Over the weekend the latest in the rolling scandal surrounding Mary Landrieu’s practice of charging taxpayers for her campaign travel throughout Louisiana made its way into a sluggish and indifferent local media.
You would think the news that since 2000 Landrieu had spent some $34,000 on forty-three separate incidents of chartered travel to fundraisers and other campaign events, the result of an audit by the law firm of Perkins Coie into her Senate office books, would have exploded into Louisiana’s media. But Landrieu’s embarrassing and troubling disclosure was released—naturally!—on Friday afternoon. And by Sunday, no mention of the news had made the front pages of the newspapers in New Orleans, Shreveport, Lafayette or Lake Charles. So far it’s a blip on the state media’s radar, the fodder for Republican rhetorical attacks against Landrieu and not much more.
That may be the attitude of most of Louisiana’s media. It is not the thinking of the state’s voters.
Having been among the more than 100,000 gathered outside Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge for tailgating before LSU’s 31-0 victory over in-state opponent Louisiana-Monroe, your author can report the Landrieu disclosure was not a small topic of conversation. The disgust is palpable – and so is the sense that “her voters” won’t be moved by any revelations of corruption, no matter how shocking.
That last point remains to be seen.
Chartergate, or, as the Louisiana GOP and the national Republican Party are calling it, “Air Mary,” has been percolating for a month in Louisiana ever since the first discovery, in mid-August, of a 2013 taxpayer-funded charter flight from New Orleans to Lake Charles, at the cost of $3,200 to the taxpayers, surfaced. Following that came revelations of another 2013 flight from New Orleans to Shreveport and on to Dallas, this time costing us $5,700.
Then there was a pair of chartered flights in 2012, the first an August trip from New Orleans to Vidalia to Shreveport to Alexandria and back to New Orleans, at the cost of $6,787, and $3,437 for another voyage from New Orleans to Opelousas to Patterson and back to New Orleans in October of that year.
At that point the public began paying attention, and it gave the Louisiana GOP an opportunity for hilarity when Landrieu arrived at the Secretary of State’s office in Baton Rouge on August 22 to qualify for re-election. Waiting upon her entrance to the building were college kids dressed as a pilot and a stewardess for “Air Mary,” plus another college student in a fluorescent vest waving a pair of bright orange marshalling sticks directing her to the qualifying station (entertaining video here).
For a while after qualifying, though, the Air Mary scandal took a backseat to questions about the Senator’s residency, as Landrieu used her parents’ house in New Orleans as her Louisiana address. That set off a round of distracting, and ultimately fruitless, challenges to her qualifications for re-election. But when September 8, which was Landrieu’s self-imposed deadline for getting to the bottom of her “bookkeeping” problems, came and went without any such disclosures, the issue resurfaced with a vengeance. First came an “audit” by the Republican National Committee detailing nine separate trips since 2000 charged to the taxpayer for campaign travel, and then Landrieu’s reluctant disclosure on Friday with forty-three separate instances since 2002. There are no disclosures from 1997-2002, her first term in office, purportedly because it was in 2002 that the Federal Election Commission changed the rules on congressional travel to allow prorating between official and campaign trips—prior to 2002 those trips had to be paid for either by the office account or the campaign account.
We are to apparently believe that either Landrieu’s bookkeeping never did catch up with the new rules. That, or Landrieu doesn’t want the voters to know she’s been stealing free travel ever since she took office following what looked a lot like a stolen election in 1996.
The Senator says these are mere mistakes, and she has repaid the taxpayer for all $34,000—which represents some 11 percent of all of her travel expenses since 2000. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s conservative columnist James Varney is asking why U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New Orleans Kenneth Polite isn’t opening an investigation into the repeated violation of federal law this scandal represents.
But the travel scandal is a giant piece of a building narrative of Landrieu as a privileged Washington insider out of touch with the people she purportedly represents. A web ad put together by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC hammered Landrieu for her D.C. attachments and $2.5 million Washington mansion last month, and with Chartergate back in full flower that narrative is taking hold.
A pair of polls released earlier this month show the trouble Landrieu is in with the electorate. She trailed the leading Republican Bill Cassidy by 44-41 in a Rasmussen survey released September 4, and in a CBS News/New York Times YouGov poll released September 8 she trailed Cassidy 38-36 with leaners included.
George Will once said that a good scandal merely reinforces what people already believe about its subject, and the Air Mary disclosures fit nicely with that truism. Landrieu, in fact, has touted her status as a powerful member of the D.C. elite as an asset to her voters through the years. Tepid media coverage to date aside, how ironic that Louisianans tailgating at LSU or gathering around office water-coolers should be discussing that very subject as proof in their minds she’s been in Washington too long.