On Saturday night, during the disappointing LSU vs. Alabama football game (quite possibly, the most-watched television event of the year, every year, in Louisiana), Louisiana Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards debuted a campaign commercial many are already calling a “bomb” and a “sledgehammer.” On Sunday’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd called it, “the most vicious ad ever.”
This has already been a wild campaign season in Louisiana, arguably the wildest in the Great State since supporters of Edwin Edwards urged people to “Vote for the Crook” instead of the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, back in 1991.
Last month, Vitter barely emerged from the jungle primary, with only 23% of the vote, largely because he launched a scorched earth and fundamentally misleading campaign against his two main Republican challengers, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
On the first day of qualifying, a group of protestors (who appeared to be connected with Vitter’s campaign) showed up at the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office to challenge Angelle’s relationship with a major oil and gas company and to mock Dardenne for taking a trip to France. To be sure, there was at least one young man who showed up with the expressed intention of humiliating Vitter, a college student who dressed up in a diaper, a not-so-subtle reminder of the widespread and false rumors that Vitter had some sort of bizarre diaper fetish.
But make no mistake: Vitter, long considered to be the frontrunner, edged his way into the primary by lying about his Republican opponents. He remained almost completely silent about his Democratic challenger, John Bel Edwards, with the exception of one exchange he had at one of the only two televised debates he appeared in which he accused Edwards of being pro-abortion by mere virtue of the fact that Edwards is a Democrat who voted for the President.
Edwards, who has consistently claimed to be personally opposed to abortion, subsequently released a campaign commercial that made it abundantly clear Vitter was deceiving voters. In the ad, Edwards’s wife Donna tells the story about their daughter Samantha.
“I was 20 weeks pregnant with our first child when the doctor discovered she had spina bifida and encouraged me to have an abortion,” she says. “But John Bel never flinched. He just said, ‘No, we’re going to love this baby no matter what…. Samantha is getting married next spring. She’s living proof John Bel Edwards lives his values every day.”
There is no question that Edwards’s most recent campaign commercial, in which he accuses U.S. Sen. Vitter (then U.S. Rep. Vitter) of skipping a vote on a resolution honoring the sacrifice and service of 28 valiant veterans because he was too busy arranging a tryst with a sex worker, is jaw-dropping. The commercial pulls no punches. “David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots,” the ad claims, juxtaposing Vitter’s negligence and potential criminality with Edwards’s own military service.
Throughout the campaign, John Bel Edwards has repeatedly stated that he lives by the same honor code he once took and enforced as a student at West Point: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do.”
With this ad, he reminds voters he is equally serious about the second part of that oath: “or tolerate those who do.”
For most of his political career, David Vitter has relied on egregiously negative, misleading, and race-baiting tactics and commercials in an attempt to scare up votes.
In 1999, in his first race for Congress, Vitter’s opponent, fellow Republican and former governor Dave Treen, had held a narrow lead, and Vitter and Treen had both agreed to run positive, issues-based campaigns. But only a week before the election, Treen’s young nephew went missing during a hike in Oregon, and Treen decided to suspend his campaign in order to help lead a massive search and rescue effort. Quin Hillyer, a conservative columnist formerly of The Advocate, reflected on this fifteen years later. Quoting (bold mine):
Back in Louisiana, opponent David Vitter, a state representative, made the right noises about praying for Jason’s (Treen’s nephew) safety — but, behind the scenes, continued his own campaign, which included remarkably harsh attacks against the inoffensive Treen. Vitter was helped, with a wink and a nod, by Klansman David Duke, who in a clever bit of spite had “endorsed” his archenemy Treen while the Vitter campaign (allegedly; the evidence was compelling) blanketed black neighborhoods with flyers associating Treen with Duke.
Gov. Treen died in 2009, but his brother John, who ran and lost against David Duke for state representative in 1989, has never forgotten or forgiven David Vitter’s duplicity and his cynical (and alleged) alliance with the most famous white supremacist and neo-Nazi in the world. Indeed, it was John Treen who, back in 2004, told Salon about a prostitute named Wendy Cortez who claimed in 1999 to have an affair with Vitter. Quoting (bold mine):
Bruno, who declined to comment for this story, and John Treen interviewed the woman, who said she had worked under the name “Leah.”
But after nearly a year of regular paid assignations with Vitter, the lawmaker asked her to divulge her real name, according to Treen, citing the account he said she gave him. Her name was Wendy Cortez, Treen said. She said Vitter’s response was electric. “He said, ‘Oh, my God! I can’t see you anymore,” John Treen told me, citing the woman’s account to him and noting that Vitter’s wife is also named Wendy. And Wendy Vitter does not appear to be the indulgent type.
