and he was, at the time, the frontrunner for governor by double digits. No one seriously thought a Democrat could win against the juggernaut Vitter campaign. But Saturday’s results shouldn’t really come as a surprise. David Vitter may have once been popular, only because he was vaguely familiar and distant enough. But among people in the business, including the current Republican governor and lieutenant governor, David Vitter is loathed. Even though he is a career politician, Vitter paints himself as an outsider willing to upset the political establishment.
To those who actually have worked with him in Louisiana, however, Vitter is described more like a dangerous and paranoid megalomaniac, an undeniably smart man but a man whose personality and past alienates others. Brent Furer, the disgraced former staffer who resigned after being accused of stabbing and choking his girlfriend, isn’t the only Vitter employee with a criminal record. To be sure, there is no Vitter mafia, only a very small cadre of angry, drunk white men who are both loyal and dimwitted. No one wants to work with these people in the Capitol, at least no one among those who actually have to work in the Capitol (other than the lobbyist Jimmy Burland, who stupidly and publicly begged other lobbyists to donate the maximum to the Vitter campaign during the run-off. Burland, who probably should be ashamed of his blatant pay-to-play stunt, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).
This is why Vitter performed so poorly on Saturday and why he is expected to lose in November: He’s disliked, not because he’s righteously disruptive (he’s actually the least effective Senator in the country), but because he’s made himself toxic by aligning with shakedown artists, domestic abusers, serial criminals, and bigots.
A few hours after the private investigator was arrested, David Vitter issued a statement. He wanted the public to know he was not spying on Sheriff Normand. He was spying on the lawyer, John Cummings. He claimed he was spying on Cummings merely because Cummings was a donor to the Democratic candidate, John Bel Edwards. I’d suggest something else. I believe David Vitter hired and paid someone $130,000 to spy on John Cummings, a private citizen, because David Vitter is absolutely terrified about what John Cummings knows. Vitter would be wise to heed the advice of A.J Liebling. Quoting from The Earl of Louisiana:
“It is unusual for a candidate to win first time around, and if one does he arouses a certain amount of resentment as a spoilsport. After the first primary, each beaten candidate and his backers trade off their support to one of the two men who are still alive, in exchange for what he will bind himself to do for them in the way of legislation, patronage or simple commercial advantage. Naturally, the runoff candidate who looks more likely to win can buy support at lower political prices than the other fellow, but by trying to drive too hard a bargain he may send the business to the underdog. Many a man has beaten himself that way. A Louisiana politician can’t afford to let his animosities carry him away, and still less his principles, although there is seldom difficulty in that department.”