Cover Story

Charles in Charge

by Jeremy Alford

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

With growing seniority and friends in high places, U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany is not only nearing his peak as an influencer, but, ironically, also fighting for his political life.  By Jeremy Alford

Every member of Louisiana's House delegation was present and had an equal voice in the room. Redistricting - or the matter of losing one congressional district due to stagnant population figures over the last decade - was on the agenda.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

With growing seniority and friends in high places, U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany is not only nearing his peak as an influencer, but, ironically, also fighting for his political life.  By Jeremy Alford

Every member of Louisiana's House delegation was present and had an equal voice in the room. Redistricting - or the matter of losing one congressional district due to stagnant population figures over the last decade - was on the agenda. "We as a delegation voted on principles," recalls U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, a Lafayette Republican who has been serving on the Hill since 2005.

The legislators weighed in cautiously, each obviously aware that it could potentially be their district that falls under the ax. Today, the process is well under way, and U.S. Census data is widely available. In fact, the state Legislature convenes a special session March 20 to redraw all political lines - a plan that will ultimately need to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department.

Boustany says the delegation agreed to five principles:

One House member will have to "draw the minority district," which simply put is the majority African-American district required by the
Justice Department that will undoubtedly be anchored by the Big Easy.

"We should adhere" to the concept of two districts in north Louisiana, which is another way of ensuring that Shreveport and Monroe maintain their power structures.

There should be a district for East Baton Rouge Parish, which is now the most populous parish in the state.

A new district will be needed for the New Orleans suburbs and nearby coastal parishes, which would be in the vicinity of Jefferson Parish and the southeastern shoreline.

And, finally, there should be a Lafayette/coastal district that pulls in Lake Charles.

On Nov. 29, 2005, Boustany participated in a Hurricane Rita tour and
eventually became one of the forgotten area's most vocal supporters in
Washington: "I have literally watched every single piece of related
legislation and made sure it applies to Rita, too," the U.S. rep says.

For Boustany, there's no principle more important than the final one. It would allow him to maintain his base, or what is now the 7th Congressional District. The principle would also force a merger with the western side of the 3rd Congressional District, including the New Iberia home of Rep. Jeff Landry, a fellow Republican. And here's where the situation gets a little sticky.

"At no point in time did this delegation ever vote or come to a consensus on a set of principles or a redistricting map," says Phillip Joffrion, Landry's chief of staff. Joffrion says those principles were agreed to by the previous delegation - meaning without his boss, who was seated as a freshman in January. Landry was elected last year to replace former Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville who lost a bid for the U.S. Senate and is already well on his way to becoming a big shot lobbyist.

Nonetheless, Boustany is pushing forward with the principles and being very aggressive to boot. He's breaking an old golden rule, the one about treading carefully when you're in another congressman's district. Boustany staffers have been visiting editorial departments in the 3rd Congressional District, and folks involved closely with the funding side of campaigns on the central coastline contend that Boustany "is quietly invading the 3rd District."

Jeff Landry (left) presses the flesh during his congressional
campaign last fall.

Right now, Boustany has the gravitas to make it happen. He's a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which is among the most powerful panels in all of Potomac Land. He's the second-longest serving House member during a time when the GOP controls the House. Also, for what it's worth, he's a personal friend of House Speaker John Boehner.

But even before then, Boustany's star was on the rise. He's a physician by trade and, not surprisingly, became a fixture on national television during the health care debate - just like every other member of Congress who could produce a medical license. In all fairness, Boustany was selected to deliver the Republican response to a prime-time audience when Obama gave his first major health care address in 2009.

He's not a flashy politician, though. Quiet and convincing are more like it - and maybe among the reasons for his upward mobility. "I've really gotten close to [Speaker Boehner] over the years. I was part of the small group that helped him become majority leader in 2006 [after Tom DeLay's resignation]," Boustany says. "It was a real underdog campaign, and I was one of the five or six people helping him run his House."

