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The Thibodaux Daily Comet - Kennedy Casts Himself as Agent of Change

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Location: Baton Rouge, LA


The Thibodaux Daily Comet - Kennedy Casts Himself as Agent of Change

Jeremy Alford
Capitol Correspondent

State Treasurer John Kennedy isn't just running against an incumbent, he's also running against a legacy.

His bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is partly a quest to unravel what is largely perceived as a political dynasty. Her brother is Mitch Landrieu, the state's lieutenant governor, and their father was Moon Landrieu, an iconic New Orleans mayor.

For some, it's viewed as a benefit, since Landrieu was obviously reared in prominent family that placed considerable value on public service. But for others like Kennedy, it's an attribute that's bolstered more by tradition than anything else.

"What has that clout ever done for our state?" Kennedy asked. "Has that clout fixed our roads? Has that clout built levees in Terrebonne Parish or Lafourche Parish?"

Although the two candidates have spoken out on a variety of issues, their approaches to coastal restoration and protection are reflective of their overall philosophies and campaign messages. Landrieu, a Democrat, has styled herself as the voice of experience, which Kennedy, a Republican, is casting himself as a conservative agent for change.

When it comes to the coast, Landrieu, talks about her years in office and authoring a landmark revenue-

sharing bill that will direct billions of federal dollars to Louisiana's southern parishes during the coming decades. She can also point to a litany of earmarks - what some good-government types refer to as pork-barrel spending - for projects ranging from drainage and school improvements to levees and assistance for fishermen.

Kennedy, meanwhile, is opposed to earmarks and believes spending should be reigned in and more responsive to public need. He said he would focus his energies on construction, not planning and studying, and would chase down money in a "fresh" way.

"I would go about it the old-fashioned way," said Kennedy, a resident of Madisonville. "I would tell [Congress] exactly what we need, make sure it is spent well and go back and ask for more."

Kennedy's homespun message is carrying him through his second run for the U.S. Senate. In 2004, he ran as a Democrat and was defeated by Louisiana's junior Sen. David Vitter, a Republican. Kennedy switched parties last year and is now aligned with Vitter and other GOP leaders. In fact, just this week Vitter convinced the National Republican Senatorial Committee to not pull its resources out of Louisiana and to continue running attack ads against Landrieu.

Though she is seeking her third term in the Senate, Landrieu, who also served as state treasurer, doesn't have a lock on experience. Prior to being elected treasurer himself in 1996 to replace Landrieu, Kennedy served for three years as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Revenue and worked as a special counsel under former Gov. Buddy Roemer in the late 1980s. He also mounted a short run for governor in 2003 before dropping out of the race.

But the election he is now in is dramatically different from anything else Kennedy has done in public life. His efforts to unseat Landrieu have unearthed hordes of negative attacks coming from both sides of the campaign. For Kennedy, win or lose, the ultimate goal of the election may be to come out the other side unscathed.

A Fiscal Hawk

During his long career in government, Kennedy has had limited firsthand dealings with coastal matters. But when the two have intersected, it was due, predictably, to fiscal matters. For instance, he was a leading critic against former Gov. Kathleen Blanco's failed plans last year to sell off the state's tobacco settlement for coastal-restoration dollars. He said market conditions at the time didn't favor the arrangement.

It was during Blanco's administration, usually at her expense, that Kennedy cultivated a maverick-like political style. One of the more memorable clashes came in 2006 when reporters asked Blanco how much pork she was planning to cut from that year's $26.7 billion operating budget.

Kennedy had been hounding the administration about making "smart cuts," and Blanco told reporters that he should pick up an ax to help with the cutting.

A few days before Blanco announced her limited cuts -- $3 million slashed from more than $31 million in pet legislative projects - Kennedy issued to reporters a multi-million-dollar list of items he says he would have eliminated. The move resulted in a solid three weeks of positive media coverage for Kennedy, including editorials.

