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Tim Burns: He finds Segway to beat odds

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During his first run for public office in 2003, Tim Burns hit on an idea for attracting attention to his underdog candidacy in Louisiana's 89th House District.

The Mandeville lawyer and accountant had built a solid private-sector resumé. But he possessed little political experience beyond a stint as a lobbyist, and influential Republicans in the conservative district were supporting one of his opponents.

Burns began performing his door-knocking rounds on a Segway, the two-wheeled, battery-operated device vaguely resembling a scooter. At the time, it had been available to the public for less than a year, and Burns says he was the first U.S. politician to use it on the campaign trail.

"That's how I was known. I was the guy on the Segway," he recalled.

Burns pulled off the upset in that election, and he attracted no opposition when he signed up last year for a second term.

Now his fleet of Segways has grown to four, for himself and staffers, and he again hopes to ride to victory over an opponent with heavyweight backers, this time as one of four Republicans vying to succeed Bobby Jindal in the U.S. House.

His geeky brand of attention-getting, combined with a knack for churning out controversial bills even as a newcomer, has kept Burns, 50, in the spotlight as he begins his second term in the Legislature. While pursuing a socially conservative and small government agenda, the Republican lawmaker also published his third book, a self-help treatise called "Midlife Tune-Up" that was inspired by his own midlife crisis.

A crowded field

Some analysts think a north shore candidate such as Burns could win in the 1st Congressional District for the first time in decades, because 57 percent of the district's voters now live in the north shore parishes of St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington. The rest live in parts of Jefferson, St. Charles and Orleans parishes.

But Burns is sharing his north shore base with two other Republicans, Slidell Mayor Ben Morris and Mandeville businessman David Simpson. The lone Republican candidate on the south shore is state Sen. Steve Scalise of Jefferson, who has the backing of blue-chip fundraisers Joe Canizaro and Donald "Boysie" Bollinger, plus former 1st District Rep. Bob Livingston as his honorary campaign chairman.

The winners of the March 8 party primaries, along with two candidates not affiliated with state-recognized political parties, will face each other in a general election on April 5 or May 3. Republicans have held the seat since 1977, however, and analysts don't expect that to change this year.

At last count, Scalise had $274,427 in his campaign coffers, with Burns at about $61,000 and Morris at $23,000. Simpson had not filed a report.

Burns said the disparities in fundraising and endorsements -- Scalise has all four of Louisiana's Republican congressmen in his camp -- do not bother him.

"I'm not fazed by it. It was the exact same scenario when I ran before," Burns said. "All the heavy hitters were lined up behind my opponent. They were all at a party at Sal and Judy's, and 10 days later, I won the election."

To make up ground, Burns has been going on the attack with verbal salvos at candidate forums and elsewhere. He accuses Scalise, a 12-year state representative before moving to the state Senate on Jan. 14, of kowtowing to business interests and engaging in dirty tactics during the current campaign.

Like Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and CEO who dropped out of the presidential race two weeks ago, Burns has touted himself as the only major candidate with significant experience in the corporate world. He is vice president and general counsel at a Mandeville tugboat and barge company.

Many of Burns' early campaign contributions have come from individuals in the marine industry, but he said he will maintain his independence from special interests.

"I've been independent and run against the grain. I do what I think is right," Burns said. "When you're totally independent, you sometimes don't end up with a lot of endorsements."

Going after a dream

Burns has nurtured a dream of becoming a congressman since his days as a campaign volunteer for Livingston in the late 1970s. He was raised in the Lakeview section of New Orleans and moved to St. Tammany Parish in 1989.

By then, he had spent eight years at Tulane University earning Phi Beta Kappa status, a bachelor's degree in economics, a master's degree in business administration and a law degree.

He attended Tulane tuition-free for five of those years on waivers given to him by then-Reps. Ralph Miller, D-Norco; Sam LeBlanc, D-New Orleans; and Quentin Dastugue, R-Jefferson. State law dating from 1884 exempts Tulane from some state and local taxes and in exchange lets each legislator waive tuition for a Louisiana resident each year. In the 1990s, the waivers became controversial when some legislators were discovered to be giving them to relatives, friends and even themselves.

Burns said he received his scholarships because of his strong academic record, not family connections.

"My parents were out of the loop," he said.

As a state legislator, Burns initially focused on tax policy, introducing many tax-related bills and suing the state Tax Commission on behalf of St. Tammany Parish property owners who considered their assessments unfair. Nor did he forget the vehicle that helped get him elected, passing an amendment that allowed the Segway on sidewalks and some streets.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Burns shifted his priorities to storm recovery, securing passage of a bill that gave policy holders an extra year to sue their insurance companies and a bill creating a text messaging system to disseminate information during disasters.

'A gutsy move'

But what some of Burns' legislative colleagues remember most about his record in Baton Rouge is a measure that did not pass.

In April 2005, barely a year into his first term, Burns introduced a bill to let students at failing elementary schools in Orleans Parish use state money for private school tuition. The measure passed the House -- the first time either chamber had approved school voucher legislation -- only to fail by one vote in the Senate Education Committee.

To former Sen. Tom Schedler, R-Mandeville, the bill demonstrated Burns' willingness to pursue his convictions in the face of certain opposition.

"It was a gutsy move," said Schedler, who does not plan to endorse a candidate in the 1st District race. "It was something that really more affected New Orleans, but he was willing to take that on, the wrath of the good old boys' club, so to speak. But he was passionate about it and stuck to his course. He was closer than anybody I remember to getting it passed."

Burns also tried to advance his socially conservative agenda by filing a bill that would have permitted abortions only to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest. The bill, which Burns eventually dropped in deference to one proposed by another legislator, was identical to a 1991 measure that the federal courts had declared unconstitutional.

If elected to Congress, Burns said he plans to continue in many of the same directions he has pursued as a state legislator, including hurricane recovery. The north shore needs better roads to handle its population growth, while south shore residents are concerned about drainage and levees as well as crime, Burns said.

Along with Scalise and Morris, Burns has signed the Americans for Tax Reforms pledge to oppose tax increases. He said he would like to repeal the estate tax and cut corporate tax rates, in addition to making President Bush's tax cuts permanent.

"There is sympathy for our area. There is goodwill. We have to tap into it and work with Democrats to get what we need to recover, so they won't hear from us again," Burns said.

. . . . . . .

Cindy Chang can be reached at cchang@timespicayune.com or (985) 898-4816.


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