MELANCON VS ROMERO
Emotions, insurance issues could define 3rd Congressional District
The race’s two high-profile candidates -- incumbent U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon and state Sen. Craig Romero -- qualified at the State Capitol last week and everything from their bank accounts to tone foretells of a heated competition. Unexpectedly, they were joined by two virtually unknowns, James Lee Blake Jr., a Libertarian from Franklin, and Olangee "OJ" Breech, a Democrat from LaPlace.
Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District contains mostly traditional Cajun parishes, stretching from the St. Martin-Iberia line in the west to the bottom reaches of Plaquemines. It’s a land of farmers, roughnecks, fishermen and conservative families who voted overwhelmingly for President Bush. In the 2004 congressional contest, however, the district’s 114,653 votes split almost equally along Republican and Democratic lines.
Bubbling under the surface are a variety of issues resulting from last year’s hurricanes. Insurance matters have been core concerns south of Interstate 10 and both major candidates recommend similar solutions on certain issues. They also agree the topic could become the race’s defining factor if the electorate continues to express outrage.
There are indications the cost of running could top what was spent last time around when the field swelled to six candidates. Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville, and his Republican opponent from the 2004 runoff, Billy Tauzin III of Thibodaux, spent more than $3.3 million to make it to the final showing.
Both Melancon and Romero, a New Iberia Republican, have already spent more than $500,000 in this election cycle and the big expenses haven’t even started. Following the second quarter, Melancon had about $1.7 million in the bank and Romero nearly $1 million.
The numbers are historically high for the region, and nationally in some respects, and Melancon suggested it’s only the beginning.
"We are geared up to have a budget of $2.2 million, and we can get more if we need to," he said.
Romero, meanwhile, is touting donations top-ranking GOP leaders like House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt made to him during a fund raiser hosted recently in Washington. It’s a far cry from two years ago when Republican support fractured.
"We are raising more money faster than we did two years ago," Romero said.
The chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party and a national co-founder of the Christian Coalition have endorsed Romero, but Melancon said he questions whether the GOP is supporting Romero whole-heartedly.
"I haven’t seen the national party even get involved," Melancon said, questioning the significance of the D.C. leadership’s checks. "When you really put on a big fund raiser in Washington, you just don’t send out an e-mail and ask people to write checks.
"As for the state (Republican) party," Melancon added, "they don’t have anywhere else to send their money. We’re the biggest race."
Roger F. Villere Jr., state GOP chairman, said Melancon "does not characterize the typical voter in south Louisiana" and attempted to link the congressman with other politicians conservatives regularly label as extreme liberals. It’s a recurring theme.
"His rapid support of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards show that he is against traditional family values and for a “cut-and-run’ approach to the Iraq war," Villere said.
Romero, who was edged out of the 2004 runoff by Melancon by only 1 percent of the vote, concurred with Villere’s statement, gladly pushing the relationship between Melancon and Pelosi.
Romero is admittedly comfortable on the attack. He hammered away relentlessly at Tauzin two years ago, often calling him "daddy’s boy" since he was running to replace his father of the same name. In coming weeks, he said he won’t shy away from calling out Melancon, either.
There’s also logic behind the style as well, Romero added.
"I can’t just say I’m a better guy," Romero said. "I have to give you a reason as to what is motivating me to run."
Melancon argues he is an "independent" congressman who often votes with President Bush, although not all the time. He said he hopes Romero takes a more upbeat approach to campaigning.
"Craig Romero hasn’t said a positive thing since he’s been running," Melancon said.
Both Melancon and Romero agree, however, that insurance concerns are plaguing ongoing recovery efforts. Most recently, Allstate told lawmakers it may attempt to dump wind and hail coverage in south Louisiana. Not only would this throw consumers into the lurch, but it might discourage economic development, they say.
Consumer-protection laws prohibit Allstate from doing that, at least on paper, and some lawmakers are willing to go back into session to strengthen the laws. Romero believes a legislative response would be appropriate but should be researched further to make sure a special session isn’t wasted time. He suggested the state’s hard-line approach is good for now.
"It is vital that we send a strong message to insurance companies that we will insist that Louisiana laws are strictly enforced," Romero said. "If we let one company cross the line, others will follow."
Melancon said the coverage issue is something for the state to work out on its own, but he backs the efforts of Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration to block Allstate’s move. He also takes a stance similar to Romero’s on the issue of creating a regional or statewide "catastrophe fund."
A similar fund was established in Florida following Hurricane Andrew to sustain insurance claim-coverage capacity in the aftermath of a disaster. It essentially serves as a reinsurance program that reimburses insurers for a portion of catastrophic hurricane losses.
While this issue has the major candidates seeing eye to eye, insurance matters aren’t expected to stop stirring the political pot anytime soon. Major lawsuits are still being argued, significant decisions will be made in coming weeks and hurricane seasons will continue to blow.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.
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