Charlie's Free Ride

by Jeremy Alford

U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon’s unchallenged incumbency is good news for Louisiana Democrats as well as the state’s D.C. policy agenda. After two bitterly fought elections, first to capture a seat in Congress in 2004 and then to keep it in 2006, Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon can finally phone one in. He’s unchallenged this year, a privilege for which most politicians would pay a premium. In fact, Melancon is Louisiana’s only incumbent congressman not facing an opponent this fall.

That’s quite a feat, bearing in mind that the Third Congressional District spans 13 parishes from Iberia to St. Bernard. After taking two shots at Melancon and the seat, the state GOP couldn’t find a single credible candidate to run against him from that huge swath of conservatism. “And I think that’s odd, because there really are a lot of good Republican candidates in the district,” says former state Rep. Sydney Mae Durand, a Democrat with deep ties in the Acadiana portion of Melancon’s district. “This state is fast becoming a two-party state, and I don’t understand why the Republicans would let this one slip by. The only thing I can think is that Melancon has done a decent job in the voters’ eyes.”

Joshua Stockley, former president of the Louisiana Political Science Association and professor of government at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, part of the bayou parishes hub in the other part of Melancon’s district, agrees. It’s possible that Melancon escaped a challenge not due to a lack of viable Republican candidates but rather because of the “power of incumbency” and the perks that go with it.

“Four years ago, he beat Billy Tauzin Jr., whose father held the seat before him. Then two years ago, he beat (former state Sen.) Craig Romero, another Republican who was well-financed,” says Stockley. “Considering Melancon won under those circumstances, I don’t think the Republican Party wanted to spend money or time on him this go around.”

Whatever the reason, Melancon says he’s “pleased not to be knocking on doors and making phone calls asking for money for the next few months. He has $1 million in his campaign war chest and can sit on it until 2010, when he faces re-election — if he runs for re-election. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, has to stand for re-election in two years. The still-fresh revelation of Vitter’s connections to a Beltway prostitution ring run by the late “D.C. Madam” makes him vulnerable, and Melancon’s name is frequently mentioned as a viable Democratic challenger. “I’m a member of the House of Representatives, and I want to get through this election cycle. But I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I’ll be thinking about it later,” Melancon says. “I plan on sitting down with my family, having a discussion and making a decision sometime in January.”

Many Democrats feel Melancon is their perfect candidate against a seriously weakened Vitter. Right out of the blocks, he could cut deeply into a key demographic that helped put Vitter over the top in 2004 — Cajuns. In a head-to-head match-up, Melancon wouldn’t even be a philosophical stretch for most Acadians; his moderate-to-conservative credentials make him an easy vote in his home base — and the Democratic party label will give him all the help he needs against Vitter in urban precincts, particularly the New Orleans area. Against Vitter, he would even appeal to suburban moderates.

Making a run for the Senate, however, means sacrificing the momentum gained in the House. Melancon has an influential voice on the House Science and Technology Committee. The panel oversees NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, which is one of the state’s crown jewels in an otherwise sparse southeast Louisiana manufacturing sector. The committee also puts Melancon on the cusp of innovative legislation for hybrid vehicles, a topic that’s sure to become hotter as gas prices soar.

Melancon also sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which seems as though it was created with Louisiana in mind, given its oversight of oil and gas matters. The committee has been known to grab international headlines via hearings on trade, health and telecommunications. Melancon’s predecessor, Republican Billy Tauzin Sr., chaired the committee and used his position to become one of the most powerful people in Congress. Hypothetically, Melancon could do the same down the road — if he stays in the House.

For now, he has a greater interest in getting “PLUs” elected to the House. He says the acronym stands for “People Like Us.” More specifically, he means fiscally conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats like himself. Earlier this year, Melancon’s campaign sunk more than $8,000 into the victorious and highly competitive campaign of Mississippi Democrat Travis W. Childers. Another $4,000 was gifted to the campaign of Don Cazayoux, a fellow Louisiana Democrat who represents the Baton Rouge region. Both men were chosen during special elections and must run again this fall. “I’ll be involved again to the extent that they need me,” Melancon says, adding that his place on the bench will give the national party an opportunity to spread more resources around to Cazayoux and other Louisiana Democrats on the fall ballot.

With no campaign to run, Melancon has time to cozy up to Party congressional leaders. This past weekend, he led Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, and other members of the House leadership on a tour of the Gulf Coast to gauge the progress since hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall three years ago. Melancon also is working on legislation that would give the federal government authority to detect, prevent and punish price manipulators and speculators who trade U.S. crude oil on foreign commodity exchanges. What he won’t be doing is asking the voters of the Third Congressional District for another term; for now, he already has it.

“I can’t help but feel optimistic right now,” Melancon says. “I’m where I want to be."