Congressmen Charles Boustany and Cedric Richmond don't have much in common on the surface. Boustany is a 55-year-old Republican heart surgeon from Lafayette and the grandson of a Lebanese immigrant. He's known for being quiet and thoughtful, if not downright shrewd, and has six years of experience on the Hill.
Richmond, 37, is a smooth-talking New Orleans attorney and a Democratic freshman. When he was a member of the state House, Richmond was considered part of the backbone of the Legislative Black Caucus. A bachelor, he was known for hitting Red Stick's bars and clubs.
Yet when it comes to hurricane recovery policy, this odd couple is on the same page. Recently, they teamed up to push legislation to extend the Gulf Opportunity Zone Low Income Housing Tax Credit through 2012. The program, a remnant of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, encourages developers and investors to rebuild in devastated areas. Boustany and Richmond even issued a joint news release about the legislation.
Beyond mutual recovery considerations, the two men might be joining together for another reason. After all, depending on the political wind direction in the coming months, Boustany's 7th Congressional District, anchored by Lake Charles and Lafayette, soon may bump up against Richmond's 2nd District, long owned by metro New Orleans.
The backstory lies in a politicians-only meeting in Washington, D.C. last year. Every member of Louisiana's House delegation was present and had an equal voice. Redistricting — more specifically, the matter of losing one congressional district due to stagnant population figures over the last decade — topped the agenda. "We as a delegation voted on principles," Boustany recalls.
The legislators, including Boustany, weighed in cautiously, each obviously aware that potentially it could be their district that falls under the ax. Today the redistricting process is under way, and U.S. Census data are widely available. State lawmakers will convene a special session March 20 to redraw many political lines. Their plans ultimately require U.S. Justice Department approval — and even then, any plan can be challenged in court. Boustany says the delegation agreed to five principles:
• One House member will have to "draw the minority district," the majority African-American district required by the Voting Rights Act. That district undoubtedly will include New Orleans, but because Louisiana is losing a congressional seat, it is likely to stretch up the Mississippi River toward Baton Rouge.
• We should adhere to the concept of two districts in north Louisiana, which is another way of ensuring Shreveport and Monroe maintain their traditional power bases.
• There should be a district for East Baton Rouge Parish, which is the most populous parish in the state.
• A new district will be needed for the New Orleans suburbs and nearby coastal parishes; it would be in the vicinity of Jefferson Parish and the southeastern shoreline.
• There should be a Lafayette/coastal district that pulls in Lake Charles.
For Boustany, there's no principle more important than the last one. It would allow him to maintain his base in the current 7th District. The principles adopted at the meeting also would merge the 7th District with the western side of the 3rd District, including the New Iberia home of freshman Rep. Jeff Landry, a fellow Republican. That's where things get sticky.
"At no point in time did this delegation ever vote or come to a consensus on a set of principles or a redistricting map," says Phillip Joffrion, Landry's chief of staff. Joffrion says those principles were agreed to by the previous delegation — without his boss, who was seated as a freshman in January. Landry was elected in November to succeed former Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville, who lost a bid for the U.S. Senate and is already on his way to becoming a lobbyist.
As the special redistricting session draws closer, Boustany is aggressively pushing the principles. In the process, some say he's breaking an old rule among Louisiana's congressional delegation: Tread carefully when you're in another congressman's district. Boustany staffers have been visiting editorial departments in the 3rd Congressional District, and folks involved with campaign fundraising in the coastal parishes contend Boustany "is quietly invading the 3rd District."
Right now, Boustany has the political gravitas to get his way. He's a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which is among the most powerful panels in Washington. He's Louisiana's second-longest serving House member — at a time when the GOP controls the House. And he's a personal friend of House Speaker John Boehner.
Boustany is not flashy, however. Quiet and convincing are more like it — which may explain his upward mobility in some circles. "I've really gotten close to [Speaker Boehner] over the years," Boustany says. "I was part of the small group that helped him become majority leader in 2006 [after Tom DeLay's resignation]. It was a real underdog campaign, and I was one of the five or six people helping him run his House." During the 2010 cycle, Boustany raised more than $1.6 million as an unopposed incumbent. He also can tap his personal resources when needed. "Dr. Boustany's influence continues to grow each year and took a big leap when Boehner was elected speaker," says Charlie Davis of Baton Rouge, former deputy director of the Louisiana Republican Party and now the president of the Republican Leadership Conference. "He brings a very focused approach to his work in D.C. and in the district."
Boustany brings that kind of focus to the redistricting process as well. His growing territorial feud with Landry has been well-covered by the media — except for how the feud started. In a way, the anecdote shows just how ingrained Boustany has become in the redistricting process, or just how lucky his cards are right now.
In mid-January, members of the House delegation had a dinner meeting with state Sen. Robert W. "Bob" Kostelka, a Monroe Republican who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee in the Louisiana Legislature. Kostelka's Senate committee, along with its counterpart in the state House, oversees the redistricting process. According to sources familiar with the meeting, Kostelka at some point during his visit distributed maps to members of the congressional delegation — an opening salvo of sorts.
