Republican side of congressional race reaches boiling point

by Leslie Turk

Although the Republican frontrunners in Saturday's 3rd Congressional District primary share many of the same views, they are viciously attacking each other's military records, faith-based political stances and professional backgrounds with growing intensity.

Although the Republican frontrunners in Saturday's 3rd Congressional District primary share many of the same views, they are viciously attacking each other's military records, faith-based political stances and professional backgrounds with growing intensity.

The two established candidates in name and money, Hunt Downer of Houma and Jeff Landry of New Iberia, have had no shortage of harsh words for one another in recent interviews and public appearances. Kristian Magar, also of New Iberia, is onĀ  the Aug. 28 ballot, too, but his largely self-funded, grassroots campaign has kept him above the fray.

If none of the contenders garners at least 51 percent of the votes cast this weekend, then the two leading candidates will be forced into a runoff that will be held Oct. 2. Otherwise, the primary winner will advance to the Nov. 2 general election to face Democrat Ravi Sangisetty of Houma, who escaped opposition during qualifying.

Both Downer and Landry oppose practically everything that has come out of President Barack Obama's White House - the health care overhaul, deepwater drilling moratorium and financial bailouts.They have one more thing in common: a military record, which has become a touchy issue between the two men virtually overnight.

Landry was an 11-year member of the Louisiana National Guard and has repeatedly touted himself as a "veteran" of Operation Desert Storm. While Landry says he never actually left American soil during the war, he explains that he earned the distinction of veteran for his "active duty" service during the early 1990s at Fort Hood. "I have never claimed to have served in Iraq," Landry says. "The only reason I didn't go is because the war ended so quickly. I certainly never tried not to go."

Landry says Downer's campaign has been attempting to dismiss his military service. He further accuses Downer - a retired major general and former veterans affairs secretary with roots in the U.S. Army and Louisiana National Guard - of "using politician connections and rank to get promotions while the rest of us sweated it out in Fort Hood."

Landry knocks Downer's Kuwait Liberation Medal and claimed Downer received it for spending only 24 hours in the Middle East. "(Hunt Downer) is a disgrace to the uniform," Landry says, adding that the medal was a "political prize."

There were two versions of the medal, the basic Kuwait Liberation Medal was awarded sometimes just for a day of service in Desert Shield or Desert Storm, while the Saudi Arabian version was a limited edition, according to the American Forces Press Service. Buddy Boe, Downer's campaign manager, says Downer was awarded the standard medal, one of the more recent issued for wear by the Army, and he further discounted Landry's attack.

Military records show Downer spent 17 February days in 1992 in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia on active duty. Downer is also a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and is the recipient of more than 30 other military awards, including the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Medal. "This is another example of Jeff lying about the facts," Boe says. "Hunt Downer was away from his family for over two weeks while serving in the Middle East in the early 1990s. The medal that Jeff insulted by calling it a political prize was earned by many soldiers, and for him to insult their service for his own political gain is the real disgrace."

Downer says he has never been involved in an exchange like this during his 28 years of running for state office and stint as a cabinet official in the administration of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat. "The conduct of Mr. Landry surprises me," Downer said in an interview last week. "I'm disappointed in him. It's dirty politics at its worst."

Magar is also a former second lieutenant in the Louisiana Army National Guard. He also has a five-point plan that calls for, among other things, the U.S. withdrawing from the United Nations and focusing more resources on protecting its domestic borders. But Magar makes a distinction on the immigration issue - in particular, he says he's not just talking about fences. "The truth is that these physical security measures are only deterrents," he says. "If we want to improve our immigration process we need to modify our overall approach."

Magar wants to eliminate economic incentives for illegal aliens and end the practice of granting automatic citizenship to babies born in the U.S.

In fact, traditional conservative stances like this are commonplace among all of three of the candidates, although they are clearly pulling support, momentum and resources from different factions. While Magar has found support among Tea Party activists in the 3rd Congressional District, which includes portions of Acadiana, Landry has made a successful play for Christian-conservative voters.

On Monday, Landry was endorsed by the the Catholic Advocate Candidate Fund and Catholic Families of America, and had the early backing of the Family Research Council, Conservatives of America and American Conservative Union. "My faith plays the same kind of role in my political philosophy as it did when our founders wrote our constitution," Landry says.

While Downer, a former Democrat, has been endorsed by the Jefferson Parish Republican Executive Committee, Landry has won nods from a majority of the parish committees in the district. Boe says Downer respects the decision of the parish executive committees, but believes the final weeks of the campaign "will illustrate to the voters exactly the type of politician Mr. Landry is: mudslinging, dirty and misleading."

A majority of the Republican Party's State Central Committee is also backing Landry, according to GOP spokesperson Aaron Baer, and the state's Republican National Committeewoman Ruth Ulrich has endorsed him as well.

Rather than sticking to the party line, Downer says he is working to tell people about his experience. During his tenure in the state House of Representatives where he served briefly as speaker, Downer garnered national attention for adding transparency to the legislative process and was selected as one of 10 of the best "Public Officials of the Year" by Governing Magazine.

Landry has a unique background that touches on both law enforcement and job creation. He served as a sheriff's deputy in St. Martin Parish and as a police officer in the village of Parks. He likewise was employed by the St. Martin Economic Development Authority, where he said he learned to "leverage local resources to create jobs."

On social issues, Landry's campaign has accused Downer of having a "pro-gay" voting record from his time in the state House. Downer counters that the claim is completely false and that he has voted against gay marriages, in favor of Louisiana's covenant marriage law and against a proposed law that would have forced Louisiana to recognize the gay marriage laws of other states.

Downer, an attorney like Landry, has also been labeled as a "trial lawyer" by the Landry campaign and as a man who has willingly been involved in lawsuits against the state of Louisiana. Boe says Downer pushed for litigation reform as a lawmaker. "The accusations of Hunt being a trail lawyer just don't fit," he says.

Downer adds that he has never been listed as an attorney in a case against the state of Louisiana, even though his law firm has been involved in such proceedings. "That's just more mud," Downer says.
Magar, meanwhile, is employed as a oilfield manager in Iberia Parish. His views largely mesh with those held by industry, but also believes that clean alternatives should be included in any energy plan.

All three of the men are vying to replace outgoing Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville, who is running for the U.S. Senate this fall.