Mobilizing Begins in Louisiana 3rd

Both Parties to Run Top-Tier Contenders For Open-Seat Race

Posted January 27, 2004 at 5:45pm

With Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) expected to leave Congress for the lobbying world in the next few months, several would-be candidates are beginning to put together campaign organizations to run either in a special election or an open-seat race in November.

Although Tauzin’s office maintained that his departure is not imminent, Tauzin plans to back state Rep. Hunt Downer (R) to replace him in the 3rd district when he retires, “whether that be in three months or three years,” according to a Tauzin spokesman.

Downer said that he “hoped [Tauzin] does not step down,” but added that he was “flattered to have his support.”

Downer said that “as a courtesy and out of respect for [Tauzin], if he does step down I am strongly considering running.”

All of the back and forth has made it difficult for would-be candidates to take major steps forward, even as the state’s political chattering class continues to analyze every word of Tauzin’s pronouncements regarding his future.

“The talk is so high here in Billy’s district and with the people who are paying attention to politics,” said state Rep. Gary Smith (D), who is considering a run of his own. “I get more people asking me about it than me asking them.”

Tauzin’s willingness to wade in on Downer’s behalf ends speculation that his son — Billy III, a lobbyist with BellSouth in Louisiana — was being groomed for the race.

The Louisiana Member chaired Downer’s 2003 gubernatorial effort, a race in which he placed a distant fifth. The two were also roommates during their time together in the state Legislature.

“Billy and I go a long way back,” said Downer. “We share so much in common.”

Toward the end of Downer’s gubernatorial run, he concentrated almost exclusively on this southeastern Louisiana district, which fueled speculation he was laying the groundwork for a future Congressional race.

He said Tuesday he has not yet formed an exploratory committee or put in place any sort of organization for a Congressional run and will not do so until Tauzin makes a “final decision.”

The district is seen as competitive between the parties. President Bush would have won 52 percent there in the 2000 election, his second-worst showing in the state’s seven Congressional districts.

Among Democrats, American Sugar Cane Association President Charlie Melancon has been most aggressive in his preparation for a run, having already interviewed campaign consultants, according to an informed Democratic source.

“Charlie is the most active out of any potential candidate,” said Smith. “He has talked about forming an [exploratory] committee.”

While Melancon is seen as the preferred candidate of national Democrats, Smith, along with Napoleonville attorney Jane Triche and St. John Parish President Nick Monica, are also considering the race.

“I am planning to have a decision by mid-February,” said Triche, whose father, Pappy, was a longtime state legislator and was widely viewed as Tauzin’s political mentor. Triche is also close to 2nd district Rep. William Jefferson (D), with whom she has spoken about a potential bid.

Tauzin’s apparent indecision about whether he will leave Congress to take a post as the head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association is just the latest step in an ongoing political tap dance about the Congressman’s future.

Tauzin recently turned down an offer to serve as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, a position for which he had long been rumored to be in line.

Melancon appears to have the early jump on the Democratic nomination. He served in the state House from 1987 to 1993, when he resigned to take his current post as the leading lobbyist for the state’s sugarcane industry.

Melancon has stayed politically active, playing a crucial role in Sen. Mary’s Landrieu’s (D) 2002 runoff victory over then-state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell (R). He did not return calls for comment.

Despite Melancon’s advantages, both Smith and Triche are well-regarded in Bayou State political circles.

Triche said Tuesday that she has secured some financial commitments and put in place a rough organization, although she would not reveal specifics when pressed.

“I have talked to some people that have been very encouraging,” she said. “A lot of people have sought me out.”

Triche has never before run for political office, but she said she is weighing the race because “a woman’s perspective is sorely needed in Congress.”

Triche is being encouraged to run by EMILY’s List, a powerful organization that provides financial backing to Democratic female candidates who favor abortion rights.

While the fundraising prowess of EMILY’s List would be a major boon, the support of such a high-profile abortion-rights group might backfire on Triche in this heavily Catholic district.

Smith said that he has yet to establish a “formal committee” for the race and is instead “feeling the vibe from the district.”

First elected to the state House in 1993, Smith has close ties to the state party. His grandfather is the treasurer of the organization, which some observers speculate could give him an institutional and financial boost over the other Democrats.

He said Tuesday that a Melancon candidacy would not affect his decision-making process.

“We need to put together the best Democratic candidates to try and take the seat back,” Smith said. “Other Democrats in the race would not deter me.”

Amid all of this uncertainty, one fact is clear: Tauzin will not resign his seat prior to the state’s March 9 presidential primary.

That was seen as the nightmare scenario for Republicans, as the lively Democratic presidential contest would have driven turnout in this tossup district and given Democrats the potential of using Louisiana’s open primary system to place two of their own in a runoff for the seat.

Under Louisiana law, Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) has full authority to declare vacancies for the U.S. House and to set the dates for a primary and general election. After March 9, the next election day in the state is April 17. Typically, special elections are scheduled to coincide with previously established election days to defray costs.