While Kostelka has not returned calls requesting an interview, one map displays Boustany's wishes clearly: It's a proposed coastal district stretching from Terrebonne Parish through Landry's base of New Iberia and into Lake Charles. Of course, it's just a map, nothing more than speculation at this point. But it's enough to fuel the now-raging Boustany-Landry wildfire.
Louisiana Democrats hope the two men will obliterate each other politically. "The biggest threat to Boustany's rising star in Washington will probably come from Jeff Landry, not Louisiana Democrats," says one Democratic official. "Boustany may be a Washington insider with powerful friends, but none of that is going to help him in a street fight with Jeff Landry."
Last year, Landry took down a seasoned and well-liked politician in the form of one-time state House Speaker Hunt Downer, whom Boustany had endorsed. Landry did it with a unique combination of support from the Christian Right and Tea Party advocates. He also raised a lot of money — only $200,000 less than Boustany, an incumbent, raised last year — against two well-funded candidates. (Those constituencies might also find fault with Boustany's past support of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and pro-gun control.)
Landry also is on a bit of a hot streak. In elected office for less than two months, he already has appeared on Fox News and in a New York Times editorial for criticizing a recent federal oil spill report.
As for redistricting, Landry supports a plan drafted by state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, endorsed by parish councils and pushed by local officials. As proposed, it would encompass the entire shoreline from Cameron to Plaquemines parishes, including Lafayette but excluding Boustany's home base in Lake Charles (Calcasieu Parish). "Coastal issues have become among the most important for our state, and it's time we speak with one voice," Harrison says. "We need a full-time spokesperson."
In previous interviews, Boustany and Landry offered careful words for the all-coastal plan:
Landry: "These state senators, state representatives, and parish and local leaders know that a divided voice will cost Louisiana jobs, result in continued lost revenue from offshore production moratoriums and red tape, and will harm the ability to protect and restore our coast. Working together as one unit, they believe, will allow them to speak with one voice and fight for Louisiana's coast."
Boustany: "I will fight hard to keep Lafayette and Lake Charles in the same district, as southwest Louisiana's economy benefits by having these two metropolitan areas together."
The all-coastal plan is exactly what Landry has been pining for since redistricting numbers started to gel. Landry wants a new district comprising much of his current district — including his hometown — and half of Boustany's district. Such a plan would put Boustany in the 4th District, which is dominated by western and northern Louisiana parishes and currently represented by Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, who, coincidentally, is also a physician.
According to sources on the Hill, Landry has pitched the idea to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican. As a senator, Vitter doesn't have a dog in this hunt, although he's said to have a sympathetic ear. For his part, Boustany cut his teeth a long time ago and can stand on his own. Moreover, a congressman or candidate for Congress can legally run in any district in the state, as long as he or she resides in the state. Politically, however, it's much safer to run where you live — and to have a district that plays to your strengths.
Much like the brand sometimes touted by Gov. Bobby Jindal, Boustany can rightfully proclaim himself a disaster-tested public servant. As a freshman, he was the voice of the southwestern Louisiana coast during Hurricane Rita, which devastated Cameron Parish and other locales. Because it made landfall shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rita suffered from a lack of recognition in the mainstream media and in Washington. Boustany quickly coined — and still takes credit for — the phrase "Rita Amnesia."
Mike Stagg, a member of the Lafayette Parish Democratic Executive Committee who ran against Boustany 2006, credits Boustany for branding the term and notes that he has adapted to changing political tides. "He has sort of morphed from a reasonably likable guy who was more open, to a complete party man," Stagg says. "But I don't think he's an ideologue. He doesn't have it in him."
In fact, Boustany is undergoing yet another transformation these days. He's becoming a foreign policy expert with an emphasis on trade — the kind of trade that folks back home understand, the kind that means big bucks and good jobs for Louisiana.
Boustany co-chairs the so-called U.S.-China Working Group. Its mission is to build diplomatic relations with China and make Congress more aware of related issues. "A strong relationship with China is critical for Louisiana," Boustany says. "Louisiana is a leader in global exports, thanks to our agriculture and petroleum industries, as well as the extensive port system along the coast."
The math is as convincing as the man: Louisiana is the fourth largest exporter to China among the 50 states, with more than $2.7 billion in exports through the third quarter of 2010. The gig also comes with amazing access. For example, last month Boustany had a private meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the U.S. Capitol.
Trade is the new buzzword for Boustany and, once again, it could bring him national attention. In an effort to build on this policy front, Boustany is leveraging his position on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, where he chairs the oversight subcommittee. While sitting on the panel, Boustany has been able to lobby for free trade agreements and question key business leaders from across the country.
In some respects, Boustany is elusive. He came from seemingly nowhere and now he's in the middle of all sorts of intrigue. You also get the sense he is up for any challenge, political or otherwise. Maybe it was his medical training and real life experiences in the wake of Hurricane Rita. During those desperate first hours, Boustany and a single aide jumped from one safe shelter to another in Cameron Parish. The sheriff's office. A hotel. A boat. A helicopter.
It was one of the worst natural disasters Louisiana had ever seen, and Boustany's first taste of public service. "I felt like I had all of the responsibilities on my shoulders," he recalls before adding that he's learned how to bear the burden with the help of a few well-placed friends and some hard work.
What's even more amazing is how quickly it could all be taken from him, based on the placement of a few lines in this month's special session.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.