Vitter, foes hard to distinguish in fealty to energy industry

By Daniel Bush | 09/11/2015 07:14 AM EDT

LAKE CHARLES, La. — On a recent weekday morning, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (R) and state Rep. John Bel Edwards (D) sat side by side on stage in a ballroom at the Golden Nugget casino in this small southwestern Louisiana city.

They praised each other and slammed Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), the man they hope to succeed in the state’s four-way, open-seat gubernatorial race this fall. Neither one mentioned Republican Sen. David Vitter, who skipped the forum but is widely considered the front-runner in a race that, if he wins, would cement his political legacy and help bury once and for all his scandal-scarred Capitol Hill past.

As Dardenne and Edwards took turns pledging allegiance to the state’s forestry and energy sectors, the room full of powerful industry officials nodded along, seemingly eager to get the debate over with so they could move on to the midday happy hour being prepared by staff in a carpeted lobby nearby.


Welcome to the singular world of Pelican State politics, where Democrats and Republicans alike must appeal to entrenched oil and gas interests while finding new, bipartisan ways to address coastal erosion and other environmental challenges in the wake of the BP PLC oil spill and Hurricane Katrina (ClimateWire, Sept. 11).

With the term-limited Jindal off campaigning for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, voters here are starting to focus on the race to replace him, which is shining a spotlight on energy and environmental issues.

If no candidate wins a majority in the Oct. 24 open-party primary, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff in November, a likely outcome given the large number of registered Democrats who help split the vote in Louisiana’s quirky primary system.

But while a runoff between Vitter and Edwards — the only major Democratic candidate in the race — appeared all but certain just a few months ago, recent polls show a tighter contest on the GOP side between Vitter, Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, a Democrat-turned-Republican former secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.

"Vitter has been the presumptive favorite for a long time, [but] he can be beaten. He’s not inevitable," argued Roy Fletcher, a veteran Louisiana political strategist consulting Angelle’s campaign. Another "candidate that’s conservative and has a good message could really do well," he said.

All in against the Clean Power Plan

Scoring an upset win won’t be easy, however. Vitter has a large cash advantage and high statewide name recognition after 10 ½ years in the Senate. And his opponents have struggled to differentiate themselves on key policy issues.

All four candidates back the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s $50 billion, 50-year master plan to rebuild Louisiana’s threatened coastline. They also support investment in a passenger rail system between New Orleans and the state capital of Baton Rouge, a proposal Jindal sidelined in 2009 when he refused to apply for federal high-speed rail funding.

But the debate over U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan offers the clearest example of the overlapping politics at play in the race. Under the newly finalized plan, the centerpiece of President Obama’s climate change legacy, Louisiana is required to reduce its power-sector carbon emissions roughly 29 percent below 2012 levels by 2030.

The target is far smaller than the 39 percent goal that EPA laid out in its draft rule last year. Nevertheless, state regulators claim the interim targets discriminate against Louisiana because the state would have to meet many of them by 2020, leaving little time for coal- and natural gas-dependent power companies to begin making the switch to renewable energy.

The stakes could not be higher for Louisiana. A severance tax on the oil and gas produced in the state accounts for approximately 13 percent of Louisiana’s annual budget, according to Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, one of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups.

Industry leaders like Briggs worry that the rule would hurt energy producers at a time when the sector is reeling from a slump in world oil prices and further reduce the flow of a crucial revenue source to a state already facing a $1.6 billion budget deficit this year.

The Clean Power Plan would be a "tremendous burden on the industry and the state of Louisiana," Briggs said in an interview. Going after "the oil and gas industry isn’t going [to help], because we’re already sitting here dying on the vine."

"The state has to oppose the rule," Briggs added.

So far, Louisiana has done just that. State Attorney General James Caldwell (R) joined several other states in launching a lawsuit against the draft rule and has signaled plans to mount a new legal challenge.

Jindal, who has emerged as a leading GOP critic of the Obama administration’s energy and climate policies, has also taken aim at the rule. Shortly after it was released last month, a spokesman for the governor said the final plan was part of a "radical liberal agenda that will lead to increased energy costs."

A ‘real attempt at overreach’

Vitter, Dardenne and Angelle, who serves on the five-person regulatory agency that oversees the state’s public utilities, have all blasted EPA’s plan, suggesting that it would continue to come under fire should a GOP candidate win the election.

Environmental advocates said they weren’t surprised. The candidates’ views are "pretty consistent with how officials in Louisiana have operated for the last 40 or 50 years," said William Fontenot, acting chairman of the Sierra Club’s Louisiana chapter.

But that line of attack hasn’t made much of an impact on the campaign trail. Vitter, a persistent critic of Obama’s EPA, said that as governor, he would pursue a "determined litigation strategy" to block the rule from taking effect, joining forces with other conservative states that have vowed to oppose the plan.

"I would work with other states and other governors who think this is enormous federal overreach," Vitter said in a brief interview before an event in New Orleans marking the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. "I would certainly draw on that and hopefully be a leader on that."

Dardenne, a former state senator and one-time Louisiana secretary of State, used similar language in an interview with E&E Daily after the candidate forum at the Golden Nugget casino in Lake Charles.

"There’s been a real attempt at overreaching by the federal government, and I hope we can stop it," Dardenne said. "We’ve got to protect and strengthen Louisiana’s oil and gas industry."

Angelle’s campaign declined a request for comment. But the Breaux Bridge, La., native is a vocal critic of the power plant rule and a veteran power broker in the state’s long-running battle between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry.

Angelle was appointed, as a Democrat, by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) to head the state Department of Natural Resources in 2004 and was reappointed to the post by Jindal in 2008.

In 2010, while serving as both DNR secretary and Jindal’s official legislative liaison, Angelle struck a deal on a bill resolving a thorny dispute over so-called legacy lawsuits from landowners seeking compensation for pollution caused by old oil drilling projects. The compromise forced oil companies to meet stricter cleanup standards and let plaintiffs seek greater damages in court.

At the same time, Angelle, whose father, James Burton "Burt" Angelle, served as a state lawmaker and longtime secretary of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, also took steps to boost offshore oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.

During a six-month stint as interim lieutenant governor in 2010 — Angelle filled the role at Jindal’s request after then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (D) stepped down to become mayor of New Orleans — Angelle led the state’s effort to lift the federal moratorium on Gulf Coast drilling put in place after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill that April.

"Enough is enough. It’s time to quit punishing innocent American workers to achieve some unrealistic political agenda," Angelle said later that year in a fiery speech on ending the moratorium.

"Louisiana has a long and strong distinguished history of fueling America," he added. "And while we, too, support the use of renewable and alternative energy, let’s keep the conversation real: America is not yet ready to get all of its fuel from the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees."

Angelle agreed to step down as lieutenant governor and return to his post atop DNR later that year (Dardenne won the special election to replace Landrieu and a full, four-year term in 2011). His brief tenure as the state’s No. 2 official paid off, however, helping raise Angelle’s profile ahead of his successful run for the Public Service Commission in 2013.

Louisiana’s Democratic blues

Unlike Angelle and his other GOP rivals, Edwards has shown a greater willingness to promote renewable energy policies and take on the oil and gas industry.

In an interview, Edwards said he was open to backing the Clean Power Plan but stressed that he needed to study the details of the final rule before taking a position.

"We ought to look at what the cost-benefit analysis would be if we move away from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas," Edwards said. "We would probably be better served by having that conversation and being engaged, as opposed to just firing off letters and op-eds" slamming the rule.

Edwards also criticized Jindal for his views on climate change, insisting that he would take a different approach as governor.

"I don’t know enough about climate change and whether it’s human-induced to argue with the scientists who do know," Edwards said, "and so I think we need to take it seriously and work in a reasonable way in order to combat it."

Edwards, a trial attorney and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was elected to the state Legislature in 2008. He announced his gubernatorial bid in 2013 and became the Democratic establishment favorite after the state’s best-known Democrats — including Mitch Landrieu and his sister, former Sen. Mary Landrieu — declined to jump into the race.

Mary Landrieu’s Senate loss last year was a blow for Louisiana Democrats. Landrieu ran on a strong pro-energy platform, touting her seniority in Washington and chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Committee, but was soundly defeated, 56 percent to 44 percent, by then-Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) in their December runoff.

The contest highlighted the Democratic Party’s dwindling popularity in right-leaning states across the South. "Right now, it’s difficult if not impossible" for a Democrat to win a statewide race in Louisiana, said Fletcher, the political strategist.

Still, Edwards appears to be following Landrieu’s playbook as he seeks to become Louisiana’s only statewide Democratic official.

When it comes to energy policy, "I am probably the most open-minded of the four candidates, but I am absolutely committed to preserving a very strong oil and gas industry in Louisiana," Edwards said. He added, "I’m the type of Democrat who won routinely in Louisiana" in the past.

Vitter leading the money race

Few statewide polls have been done on the race thus far, making it hard to gauge where the candidates stand. In an Market Research Insight poll taken over the summer, 25 percent of voters said they supported Angelle, compared to 22 percent for Vitter. Edwards finished third with 20 percent, followed by Dardenne with 12 percent.

The poll of 600 residents was taken July 27-31 and had a 4-point margin of error.

But in the end, Vitter’s advantage in the money race could be the deciding factor. Vitter reported $5 million in the bank after raising $1.3 million in the second quarter of 2015, according to his latest filing.

Dardenne reported having $1.8 million in the bank through mid-July, while Edwards and Angelle had a little more than $1 million in their campaign coffers. Angelle launched television ads earlier this year, and Edwards and Vitter have followed with their own TV spots as voters begin paying more attention to the race ahead of the Oct. 24 primary.

There are signs that the contest could turn ugly in its final weeks. Earlier this week, an independent group called the Louisiana Water Coalition released a digital 30-second spot reminding voters of the 2007 "D.C. Madam" prostitution scandal that nearly sank Vitter’s congressional career. Some voters said they don’t need a reminder.

"That stays on my mind," said Danny Landry, the owner of a UPS store in Lafayette, La., who is still deciding whom to support in the primary next month.

But in a sign that voters may be willing to look past Vitter’s past problems, Landry said he isn’t interested in revisiting the scandal. "I’m not going to judge him," he said. "There are plenty of elected and unelected people who have done worse."

People in Vitter’s camp are confident that the scandal won’t be an issue this fall and say the senator is excited about the prospect of leaving Washington for the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge.

If he is elected governor, Vitter will get to choose a temporary successor, and voters will elect a senator to a full six-year term in 2016. Already, Reps. Charles Boustany (R) and John Fleming (R), state Treasurer John Kennedy (R) and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness (R) are jockeying for the hypothetical opening. If Vitter, who is 54, loses this fall, he could conceivably seek a third Senate term next year.

Vitter faced criticism for missing some gubernatorial forums over the summer, but he appears increasingly focused on the primary and ready to spend heavily in the final weeks of his campaign.

At a debate in New Orleans earlier this month, Edwards greeted Vitter by saying, "David, it is especially nice to see you."

"Just turn on the TV," Vitter responded. "You’ll see me all the time."