During the 2010 cycle, Boustany raised more than $1.6 million as an unopposed incumbent. He can also dip into his own pockets for financing, but it's highly likely that those days are over. "Dr. Boustany's influence continues to grow each year and took a big leap when Boehner was elected speaker," says Charlie Davis of Baton Rouge, most recently deputy director of the Louisiana Republican Party and now the president of the Republican Leadership Conference. "He brings a very focused approach to his work in D.C. and in the district."

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany favors a
congressional redistricting map that keeps
Lake Charles and Lafayette together and takes
in some of the current 3rd Congressional District.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry favors a coastal
district that splits Boustany's Lafayette/Lake Charles
base and spans from Cameron to St. Bernard.

Boustany is obviously bringing that kind of focus to the redistricting process as well. His growing territorial feud with Landry has now been well covered by the media - that is, except for how the feud kicked off. In a way, the anecdote also shows just how ingrained Boustany has become in the redistricting process, or just how lucky his cards are right now.

In mid-January, members of the House delegation had a dinner meeting with state Sen. Robert W. "Bob" Kostelka, a Monroe Republican who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee in the Louisiana Legislature, which happens to be the same panel that shares some oversight of the redistricting process. According to sources familiar with the meeting, Kolstelka at some point during his visit distributed maps to members of the congressional delegation - an opening salvo of sorts from the state Senate.

While Kolstelka has not returned calls requesting an interview, one map displays Boustany's wishes clearly: it's a proposed coastal district stretching from Terrebonne Parish through Landry's base of New Iberia and into Lake Charles. Of course, it's just a map, nothing more than speculation at this point. But it's enough to add more fuel to the Boustany-Landry fire.

Boustany and House Speaker John Boehner (pictured at
his swearing in with Boustany's wife, Bridget) share a
close relationship: "I was part of the small group that
helped him become majority leader in 2006
[after Tom DeLay's resignation]," the Lafayette rep says.
"It was a real underdog campaign, and I was one of the
five or six people helping him run his House."

One official from deep within the bowels of the Louisiana Democratic Party says there are high hopes that the two men will obliterate each other politically. "The biggest threat to Boustany's rising star in Washington will probably come from Jeff Landry, not Louisiana Democrats," says the party official. "Boustany may be a Washington insider with powerful friends, but none of that is going to help him in a street fight with Jeff Landry."

Landry, for what it's worth, did take down a seasoned and well-liked politician last year in the form of one-time state House Speaker Hunt Downer, whom Boustany had endorsed. Landry did it with a unique combination of support from the Christian right and tea party advocates. He also did it raising only $200,000 less than Boustany did last year - and that was against two other well-funded candidates. (Those constituencies might also find fault with Boustany's past support of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and pro-gun control.)

Adding insult to Boustany's possible injury is that Landry has a bit of a streak going. He's only been in elected office for roughly a month, but Landry has already appeared on Fox News and in a New York Times editorial for criticizing a recent federal oil spill report.

As for redistricting, Landry supports a plan that has been drafted by state Rep. Joe Harrison, a Republican from Napoleonville, endorsed by parish councils and pushed by local officials. As proposed, it would encompass the entire shoreline from Cameron to Plaquemines parishes, including Lafayette but excluding Lake Charles. "Coastal issues have become among the most important for our state, and it's time we speak with one voice," Harrison says. "We need a full-time spokesperson."

In previous interviews, Boustany and Landry offered careful words for the all-coastal plan:

Landry: "These state senators, state representatives, and parish and local leaders know that a divided voice will cost Louisiana jobs, result in continued lost revenue from offshore production moratoriums and red tape, and will harm the ability to protect and restore our coast. Working together as one unit, they believe, will allow them to speak with one voice and fight for Louisiana's coast."

Boustany: "I will fight hard to keep Lafayette and Lake Charles in the same district, as southwest Louisiana's economy benefits by having these two metropolitan areas together."

The all-coastal plan is exactly what Landry has been secretly pining for since redistricting plans started to solidify a year or so ago. Landry essentially wants a new district comprised of half of his district - including his hometown - and half of Boustany's district. As envisioned by supporters, it would include Lafayette as well.