That Kennedy should come to prominence by being a fiscal hawk wasn't surprising, and it's one of the key attributes his campaign is attempting to build on. For generations, Louisiana has had a member of Congress who would figure prominently into such national fiscal issues. Former Sen. Russell Long, a Democrat, was one of those faces, as was congressman-turned-lobbyist Richard Baker, a Republican. Louisiana's voters could come to place Kennedy in the same mold.

Kennedy opposed the recent $700 billion financial bailout approved by Congress and signed by Bush two weeks ago. He said Congress should have been more active in regulating financial institutions and says members -- particularly Landrieu -- have become too close to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

"The fox cannot guard the henhouse," he said.

Kennedy also isn't shy about making detailed suggestions on cutting the federal government. He said if the U.S. would cut its employee roll of 15 million by 10 percent, the savings would equate to $300 billion over 10 years. On Social Security, Kennedy has suggested that the market could bear some private investments in the system, at least on a trial basis.

Finding His Identity

On many issues, Kennedy holds up the banner of conservatism, but it's a newfound role. After being wooed by national party leaders last year, Kennedy switched to the GOP. It's a decision that he has repeatedly taken criticism for during the ongoing election cycle.

Most notably, Kennedy has been taken to task on his support for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004. These days, Kennedy is backing the John McCain, the Republican nominee. Landrieu contends the flip-flop -- Kennedy is now a John McCain man -- is proof that the state's treasurer is, as her advertisements proclaim, "one confused politician." During last week's debate, Landrieu said it was "the kindest thing I can say" about Kennedy.

"While I have stood solidly in the middle, this man has jumped from office to office, he's jumped from philosophy to philosophy, and he's jumped from position to position. The people of Louisiana have had enough," Landrieu said.

In his own defense, Kennedy now says the Kerry endorsement was made in error.

"It was probably the biggest mistake of my political career," he said.

For the most part, Kennedy said he is independent of party influences and tries to make decisions on his own. It's a leadership style he said he has taken fire for as long as he's been in public service.

"When I was a conservative Democrat, I was an outcast," he said. "They always accused me of being a closet Republican, and now that I'm a Republican, I'm a closet Democrat?"

Differing Ideologies

The tactic of pointing out discrepancies in Kennedy's conservative record might be a smart one for the Landrieu camp, said Elliot Stonecipher, a demographer and political analyst from Shreveport. An analysis of Louisiana voting trends he recently conducted dating back to 1900 shows that conservatives poll better during presidential election years, when Republican voter turnout likewise increases.

In 1996, the re-election year of former Democratic President Bill Clinton, Landrieu was almost defeated by conservative figurehead Woody Jenkins. During Landrieu's most recent race in 2002, a non-presidential year, she won another hard-fought battle against Republican Suzanne Terrell.

But on some of the more-traditional conservative-liberal issues, Kennedy and Landrieu defy stereotypes. For instance, they have both supported certain pro-choice positions in the past but are now essentially both running as pro-life. While Kennedy once supported certain exceptions for abortion, according to campaign questionnaires, he is now 100 percent anti-abortion on a more recent right-to-life survey. As for Landrieu, she votes in favor of pro-life proposals roughly one-third of the time but largely supports choice.

When it comes down to President Bush's War in Iraq, the candidates take differing stances that are much more discernible. Landrieu said if she would have known in 2003 what she knows now -- such as the absence of weapons of mass destruction and other factors -- she "would not have voted for the use of force" then presented by President Bush.

Kennedy, though, said he stands by the president's decision, although he acknowledges that some things could have been done differently.

"Lord knows we made some mistakes in Iraq, but the surge is working," Kennedy said.

Such issues have prompted Kennedy to make the race more about Landrieu and her record rather than his candidacy alone. He contends Louisiana is a conservative state and it will make a conservative choice on Nov. 4.

That's why he has wrapped this message up in a quick and witty mantra that has been repeated at fairs and festivals as well as during televised debates. For Kennedy, it's a message that sums up the entire race.

"The most dysfunctional part of Washington, D.C., is Congress," Kennedy said. "If you want to change the U.S. Senate, at least in Louisiana, you've got to change the senator."


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