Politics & Policy

Landrieu: Louisiana’s Long-Lasting Liberal

(Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
In Louisiana’s rough-and-tumble politics, she’s a hard-working, hard-fighting survivor.

I can’t help it: I sorta like Mary Landrieu.

In that admission lies a clue as to why Louisiana’s fairly liberal Democratic senator has been so hard for Republicans to defeat, and why she still has a chance to survive a Republican challenge in one of the most important races of this political year. Landrieu possesses a high degree of a particularly Louisianan style of political pugnacity that makes even many Republicans in the state pay her a grudging respect bordering on a form of fondness.

Political prognosticators can list manifold reasons why Landrieu should lose her reelection bid to Representative Bill Cassidy in this year when Democrats both nationally and in Louisiana face a rough political environment. There also are a host of good reasons why she deserves to lose. And, indeed, she may well be defeated. But Mary Landrieu is tough, and she will not go gentle into the political night.

I’ve watched Landrieu’s whole political career quite closely. My godfather ran (and lost) a campaign for mayor of New Orleans against her father, Moon Landrieu. Almost as soon as Mary — the oldest of Moon’s ​nine children — graduated from LSU, she was running for the state legislature in a district adjacent to mine, taking on a four-term incumbent with a decent reputation. As a 15-year-old watching the 23-year-old (24 by Election Day) Landrieu campaign, I was struck by a lasting impression: Although she was quite pretty and was the daughter of a powerful mayor-cum-cabinet-secretary, she didn’t campaign like a princess. Instead, she worked at it, running with energy and dogged persistence. She won in a landslide.

Even then, she had a reputation as quite a liberal, but in a remarkably nonpartisan Louisiana legislature (the conservative Democratic speaker of the House was a close ally of the new Republican governor), she worked to establish a reputation less as an ideologue than as a practical pol. When she ran for state treasurer eight years later in a reformist year, she won as a “good government” moderate — and then kept her nose clean, while running a competent shop, in a job with a title more lofty than its duties.

It was in her 1987 race for treasurer that I first met her, and my experience is perhaps instructive regarding her political success. I was research director — a mid-level aide — for the gubernatorial campaign of Representative Bob Livingston. Sometime that spring, a group called the Alliance for Good Government sponsored a public forum for all statewide candidates; in a room crowded with many hundreds of people, Livingston and I bumped into Landrieu amidst the throng. I was introduced to her in passing — ten seconds, at most — before she and Livingston exchanged pleasantries and brief tales from the campaign trail. (Her more conservative aunt would soon be helping Livingston with fund-raising, so the exchange was quite cordial.)

Fast forward to the night before the primary election in October, some five or six months later. Livingston (who would finish third in Louisiana’s all-party “jungle” primary) held a closing rally in the parking lot of his campaign headquarters; Landrieu smartly showed up to work the crowd, hoping to secure some otherwise unlikely conservative votes for her own campaign. (As her race featured four Democrats and not a single Republican, Republicans could be the “swing” voters in the open primary.) I had not seen her since those ten seconds in the spring, and I wore no nametag — but she came up to me, casual and friendly, calling me by name before I had even seen her, as if we were old friends, and she spoke to me for a good ten or twelve minutes. I was a nobody and could not possibly have made an impression on her in that forum so many months before; clearly, Landrieu had done her homework, maybe asked her aunt to describe for her some people she might bump into at the rally, of whom I would have been well down the list. Anyway, it was obvious Landrieu would leave no political stone unturned and miss no chance to secure support.

Fast forward to a good 14 or so years later. Landrieu, now a senator, was working closely with Republican Alabama senator Jeff Sessions on offshore-drilling issues, and I, now a columnist for the Mobile Register, wrote several pieces praising the two for their joint efforts. Her office called: The senator would be visiting one of her sisters who lived in Mobile; was I free for coffee, off the record? I hadn’t been in the same room (or parking lot) with her since that 1987 rally. But again she treated me like an old friend, spent half an hour over coffee, and said she wanted to thank me for the compliments in my column and wanted to catch up on how I had ended up in Mobile from my origins in New Orleans and stints in Washington.

And that’s the thing about Mary Landrieu: She never stops trying to earn and consolidate support, from any and every quarter where she can find it.

That sort of human touch (and attention to political detail) has served her well in three nerve-wrackingly close races for the U.S. Senate. The first, in 1996, came on the heels of her only political defeat, when she missed a 1995 runoff spot for governor by an excruciating 9,000 votes out of nearly 1.6 million cast. (There were all sorts of rumors of electoral foul play by supporters of the more liberal Democrat who edged past her, but Landrieu wisely earned goodwill from the left wing — and future support by black, liberal machines — by declining to contest the results.) When moderate Democratic senator J. Bennett Johnston retired the next year, Landrieu reaped the rewards.

