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Big Shoes to Fill 

It didn't take long for the wannabes to charge the stage after Louisiana's U.S. Sen. John Breaux announced his retirement plans last week. As expected, Republican Congressman David Vitter of Metairie was first to announce that he will run. Democratic Congressman Chris John of Crowley is expected to announce his candidacy soon. Others surely will follow.

Breaux no doubt anticipated the rush, and he tried to keep at least some of the spotlight on himself during his announcement. "It would be very premature to talk about who's running for this seat," he told reporters at his announcement. "I'm still in it." Breaux dodged another question about which candidate he might support, although it's widely understood that he favors John, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat from Breaux's Cajun hometown. In fact, he recently told President Bush, while pointing to John at a White House reception, "That's the guy you're gonna be dealing with when I'm gone."

Before we go headlong down the campaign trail, however, let's give Breaux his props. When he finishes his current term -- and he says he has no intention of resigning early -- he will have served three terms in the Senate and seven in the House of Representatives. At the young age of 59, he's one of the most respected veterans on the Hill.

Above all, Breaux earns praise from both sides of the aisle for his role as a consensus-builder -- particularly during these bitter, partisan times. "My sincere hope is that future Congresses will be able to pursue the center-out coalitions that I have advocated," Breaux said in his announcement speech. "It is my hope that cooperation and legitimate compromise between our political parties will not be seen as political failure, but rather as a means of building a stronger democracy that better serves our nation."

That, in a nutshell, tells why Breaux has been so effective for Louisiana and the nation. He did not chair one of the most powerful committees; he did not have a high-ranking leadership position (although he wrote the book on national fundraising as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee); and he did not try to thrust himself into the limelight on hot-button issues. Yet, because of his "center-out" philosophy, he was consistently one of the go-to senators when gridlock set in, regardless of which party controlled Congress or the White House. That position gave him -- and Louisiana -- tremendous leverage, which he always applied in proper measure on behalf of his constituents. He summed up his political philosophy in a few words: "to make government work for everyone."

"I hope my successor will bring a cooperative spirit" to the job, he said later. "There will be others, [because] there's a desperate need for that role."

In the immediate future, Breaux will co-chair Gov.-elect Kathleen Blanco's summit on health care -- a major focus of Breaux's in the Senate. He recently steered the Medicare Bill to a final compromise, and he likewise wants to rescue the Energy Bill, which will send billions of dollars to Louisiana in years to come.

In addition to Vitter and John, potential candidates include state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, who recently finished third in the governor's race; state Treasurer John Kennedy, who was recently re-elected without opposition; former Congressman Buddy Leach, who may opt to seek John's congressional seat instead; Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard of Baton Rouge, who is co-chairing Gov.-elect Blanco's transition team (and who supported Ieyoub for governor, so it's doubtful both men would run); and Bobby Jindal, who just lost the governor's race and who may run for Vitter's seat instead. Jindal and Vitter are Republicans; the rest are Democrats.

Regardless of how the field takes shape over the coming months, the defining quality of the winner is likely to be who best can follow in John Breaux's footsteps. Those will be big shoes to fill, and long strides to match.

click to enlarge Because of his "center-out" philosophy, John Breaux - was one of the go-to senators when gridlock set in.
  • Because of his "center-out" philosophy, John Breaux was one of the go-to senators when gridlock set in.
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