Wendy Cortez, now known as Wendy Ellis, recently reemerged, and this time, she is telling a much more lurid and disturbing story about her relationship with Sen. Vitter, some of which appears to be contradicted by previous statements she made to the media and to at least one judge who was considering a reduction in her 10-year prison sentence for violating the terms of her probation.
Regardless, it is notable that the public rumors about David Vitter’s dalliances with and predilections for prostitutes date back to at least 1999 and that Salon‘s story about John Treen’s accusations was published in 2004, three years before Vitter’s name surfaced on the D.C. Madam call log and the entire country learned, definitively, that these weren’t merely idle rumors.
In 2002, Vitter had been actively considering a bid for governor, but when Christopher Tidmore began investigating these rumors for a story on his website Louisiana Weekly, Vitter decided to bow out. Quoting again from Salon:
But shortly before the Louisiana Weekly was set to publish its story, he (Vitter) dropped out of the governor’s race, saying he needed to deal with marital problems. “Our [marriage] counseling sessions have … led us to the rather obvious conclusion that it’s not time to run for governor,” Vitter said at the time.
Two years later, in 2004, though, Vitter set his sights on a different seat and sailed to election to the U.S. Senate, primarily by presenting himself as a moral crusader for traditional conservative family values. Halfway through his first time, we learned that David Vitter did not practice what he preached. After his name and number were found on the D.C. Madam’s call log, he spent a week in seclusion, emerging at a press conference on the same exact day his Republican colleague in the House, Bobby Jindal, was announcing his campaign for governor only a few miles down the street.
Vitter miraculously weathered that storm. For the second half of his first term in the Senate, he faded into the background, quite deliberately. But when he ran for re-election in 2010, he understood he could not longer present himself as “Mr. Family Values,” despite all of his best efforts to reconcile with leaders of the religious right in Louisiana. “He went on a listening tour,” one Republican legislator told me, “and we wanted to believe he has asked for and received forgiveness.”
While Vitter may have been privately asking evangelical Republicans to forgive him for his “serious sin,” he attempted to completely ignore the scandal during his campaign for reelection. Instead, he ran an intensely negative and fear-based campaign. This was perhaps the most well-known commercial he ran in 2010, a blistering and xenophobic ad that was denounced by nationally prominent hispanic organizations:
Last month, in addition to all of the deceptive campaign commercials he ran against his Republican challengers, Vitter also launched an incendiary and false ad against John Bel Edwards, accusing him telling an audience at Southern University, an HBCU, of wanting to release 5,500 dangerous “thugs” back onto the streets. Edwards, it turns out, was merely talking about his desire to ensure Louisiana no longer led the country (and the world) in incarceration rates and was expressing his support for the bipartisan effort to reform the ways in which we sentence and treat non-violent drug offenders (an effort, by the way, Vitter himself also supports). The ad was a lie, a not-so-subtle dog whistle to white racists who are vehemently opposed to the African-American President.
Remember, only five years ago, David Vitter told a town hall meeting in Metairie that “he supports legal challenges investigating President Barack Obama’s place of birth.” In other words, during the height of the “birther” scandal, David Vitter was willing to lend credibility to the radically racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama had lied about the identity of his own mother for his entire life. This year, his gubernatorial campaign ran radio ads conflating the ongoing discussions about removing monuments and tributes glorifying the Confederacy and white supremacy with violent crime in New Orleans.
And now we know too that David Vitter’s campaign spent more than $130,000 in less than a year to follow and spy on private citizens who oppose him.
John Bel Edwards’s most recent ad was gutsy, and no doubt, some of his supporters (people who are going to vote for him regardless) would have preferred he remained completely positive. But John Bel Edwards needed to remind voters, in the plainest and most direct way possible, of the real and obvious distinctions between him and Sen. Vitter.
The second part of the Honor Code by which Edwards lives is, arguably, the most important: When you tolerate those who lie, cheat, and steal, you’re tacitly approving lying, cheating, and stealing. If a leader is to have integrity, he must do more than that. Leaders must be willing to call out others, particularly those beholden to the public trust, whenever they are dishonest and deceptive and especially when the dtakes are as high as they are now.
In my opinion, an ad can only legitimately be considered negative is if it’s untrustworthy, misleading, and intentionally deceptive. John Bel Edwards, in his most recent ad, told the truth, and David Vitter, to quote the movie A Few Good Men, simply “can’t handle the truth.” The truth, in fact, is the last thing he wants to discuss.