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A family-values far-right conservative named David Vitter appears headed for victory on Tuesday in the U.S. Senate race in Louisiana. Sharp-edged and uncompromising, but enormously talented at self-promotion, the three-term Republican representative from suburban New Orleans has rocketed to prominence over the last decade despite opposition from the state’s Republican power brokers.
Privately aghast at his rise, the state’s GOP leaders have all but fallen in line now, afraid to cross the man who may be their next senator. In interviews with Salon over several days, many Louisiana Republicans expressed anguish that a Vitter victory next week could mark the end of the state’s unique tradition of moderate, bipartisan politics. This, of course, is exactly what Vitter’s breed of brash, Newt Gingrich-style Republicans believe a deeply polarized country needs — conservatives who disdain common-sense compromise in pursuit of ideological purity. And so Louisiana Republicans are deeply unhappy that the 43-year-old lawyer, known for running slashing negative campaigns with under-the-radar help from white supremacist David Duke, is on track to become the first GOP U.S. senator from Louisiana in more than 100 years.
If Vitter wins more than 50 percent of the vote in Louisiana’s unique multiparty open election on Tuesday, he will avoid a runoff and head directly to Washington. In a state where the other U.S. senator (Mary Landrieu) and the governor (Kathleen Blanco) are moderate, consensus-building Democratic women, the polarizing Vitter will become Louisiana’s GOP standard-bearer.
While many Republican politicians and operatives see Vitter as duplicitous, and many African-American leaders call him racist, Louisiana’s white conservative voters appear mostly beguiled. Based in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, Vitter has won his last two congressional elections with more than 80 percent of the vote. He presents himself as a morally righteous, clean-cut family man, and his wife and three young children have become virtual campaign props. The Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar is also extremely intelligent, observers say, and runs perhaps the most effective political ads in the state. But there are hints of a dark side: allegations of an affair with a prostitute and a lawsuit claiming he lost his temper and physically charged at a woman at a town hall meeting.
Yet Vitter’s increasing popularity and power have caused his once-vocal critics to retreat. The situation today is in stark contrast to five years ago, when virtually the entire state Republican establishment lined up against the young state representative in his successful bid for the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Bob Livingston, a Republican who was forced to retire after revelations about his extramarital affairs.
In 1999, none of Vitter’s future House colleagues showed up at his victory party, and few of his fellow state legislators did. “Vitter has such problems with people — not just fringe politicians, but legitimate, honest politicians in the legislature who just can’t stand him,” Republican lawyer Rob Couhig, one of the candidates Vitter defeated for Livingston’s congressional seat, told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call at the time. But today Couhig wouldn’t dare repeat his earlier assertion. Like most other Louisiana Republicans, he now supports David Vitter.
There is one Republican who refuses to go quietly. He is a 78-year-old retired homebuilder from suburban New Orleans named John Treen, the brother of former Louisiana Gov. David Treen, a Republican whom Vitter defeated in the bitter 1999 congressional race. Saying he doesn’t “give a damn” what Vitter thinks of him, Treen said his motivation for speaking up is simple: “I don’t like liars.”
David Treen was a pioneer in the state GOP who represented Louisiana in the U.S. House in the 1970s. He declined to comment on Vitter, as did other Louisiana Republicans contacted for this article. “Everyone is scared,” John Treen told me. “You won’t find anyone willing at this point to stick their neck out. No one wants to cross Vitter, because he has grown too powerful.”
Vitter’s spokesman, Mac Abrams, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Undoubtedly, though, his boss would argue that his critics are merely angry that changing political preferences have swept them aside. Or he would say the clubby, often corrupt, political establishment in Louisiana resents his outsider status and reformer’s bent. “So many forces were against us. So many powers that be,” Vitter said in his 1999 victory speech. “They had the politicians. We had the people. They’ve had the past, but we are the future.”
Vitter grew up in a well-to-do family in New Orleans. After graduating from Harvard University, he attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and earned a law degree from Tulane University in New Orleans. He served in the Louisiana House from 1991 to 1999. A Catholic, he lives in Metairie with his wife, Wendy, and three small children.
In the state House, Vitter earned a reputation as a grandstander. He was known for sneakily calling solo press conferences — sometimes just hours before his fellow Republicans had planned to make a joint announcement — in order to take credit for group initiatives that he would pass off as his own. “We’d be on the floor debating controversial bills and he’d be on the radio criticizing us,” one state Republican legislator, who declined to allow his name to be published, told me.
But Vitter also took on the state’s notorious corruption, earning him extensive coverage from the news media. In 1993, he helped expose officials who were awarding lucrative Tulane scholarships to members of their own families. Taking advantage of a perk that dated to the 1880s, the officials — including Livingston and Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, a Democrat — had bestowed on their families tens of thousands of dollars in tuition savings.
