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Louisiana Special Looms

Tauzin’s Expected Retirement Has Would-Be Successors Mobilizing

With Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) expected to step down from his 3rd district seat in the near future, state Rep. Hunt Downer (R), fresh off an unsuccessful 2003 gubernatorial bid, is seen as the leading candidate to replace him.

Tauzin chaired Downer’s campaign and the two are longtime friends; both initially elected as Democrats, they were roommates during their time together in the state Legislature.

Downer has served for nearly three decades in the state House and was Speaker from 1996 to 2000. He took just 6 percent in the open primary for governor earlier this month.

One rumor making the rounds on Capitol Hill during the campaign was that Tauzin’s strong support for Downer was predicated on a promise from Downer that when Tauzin left Congress, Downer would skip a run for his seat in favor of Tauzin’s son, Billy III, a lobbyist in Louisiana with BellSouth.

But according to several knowledgeable Republican sources Tuesday, Downer is now Tauzin’s first choice to replace him, and the Louisiana Republican has gone so far as to contact Downer about the impending opening. Republicans believe that Tauzin is likely to endorse Downer.

Downer did not return calls for comment.

Although Tauzin’s office has fought back rumors of his departure for months, the whispering has grown louder and more persistent in recent days that he will soon accept the job as the head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

That talk has set off a scramble among would-be candidates in the south-central Louisiana district to stake a claim in the event that Tauzin departs.

American Sugar Cane Association President Charlie Melancon said in an interview Tuesday night that he intended to run for the seat if Tauzin steps down.

Melancon served in the state House from 1987 to 1993 when he resigned to take his current post. Before his political career he was in insurance and also owned several Baskin-Robbins stores. Melancon was also a major force in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-La.) runoff victory in December 2002, according to Democratic sources.

State Rep. Gary Smith (D), who is also mentioned, said Tuesday the seat is “something that we entertain and are definitely interested in.”

Smith was first elected to the state House in 1993 and was just re-elected. His grandfather is the treasurer of the state party, perhaps giving him an institutional and financial leg up in a primary.

Smith said the timing of the race would be crucial to his decision.

“As of now Billy is the only one who knows when that will be,” he said.

State Sen. Reggie Dupre (D) said he was “interested” in the race but said that if Downer ran he “probably would not.”

“Here in Louisiana we are pretty nonpartisan,” explained Dupre. “We served together in the Legislature.”

Melancon, Smith and Napoleonville attorney Jane Triche make up the first tier of potential Democratic candidates, state party sources said, while Dupre and state Rep. Troy Hebert are considered secondary options for the party. Triche was a Louisiana delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Another name in the mix is state Rep. Carla Darthez (D), although it is not clear whether she would run as a Democrat or a Republican.

The timeline for Tauzin’s departure could play a major role in how competitive a likely special election becomes.

State and national Republicans indicated Tuesday that Tauzin will make no announcement prior to the Nov. 15 gubernatorial runoff between Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) and former Health and Human Services Department official Bobby Jindal (R), or before the completion in Congress of the energy bill, which is currently in conference committee.

After those two events, even Republicans admit that they have little idea when the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee will step down.

Under Louisiana law, the governor has full authority to declare vacancies for the U.S. House and to set the dates for a primary and general election.

A potential nightmare scenario for Republicans is if Blanco is elected governor, Tauzin steps down and the special election is called for March 9, 2004, the same day as the Bayou State’s Democratic presidential primary.

That would drive Democratic turnout and, given Louisiana’s open primary system, could place two Democrats in a runoff.

Under the state’s election rules, all candidates for the seat would compete in the primary, with the top two votegetters — regardless of party — advancing to a runoff.

On its face, the district is competitive between the parties.

President Bush would have won 52 percent in the 2000 election, his second worst showing in the state’s seven Congressional districts. Rep. William Jefferson’s New Orleans-based majority-minority 2nd district would have given Bush just 22 percent.

Tauzin has held the seat easily since being elected in a 1980 special election and in spite of his party switch in early 1995.

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