Vitter challenges Jindal on the right
Among the worst-kept secrets in Louisiana politics is that Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. David Vitter can barely stand each other.
Hard feelings go back at least to July 2007, when Vitter's sex scandal—his phone number being found in the address book of a Washington, D.C., madam—erupted on the eve of the kickoff of Jindal's campaign for governor, resulting in a canceled mutual appearance and frosty relations ever since.
After the governor passed on endorsing the senator for re-election in 2010, Vitter made a point of endorsing Jindal in 2011, and then urged him to be boldly conservative in his second term, thus inferring that he had not been so in his first.
In the first months of this term, Vitter cheered on Jindal's change agenda for K-12 education and the public retirement system. The truce ended last week when Vitter swung from the right, criticizing Jindal for his budget policies and, more pointedly, his siding with landowners and environmental lawyers against the oil-and-gas industry over legislation dealing with land pollution claims.
"If the governor wanted to get everyone together to forge a compromise, it would get done," says Vitter, adding that not doing so maintained the status quo of what he calls a "trial lawyer bonanza."
Jindal coolly abstained from responding personally, but did so through his press office, which pointed out that since Congress has not passed a budget in nearly three years, Vitter should attend to his own business. Another statement called Vitter "misinformed" about the oilfield lawsuits issue, in that Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle has been leading negotiations with the stakeholders, who "are close to an agreement."
Legislators, who have been hearing for months how close the sides are to an agreement, finally start hearings on the subject this week, with bills coming at the so-called legacy lawsuits issue from different directions. The matter, which a previous Legislature thought it had fixed in 2006, needs timely resolution. Though the lawsuits are private legal matters, the state has a compelling interest in cleaning up the land and water, as well as in removing the legal obstacles to jobs-producing, taxpaying oil-and-gas exploration.
Because the rights of state landowners are involved and the contamination dates back decades—to when major oil companies did as they pleased—the issue is not so easily framed as business versus trial lawyers, in which contest the conservative governor and Legislature normally would side with the former.
On taxes and workforce development, Jindal may be the most business-friendly governor ever. But in this war between millionaires and billionaires, he treads carefully. Major landowner plaintiffs include former Gov. Mike Foster, Jindal's early patron, and timber magnate Roy O. Martin, a top Jindal supporter, whose attorney-lobbyist Jimmy Faircloth was the governor's first executive counsel.
As an oil state governor, his future path is tricky, too. Especially since the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Jindal has been careful not to appear too cozy with Big Oil. But he also can't afford to alienate the state's major industry and the broader business community, which has been frustrated with the governor over the oilfield cleanup issue but also conflicted about speaking out.
Not so for Vitter. Besides his natural animus toward plaintiffs attorneys and those who hire them, he sees the opportunity to drive a wedge between Jindal and Big Business and to position himself as its champion.
For what? Anywhere else—or but for the summer of 2007—Vitter would already be Louisiana's supreme politico. Instead, he finds himself on unequal footing with his younger rival. Jindal may be term-limited as governor, but his future as a national player is boundless. Vitter can stay in the Senate forever, but his leadership prospects there are limited.
Were Vitter to serve a couple of terms as governor, he could retire to a lucrative law practice and Big Daddy status in state politics. Trouble is, Jindal seems to have adopted a proprietary attitude about the governor's office himself, and may well seek more terms after sitting one out. If so, the interests of these two powerful politicians will continue to conflict, and their verbal punching and parrying might be how they interact for a long time to come.
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