Also, in 1993, Vitter filed an ethics complaint against Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards, which accused him of allowing his children to profit illegally from business with the state-regulated riverboat gambling industry. Edwards was later convicted in an extortion case involving riverboat gambling.
At the same time as he was racking up laudatory press coverage, though, Vitter was also getting a reputation in some quarters for a hot temper. At a Sept. 21, 1993, town hall meeting in Metairie, he got into a confrontation with a questioner that led to a lawsuit against him.
Mercedes Hernandez, who was involved in Republican politics, testified that she frequently attended local meetings to engage officials on the issues, usually tape-recording the events. At a town hall meeting, Hernandez asked the state representative about a rumor she’d heard that he was supporting a gay-rights bill in the Legislature. Vitter became “enraged by her question, left the podium where he was standing, advanced toward her in a rapid, threatening manner, pushing aside chairs … and grabbed a portable tape recorder” that Hernandez was holding, according to her legal complaint.
In his legal filings, Vitter denied that he had assaulted Hernandez and instead accused her of trying to set him up by planting the false idea with other attendees that he supported gay rights, a position that is anathema in his religious conservative district. He further accused Hernandez of working with John Treen and his other political enemies by trying to shop a story about the incident to the media.
After a trial, a judge awarded Hernandez $50. “The court finds that Mr. Vitter’s demeanor changed when he saw the tape recorder. He became angry, agitated and excited,” the judge wrote. “He thought Ms. Hernandez was using her question [about gay rights] as a ruse to ‘set him up’ and embarrass him.” But the judge also admonished Hernandez. “It appears that Ms. Hernandez was rather enjoying the political advantage she seemed to have perceived herself to have gained.” Hernandez, who is still active in Republican politics, did not return phone calls from Salon seeking comment.
By 1999, Vitter was ready to move to the national stage. His chance came when House Republicans lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections amid public anger over the impeachment of President Clinton. The election debacle caused angry House Republicans to reject Newt Gingrich, who resigned. His replacement as speaker was to be Livingston, then chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. But as the Louisiana Republican decried Clinton’s sexual transgressions, it emerged that he himself had engaged in extramarital affairs. Livingston too was forced to resign, paving the way for the 1999 special congressional election.
Livingston, Gov. Mike Foster, Rep. Billy Tauzin and other prominent Louisiana Republicans lined up to back David Treen, who even had the support of such Democrats as Sen. John Breaux. Then 70, Treen had served four terms in the U.S. House in the 1970s and became governor in 1979. His reputation was as a consensus builder who reached out to African-Americans. He was not an ally of the religious right. John Treen said, “My brother Dave has a reputation for absolute honesty and integrity. That was one of his trademarks.”
In the crowded open primary — a field that included David Duke — Treen and Vitter garnered the most votes and proceeded to a head-to-head runoff. In a meeting, they pledged to pull no dirty tricks, John Treen said.
To be sure, their campaign rhetoric was tough. Vitter attacked David Treen as an old-school politician. Treen replied that he was experienced. Treen supported restrictions on the sale of automatic and semiautomatic assault weapons; Vitter was against any form of gun control. Treen opposed racial quotas but supported allowing state colleges and universities to decide their own policies for boosting minority enrollment; Vitter was against any form of affirmative action. For most of the race, the better-known Treen led in the polls — until the last week, when Vitter violated his pledge not to play dirty, John Treen said.
The Vitter campaign sent fliers to black voters stating that the racist David Duke was supporting his opponent. In fact, Treen had been an enemy of Duke and had tried to stop his rise in Louisiana GOP politics. “Dave Treen and I have absolutely no use for David Duke whatsoever,” John Treen said. “He [Duke] tried to shake my hand once, and I said, ‘I’m not going to shake your hand, you son of a bitch.’ It’s hypocritical to shake someone’s hand if you consider them an enemy.” But in what John Treen believes was a secret pact between Duke and Vitter, the former Ku Klux Klansman came out publicly for his nemesis, Treen.
The effect was to suppress the black vote. Amid low turnout, Vitter eked out a victory with 51 percent. Curiously, though, the New Orleans area precincts that had supported Duke in the earlier phase of the race went not for Treen — whom the white supremacist had claimed to be supporting — but for Vitter. That was evidence, John Treen claims, that Duke’s supporters had secretly been rounding up votes for Vitter.
On election night, no members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation showed up to celebrate with their new colleague. Few members of the state House were there, either. Only one Republican of any consequence — U.S. Rep. Jim McCrery — called to congratulate Vitter.