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Running a hardball campaign that turned ruthlessly negative (her camp helped spread rumors that conservative Republican opponent Woody Jenkins, an honest and truly fine man, was somehow involved with running contraband, for profit, for the Nicaraguan Contras), Landrieu nonetheless looked during most of the day of the general election as if she would fall just short again. But she benefited from the presence on the ballot of a referendum on a land-based casino in New Orleans. With oodles of casino “street money” combined with the political organization of Mayor Marc Morial, Landrieu’s team swamped the polls in the final hour or two — and when the smoke cleared, she claimed victory by just 5,788 votes. Jenkins produced proof of outright fraud involving thousands of ballots against him (none of which implicated Landrieu herself), but to no avail: Republican senators, cowed by the Clinton White House and by procedural threats from Senate Democrats, couldn’t even be bothered to personally examine the evidence in Jenkins’s election challenge, and Landrieu was seated.

Six years later, in a reelection campaign against challenger Suzie Terrell, a city councilman from New Orleans, Landrieu entered the last week slightly behind in the eyes of most analysts, even though Terrell had not been seen as a particularly powerful candidate. But Landrieu’s campaign pulled a sugar bunny from its hat of campaign tricks, concocting nearly from thin air a supposed Bush-administration-inspired threat against the Louisiana sugar industry. Railing against Terrell as an alleged lackey of Bush, Landrieu rod Cajunland votes to another narrow victory. The sugar issue was almost entirely bogus, as evidenced by its disappearance as soon as the last votes were counted — but, again, Landrieu’s seizure of it showed an almost preternatural skill for political survival.

Six years after that, in the strong Democratic year of 2008, Landrieu again faced a less-than-top-tier challenger, the decent but philosophically chameleon-like state treasurer, John Kennedy, and again survived — in her largest victory yet, with 52 percent of the vote (against 46 percent for Kennedy).

The question is, what does Landrieu actually do in office that keeps earning her votes in an increasingly Republican state? It’s not her office’s constituent services, which (by reputation) aren’t as responsive as those of Louisiana’s GOP senator, David Vitter. And it’s no longer anything identifiable as Southern charm: Her 35-year history of rough political scrapes has long since erased any chance of her projecting the aura of profound graciousness that was the hallmark, for example, of New Orleans’ former congresswoman Lindy Boggs.

Instead, it is sheer doggedness that endears her to constituents. “Our Mary” is a fighter for Louisiana, say a number of them. She’s adept at leaving her ideology outside the Bayou State’s borders, so when an issue directly and specially involves Louisiana — energy, pork, some regulatory matters — she’s seen as utterly non-ideological, utterly relentless, and sometimes quite effective. The fact that she raises significant campaign cash for Senate colleagues who then vote against (and repeatedly defeat) her pro-energy initiatives seems to make little impression on her constituents.

The rest of her record is largely that of a doctrinaire liberal. She has loudly and often defended her vote for the worst domestic legislation in our lifetime, Obamacare; she has been increasingly friendly to abortion (average rating from National Right to Life: 23 percent), usually down in the teens in conservative anti-spending ratings, and largely hostile to gun rights; and she has been absolutely godawful on judges and top Justice Department officials. On that score, she not only was complicit in the terrible, precedent-setting poisoning of the Senate well with the first-ever death-by-filibuster treatment of a judicial nominee, but did so against a rather clear pre-election pledge to support him. The nominee, of course, was the eminently qualified Miguel Estrada, whom some Democrats opposed specifically, they wrote, because “he is Latino and the White House seems to be grooming him for a Supreme Court appointment.”

But now Landrieu has gone back to her old playbook as a non-ideological fighter for Louisiana, emphasizing her supposed clout in Washington due to seniority — even though in the Senate of Harry Reid, whom she helps keep in power, her “clout” has failed to deliver significant breakthroughs. Still, with her brother Mitch Landrieu now the popular (and largely effective) mayor of New Orleans, with the ties her husband, Frank Snellings, has as a former elected official from northeast Louisiana, and with her capacity to pursue every possible voter in much the way that 49er looked for gold, Landrieu remains a nearly even-money shot to secure a fourth term. It also helps her that a conservative spoiler, Rob Maness, could push the Landrieu-Cassidy race to a December runoff that, for complicated reasons, smart Louisiana conservatives think she has a better chance of winning than she would a straight match-up with Cassidy in November.

National conservatives, therefore, should not underestimate the difficulty of ousting her. She has a hold on many center-right Louisianans akin to the status Jimmy Connors enjoyed at the U.S. Open. You knew Connors was a lout, and you know Landrieu is a liberal, but they both play their sports with a passion for which it’s hard not to cheer.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.

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