The Vitter phone call

I had just taken the burgers off the grill and my family was sitting down to dinner when the phone rang. I told my wife that unless it was an emergency, tell whoever it was that we’d call them back. She answered the phone and told me, “It’s David Vitter.”

It was one of U.S. Sen. Vitter’s “telephone town hall conferences.” These outreach efforts have become increasingly popular with legislators in recent years; according to a recent Politico story, Washington, D.C.-based company TeleTownHall pioneered the technology in 2005 and has since facilitated more than 1,000 of the phone meetings. For a recent telephone-town-hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, Politico noted that more than 37,000 local phone numbers and households were dialed to invite participation. (Several hundred people often wind up listening in and/or participating.) So it isn’t hard to see how Vitter unwittingly called the home of a newspaper editor.

Since 2006, Vitter’s regularly held these phone question-and-answer sessions with voters. “He also tries to focus the call around a particular subject but will answer questions that someone may have on other topics as he would in his formal town hall meetings,” Vitter’s Communications Director Joel DiGrado recently told the Bossier Press-Tribune.

I figured my burger could wait and I’d see if I could participate in this telephone town hall conference, which focused on immigration issues. The way it works is you press the number zero on your phone if you want to ask a question, and you’re placed in a waiting line. About 20 minutes went by as I listened to Vitter field questions from other callers, and then a woman got on the line with me. She asked if I had a question for Sen. Vitter. Yes, I did, I replied. She asked what it was about, and I told her H2B workers.

Another 15 minutes or so went by when an automated message told me I was next in line to speak. As Vitter finished answering a question, he said, “Now we go to the Jordan household in Carencro.”

I asked him if he supported the legislation that Congressman Charles Boustany is working on to raise the cap on temporary H2B workers to help local businesses like seafood processors who are experiencing a labor shortage. Vitter noted that he is in favor of using legal H2B workers and pointed out that Boustany isn’t trying to raise the cap but working to restore H2B numbers to last year’s levels.

Then I asked a second question.

“New York Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer just resigned today after it was revealed that he had an affair with a prostitute,” I said. “I also just read an editorial in the Ouchita Citizen today that noted if Spitzer resigns, you should resign also over your past transgression. How do you respond to people who say that there’s a double standard at work here?”

(Somewhere toward the end of asking the question, an automated message informed me that I was now in “listen-only mode.”)

“I made a very serious mistake a long time ago, and I have to live with that every day,” Vitter replied. He sounded genuine and contrite. “That’s not a flippant statement. I need to spend my whole life making up for that.”

Then his tone turned a bit defiant. “Anybody who looks at the two cases will see that there is an enormous difference between the two of them,” he said. “The people that are trying to draw comparisons to the two cases are people who’ve never agreed with me on important issues like immigration and other things.”

He then moved on to the next caller.

The second half of Vitter’s answer shows that his hypocrisy still knows no bounds. It was bad enough that he painted himself as a family-values crusader before his phone number showed up multiple times in the phone records of Washington, D.C. madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey — all during the time period when he was serving as a state representative. Since that link to prostitutes became public, Vitter made an apologetic statement last June with his wife by his side but has refused to answer any questions about the scandal. And how Vitter spent taxpayers’ time and money is a question that Louisiana citizens deserve answered.

His continued stonewalling and diminished clout in Congress continues to be an embarrassment to his constituents and the state Republican Party — not to mention a thorn in the side of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. When word of Spitzer’s prostitute tryst became public, the Republican Governor’s Association — of which Jindal is an executive committee member — immediately called for Spitzer’s resignation. But Jindal apparently thinks that Vitter’s involvement with a prostitution ring is different — so much so that our governor recently co-hosted a fund raiser for Vitter that took in more than $400,000. With Jindal’s promising and largely successful start to his tenure and his repeated pledge to improve Louisiana’s image, his continued embrace of Vitter leaves an unflattering impression of a politician that puts party loyalty above one of his most important campaign pledges.

Ouchita Citizen Publisher Sam Hanna Jr. isn’t the only one asking Vitter to resign. In the last week alone, conservative columnists Chistopher Tidmore of Louisiana Weekly and Ringside Politics commentator Jeff Crouere, along with longtime New Orleans political commentator and Gambit Weekly publisher and editor Clancy Dubos, have all publicly called for Vitter to step aside for the good of Louisiana. I agree with them — but given Vitter’s pattern of stubborn denial, I won’t hold my breath.

The moral of this story? If a politician calls your house, don’t hang up — because the conversation can be very enlightening.