In Congress, Vitter became a reliable vote for the extreme right, earning a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in 2002. He vowed to outlaw abortion in almost all cases, even when pregnancy results from rape or incest; his only exception was to save the life of the mother. And — with an eye on the governor’s office — he continued the crusade against gambling that he’d started in 1993 with the ethics complaint against Gov. Edwin Edwards.
In 2002, Vitter criticized his fellow Republican, Gov. Mike Foster, for supporting the expansion of a casino operated near the Texas border by the Jena Band of Choctaws. Coming to Vitter’s aid was an advocacy group called the Committee Against Gambling Expansion, which mailed out campaign fliers on Vitter’s behalf and allowed Vitter to use its name in phone calls to supporters.
It turned out that the advocacy group was not run by “Louisiana folks with the Christian community,” as Vitter told the Times-Picayune he had initially thought. Rather, it was a sophisticated front group set up by a Washington lobbyist, who is now under federal investigation for his activities, on behalf of a rival tribe that was trying to block competition. Vitter has said he had no idea the Committee Against Gambling Expansion was actually representing casino interests.
As Vitter geared up in 2002 to run for governor, his bitter race against Treen came back to haunt him. A Treen supporter, local Republican Party official Vincent Bruno, blurted out on a radio show that he believed Vitter had once had an extramarital affair.
The Louisiana Weekly newspaper followed up. Bruno told the paper that the young woman had contacted the Treen campaign in 1999 because she was upset that Vitter was portraying himself as a family-values conservative and trotting out his wife and children for campaign photo ops. 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.
Asked by an interviewer in 2000 whether she could forgive her husband if she learned he’d had an extramarital affair, as Hillary Clinton and Bob Livingston’s wife had done, Wendy Vitter told the Times-Picayune: “I’m a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If he does something like that, I’m walking away with one thing, and it’s not alimony, trust me.”
Vitter, Bruno and others interviewed the alleged prostitute several times in 1999. She also met with a respected local television reporter, Richard Angelico, the Louisiana Weekly said. But Angelico declined to run with the story after she would not agree to go on camera, the paper said. Vitter denied the allegations. But shortly before the Louisiana Weekly was set to publish its story, he 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.
Chris Tidmore, the author of the Louisiana Weekly story, said he interviewed the alleged prostitute by telephone and reviewed the notes of her sessions with Treen and Bruno before publishing his story. He said she had moved away from New Orleans and is now living under an assumed name. Salon could not locate her.
Amid Vitter’s denials and the reluctance of his accuser to go public, no newspapers in Louisiana reported on the allegations. And, when Sen. Breaux announced his retirement last December, Vitter jumped into the race to succeed the conservative Democrat. The far-right and confrontational Vitter was the opposite of Breaux, who had been a consensus-builder in Washington with close relationships with Republicans.
Vitter was also deeply unpopular in the black community. In February a group of black clergy went so far as to accuse Vitter of orchestrating a federal corruption probe into people associated with New Orleans’ black former mayor, Marc Morial. Vitter had helped secure federal funding for the task force that was investigating the Morial circle.
After the task force raided the home of the former mayor’s brother Jacques, Morial’s attorney said sarcastically that he was surprised Vitter hadn’t been riding along with the agents. “Congressman Vitter is running for the Senate,” Pat Fanning told the Times-Picayune. “You’ve got a Republican conservative white base, and you went and got money to go and investigate black people in New Orleans.”
Vitter denied that he had targeted the Morial family and asked the Greater New Orleans Coalition of Ministers, a group of black clergy that had complained about his motives, to meet with him. Instead, the ministers denounced Vitter’s “political ploys,” saying they would not participate in a “media event designed to deceive our congregations.” Although more than 30 percent of the population in Louisiana is African-American, Vitter appears to have written them off. And if the polls are correct, he doesn’t need black voters; he can win on the strength of conservative whites alone in a state that gave its nine electoral votes to George W. Bush in 2000.
Indeed, Vitter has a strong lead in the open-party race. He is the only Republican, and he’s running against three Democrats — state treasurer John Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Chris John, and state Rep. Arthur Morrell. With Democratic votes divided, Vitter may win outright. A Verne Kennedy poll, conducted Oct. 22 and 23, found Vitter pulling 51 percent, enough to avoid a runoff. The poll showed Vitter with only 6 percent of the black vote.
This week, the Lafayette Daily Advertiser declined to endorse any of the Senate candidates, saying they “have shown no indication that they will continue the bipartisan approach that has been so important to Louisiana and the nation.” Newt Gingrich would be proud.
Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.More Mary Jacoby.