According to sources on the Hill, Landry has pitched the idea to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican. While Vitter, as a senator, doesn't have a dog in this hunt, he's said to have at the very least a sympathetic ear. But, even as influential as Vitter is and despite his theoretical involvement, Boustany cut his teeth a long time ago and can stand on his own.

Just like the brand sometimes pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, Boustany can rightfully proclaim to be a disaster-tested public servant. As a freshman, and partly causing his late start at the power game, was Hurricane Rita, which devastated Cameron Parish and other locales. Since it made landfall shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rita suffered from a lack of recognition both in the mainstream media and in Washington, D.C.

Boustany quickly coined - and still takes credit for - the phrase "Rita Amnesia." In the years that followed Rita, Boustany was good about dropping the phrase in appropriate places and for acting on his own call. In many ways, he has been credited with helping southwest Louisiana get its foot in the door for coastal restoration and protection money. "I have literally watched every single piece of related legislation and made sure it applies to Rita, too," Boustany says.

In part, he's a branding expert for sure, says Mike Stagg, a member of the Lafayette Parish Democratic Executive Committee who opposed Boustany on the ballot in 2006. He can adapt to changing political tides - like backing Boehner when he was a mere underdog - and is always flexible. "He has sort of morphed from a reasonably likable guy who was more open to a complete party man," says Stagg. "But I don't think he's an ideologue. He doesn't have it in him."

Stagg makes a good point - in fact, Boustany is undergoing yet another transformation right now in Congress. He's becoming somewhat of a foreign policy expert with an emphasis on trade. And it's not the kind of lofty foreign policy that mom and pop back home don't get. It's the kind that could mean big bucks and good jobs for Louisiana.

Boustany is the co-chair of the so-called U.S.-China Working Group. Its mission is to build diplomatic relations with China and make Congress more aware of related issues. "A strong relationship with China is critical for Louisiana," Boustany says. "Louisiana is a leader in global exports thanks to our agriculture and petroleum industries, as well as the extensive port system along the coast."

He says it's the future - now - and the math is just as convincing as the man: Louisiana ranks as the fourth largest exporter to China among the 50 states with more than $2.7 billion in exports through the third quarter of 2010. The gig also comes with amazing access. For example, last month Boustany met with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the U.S. Capitol in a private meeting.

Trade. That's the new buzzword for Boustany, and it may be an arena that once again brings him national attention. In an effort to build on this policy front, Boustany is likewise leveraging his position on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, where he chairs the oversight subcommittee. While sitting on the panel, Boustany has been able to lobby for free trade agreements and question key business leaders from across the country.

One minute, Boustany sounds like a diplomat, and not necessarily a congressman from south Louisiana: "The Colombia, Panama and South Korea Free Trade Agreements are necessary to get our economy back on track and create jobs," Boustany says. "These agreements will create U.S. jobs and open new markets for American goods and services. They will increase American competitiveness abroad and significantly lower many of the tariffs currently in place on U.S. exports."

Another minute, Boustany sounds like a statewide official, maybe justifying the rumors that the Jindal administration is keeping a close eye on his movements as well: "With one in five jobs in Louisiana dependent on trade, it is essential that we enact these agreements. The impact these agreements will have on our farmers and agricultural producers in Louisiana will be significant. By increasing our access to foreign markets, farmers across our state will gain new market opportunities. Additionally, imports of raw materials from other countries will decline, making Louisiana manufacturers more competitive."

In many respects, Boustany is elusive. He came from seemingly nowhere and now he's in the middle of all sorts of intrigue. You also get the sense that Boustany is up for any challenge, political or otherwise. Maybe it was the training and real life experiences offered up in the wake and wreckage of Hurricane Rita. During those desperate first hours, Boustany jumped from one safe shelter to another in Cameron Parish with a single aide. The sheriff's office. A hotel. A boat. A helicopter.

It was one of the worst natural disasters Louisiana had ever seen, and Boustany's first taste of public service. "I felt like I had all of the responsibilities on my shoulders," he recalls before adding that he's learned how to bear the burden with the help of a few well-placed friends and some hard work.

But what's even more amazing is how quickly it could all be taken from him based on the placement of a few lines in next month's special session of the Louisiana Legislature.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected].