Sen. Mary Landrieu’s political campaign has caught the political equivalent of herpes as it battles a series of damaging outbreaks that won’t go away stemming from her activities of last Nov. 8, because these revelations too usefully destroy her campaign narrative.
The infection began when Democrat Landrieu on the morning of that day hitched a ride on Air Force One to Armstrong International Airport outside New Orleans with her co-partisan Pres. Barack Obama, yet then failed to accompany him to an appearance at the Port of New Orleans, citing she had a “long-standing” commitment for a campaign function in Lake Charles, some 180 miles from Kenner. Commentators snickered and her Republican opponents and their supporters baited her about how this was an attempt to “hide” in order to avoid being seen with Obama, who then and now continues to be deeply unpopular in Louisiana.
Later, Landrieu would claim that could not be the case, being as she appeared in photographs with Obama (as well as her brother New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Gov. Bobby Jindal). But it’s one thing to be in a few snapshots that may or may not appear in Louisiana media outlets; it’s another entirely to stand or sit next to him on stage and walk by him for an extended period with several hundred constituents about that certainly would get media coverage that hundreds of thousands of more constituents would see or hear.
Still, there was that campaign event excuse, which begged the question of whether she was sacrificing her job duties – gaining a greater understanding of the Port to make more effective decisions on government policy that could affect it – to go sell her candidacy and grub for cash. Nonetheless, and perhaps to accentuate the point that she couldn’t hang with the guy whose policies she has voted for 97 percent of the time, after Air Force One touched down around 10:45 AM, she shortly thereafter hopped a charter flight to Lake Charles in order to make it on time to the late lunch/early afternoon event, obviating a drive that would take about (given decent traffic conditions in Baton Rouge and hoping the 55-mile-an-hour stretch on Interstate 10 over the Atchafalaya Basin was moving along) three hours.
That chartered flight would come under criticism a couple of weeks ago, when USA Today and its Gannett affiliates in a story about senators racking up big chartering bills on taxpayers’ backs noted Landrieu, from a state not that geographically large with five interstate highways passing through, was one of the biggest offenders last year, and identified that trip as particularly egregious (it reported the round-trip figure as $5,500). Landrieu’s office defended that choice, saying it was cost effective for what she had to do.
But none of this was as forced a choice as was then implied. Landrieu could have spent far less in aggregate (assuming the Air Force Once trip was a freebie, which if for official business on her part could have been categorized as such) with better planning. The Senate met on Nov. 7 and she was there for a vote in the early afternoon. Yet after that, little of consequence happened, just some discussing of other pieces of legislation, dealing with a low-level nomination, and memorializing several members of the armed forces. It adjourned at 6:15 PM and would reconvene for housekeeping purposes for less than a minute the next day. Hardly anybody was around, for it was known long in advance that everybody wanted to bug out for a long Veterans’ Day weekend.
So Landrieu could have left in the afternoon on a commercial flight (senators get a certain number as compensation, although they do cost the taxpayer) to New Orleans and then had plenty of time to make the drive (with mileage compensation by taxpayers, about $200) in the morning to Lake Charles. Alternatively, she could have split at day’s end and made it to Dulles Airport just outside of Washington and left on either of at least a pair of flights leaving just before 8 PM EST and arriving in New Orleans just before 10 PM CST. While the schedule may have been different months ago than now, and prices would not be the same but likely not too different, and availability could vary (actually giving her more options as there might be more and later flights the not sold out), but assuming her office made reservations only the day before (even as they knew of the “long-standing” event and adjournment plans well in advance), doing so today for tomorrow through Sunday costs around $765 round trip, assuming a return on that Sunday.
In other words, Landrieu could have made the trip to the Lake Charles fundraiser probably for less than $1,000 without really missing any work if it was so important enough to pass on her BFF’s visit. She could claim being on the same plane with him for a couple of hours was worth that extra $4,500 to taxpayers and her constituents, but it’s difficult to believe that he would sit at rapt attention to whatever she said entirely uninterrupted by matters of state throughout. Chances are she got in maybe 15 minutes of dedicated attention about policy – and why couldn’t that have been done by phone while she was being ferried to Lake Charles?
Thus, Landrieu spent $4,500 extra of the people’s money to get a picture of herself with the president, while passing up on an opportunity to learn more about her state, in order to go beg for bucks, which isn’t quite flattering but gets worse. Because when the story broke about her profligacy in the air, at that time only the campaign made what to the media should have been an obvious connection, which CNN did actually belatedly figure it out: since the jaunt to Lake Charles was a campaign function, it never should have gotten charged to taxpayers in the first place.
This led to the third damaging story about the incident, with CNN reporting that $3,200 of the expense was charged to taxpayers (in the travel budget afforded a senator beyond the free domestic flights to the state) – illegally. The campaign says it quietly caught the error after the USA Today inquiry (and probably hoped nobody else would) and had to issue an embarrassing statement about the error only coming to its attention almost eight months after the fact, claiming the charter operator had billed incorrectly and the campaign didn’t notice, and then finding a way to reverse it. Regardless, Landrieu can be prosecuted for this diversion.
The more cynical will believe that the campaign knew all along and was trying to slip this past everybody to save some lucre, but even taking it on good faith, this seems incredibly inept on the part of a senator’s staff. After all, of all the chartered trips she took and the $47,000 she had racked up in 2013 on them, because of the controversy surrounding her need to take it – because she waited until Friday morning to catch tag along on Air Force One and then ditched Obama upon landing – that one should have been the most memorable of all. For this to appear credible, it would take an extremely inattentive, if not incompetent staff, to have blithely rung that one up on the taxpayers and an obtuse campaign staff that in early January did not remember to put it down on the fourth quarter campaign expenditures report, given all the publicity about this event.
Like herpes, the fateful decision to abandon Obama in Kenner keeps erupting with bad consequences for the Landrieu campaign, especially given the narrative it tries to propagate to save her job, that she’s indispensable for Louisiana. Instead, it signals that she puts appearance over substance: she’s more interested in projecting a certain campaign image and in campaigning than in learning about her state’s needs, in wisely spending taxpayer resources, and in following the law, to the point that after 18 years of practice she maintains a staff that either is dishonest or incompetent in assisting her living of a jet-setter life far removed from her state and the experiences of its people.
Going beyond a few thousand dollars of public money spent and choices of who to hang out with made, this image of her as disconnected and unrepresentative of the people is one that that her opponents already have begun to exploit. That her decisions on this that alone created the controversy also makes it easier to query credibly whether voters ought to retain a senator of such questionable judgment.