The Vitter End

Senator David Vitter easily defeated retired state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor and physician Nick J. Accardo in the August 28 Louisiana Republican primary. Both candidates had little money and little name recognition. But the one-term senator goes into the fall campaign with a number of political sins hanging around his neck. They include ties to disgraced former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, accounts of relationships with prostitutes, and allowing a staffer to continue to work despite his criminal activities.

Vitter sells himself as a family-values conservative, and opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control. His campaign against Democratic Congressman Charlie Melançon will test how much “serious sin” and scandal the voters of Louisiana will tolerate. The state’s electoral history has found Louisiana voters to be more tolerant than most.

Vitter was a state representative when he won the election to replace Republican Congressman Bob Livingston. Livingston had been elected to replace House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the impeachment hearings of Bill Clinton began in 1999. Livingston resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair, urging Bill Clinton to resign because of his infidelity. As a congressman, Vitter also argued that Clinton should resign.

In 2004 Vitter was elected to the Senate. By 2007 there were allegations that he was whoring around — specifically, the claim by New Orleans madam Jeanette Maier that Vitter was a regular at her Canal St. brothel. Vitter denied Maier’s claims. Harder to deny was the fact that his phone number appeared five times in the business records of “D.C. madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, a story that also broke in 2007.

Palfrey publicly confirmed that Vitter had been a client. In response, Vitter went into seclusion for 10 days. He resurfaced and, with his family standing with him, apologized:

“This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there — with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way.”

CASINO CONNECTION—Vitter confessed nothing about his connection to Jack Abramoff. Though he claimed he met Abramoff only once, his ties to the former lobbyist might be closer.

Vitter held a fundraiser at Abramoff’s restaurant in September 2003, but didn’t pay for the event until the news broke that Abramoff was under investigation. In April 2005, Vitter informed the Federal Elections Commission that Signatures, an upscale D.C. restaurant, had failed to charge his credit card for a 2003 fundraiser for 16 people that had cost $1,846 — and that he had now taken care of the bill. Signatures (now closed) was owned by Abramoff.

Two months after the fundraiser, according to Roll Call, Vitter inserted a provision into an Interior Department spending bill for one of Abramoff’s clients, the Coushatta Indian Tribe of Louisiana, in an attempt to keep the Jena Band of the Choctaws from building a casino close to the Coushattas’ casino and hotel in Vinton, Louisiana. Vitter also wrote several letters to then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton in opposition to the Jena Band’s casino application.

Vitter and Abramoff got what they wanted when the Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the Jena application. Vitter said his involvement was motivated by his longstanding opposition to the expansion of gambling and was not connected to Abramoff.

Abramoff was recently released from prison after pleading guilty in January 2006 to corrupting public officials and tax evasion, in connection with a scheme to fleece Native American tribes, including the Coushattas. Vitter’s primary opponents largely ignored Abramoff and focused on Vitter’s seamier side.

Late in the primary campaign came the revelations about the criminal history of former Vitter aide Brent Furer. While the senator said he knew about Furer’s series of DWI arrests, he claimed to know nothing about the aide’s pleading guilty to cutting a woman, holding her hostage, and threatening to kill her. Despite the criminal convictions, Vitter allowed Furer, who dealt with women’s issues for the senator, to remain on the payroll until earlier this summer. Once Furer’s criminal past was made public, he resigned. After Furer’s resignation, it was revealed that Vitter had allowed him to use office funds to travel back and forth from Washington to Louisiana to make court appearances. The pastor of the Louisiana church where Furer twice performed court-ordered community service (for his DWI convictions) now works for Vitter in Louisiana.

Chet Traylor ran a radio spot that claimed that Vitter was corrupt, battered a woman, cavorted with two prostitutes and allowed Furer to work despite a criminal history that included “slashing his girlfriend’s face with a knife.”

Vitter threatened to sue. Roy Fletcher, the Baton Rouge political consultant who ran Traylor’s campaign, told a Baton Rouge Advocate reporter that in his threat to sue, Vitter said nothing about the prostitutes described in the ad.

While running in the Republican primary, Vitter was also campaigning against his Democratic opponent. But he doesn’t have much in the way of mud to sling at Charlie Melançon, who was elected to the U.S. House in 2004.

He claims Melançon has close ties to President Obama, who is a liability in oil-stained Louisiana because of the BP disaster. And that Melançon voted in favor of the Wall Street bailout and used taxpayer money to buy an expensive sport utility vehicle. He also attacked Melançon for supporting Obama’s six-month deepwater-drilling moratorium in the Gulf, which is not accurate.

MESSAGE TO MELANÇON—Fletcher said that Vitter was the least desirable of the Republican candidates, but that Traylor got into the race late and had difficulty raising money.

“If a candidate could spend a year to raise money and his image then he would be a serious candidate,” said Fletcher, who has worked on more than 500 political campaigns, including Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential run.

Fletcher said a candidate would have needed a minimum of $500,000 to $750,000 for the August 28 primary and then at least another $1.2 million for the November 2 general election to run “a good campaign” against Vitter.

“Remember, a poll showed if a candidate had the right name recognition and money that Vitter was beatable,” he said. “In our case we just did not have enough time or money.”

Melançon is not there yet. Two days before the primary, Public Policy Polling released results that showed 53 percent of those polled in Louisiana had a favorable opinion of Vitter and that Vitter was running 10 points ahead of Melançon in a two-candidate race.

Fletcher said some have compared this fall’s election to the 1991 gubernatorial race between (the corrupt) Edwin Edwards and (the former Klansman) David Duke. “That’s really not fair because Charlie Melançon is not a David Duke … not even close,” he said. “As I have said, people also see this [as a] race between Obama and the whore, and that is a terrible analogy but it is the way they see it.

By Shawn Martin, reporting from Louisiana, with additional reporting by Lou Dubose.