The Advocate - Women in Politics Rare Before Landrieu
By Will Sentell
Democrat Mary Landrieu says she left LSU 30 years ago with plans to enter Christian ministry, not politics.
Despite her political pedigree her father is former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu public service was mostly a male calling at the time.
"I did not think I would ever run for office," said Landrieu, who is seeking her third term in the U. S Senate on Nov. 4.
She even traveled to a Colorado Bible institute, considering being a religious counselor working with college students and others.
"I really wanted to go into full-time Christian ministry work," Landrieu said in an interview earlier this week.
"It just didn't work out," she said.
Landrieu said she then returned to New Orleans and did volunteer work for a friend running for judge. Afterwards, friends urged her to run for the Louisiana House of Representatives.
"And then I just thought why not? Maybe I should try," she said.
Landrieu won that race over a 12-year incumbent and three others candidates.
She joined the Legislature in 1980 at the age of 23, one of just three women lawmakers at the time.
Landrieu said she felt she was set apart for two reasons: youth and gender.
"It was lonely," she said of life in the Legislature. "We were discounted, marginalized.
"It was kind of what started the process of my being what people would describe as combative tough.
"I mean, I had to be," Landrieu added. "It was a survival technique."
Backers say her most-notable quality is the one she developed in the state House an iron will when it comes to pushing her agenda.
"She is persistent and you know in Congress persistence wins," said former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, a longtime Landrieu ally and former Democratic colleague.
"I mean, once she gets an issue for Louisiana she is dogged she is just unrelenting," Breaux said.
An example, he said, was legislation that won approval in 2006 after more than a half-century of off-and-on attempts.
Under the bill, Louisiana will get a piece of 37.5 percent of the oil and gas royalties that the U.S. government receives from drilling in 8.3 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico.
The change only amounts to $20 million per year initially. But it rises to $650 million per year in 2017.
The money will eventually help shore up Louisiana's coastline, rebuild wetlands and create a buffer zone that slows killer hurricanes.
Landrieu, senior member of the state's congressional delegation, won considerable credit for finally making it happen.
"She latches onto something like she has the wetlands issue and she is not going to be satisfied letting go until she reaches her goal," said Val Marmillion, a Houma native who has been involved in efforts to restore Louisiana's coast.
Marmillion, who works for a Washington public relations and political marketing firm, said the seeds for the 2006 breakthrough were planted in 2000.
Despite efforts by Landrieu and other state leaders, they only landed one-tenth of the oil and gas revenue that they sought.
But the enough stakeholders got involved, he said, that a breakthrough was possible six years later.
Fellow Democrat U. S Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, said Landrieu played a huge role in passage of the bill.
"Let me tell you, Mary Landrieu does heavy lifting for Louisiana in the U.S. Congress," Melancon said. "She is very passionate about her issues."
Landrieu, 52, is the oldest of nine children.
Her father, Moon Landrieu, is best known as mayor of New Orleans from 1970-1978. He also served on the New Orleans city council, the state House, as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former President Jimmy Carter and as an appellate judge.
Mary Landrieu recalls knocking on doors at age 5 during her dad's campaign for the House in 1960. At the time, her mom, Verna, was pregnant with Mitch, now Louisiana's lieutenant governor and a former state representative.
She graduated from all-girls Ursuline Academy, where she was class president.
Landrieu served eight years in the Legislature, where she was viewed as a liberal Democrat who backed taxes, affirmative-action programs and aid for women, children and the poor.
"From the very first day I met Mary I thought she was a fighter," said state Sen. John Alario, D-New Orleans and a former House colleague of Landrieu.
She still knows how to push, Alario said, but also knows when to stop pushing and compromise.
Landrieu became state treasurer in 1988, and her next three elections helped spark her reputation for getting embroiled in razor-thin margins.
In 1995 she finished third in the race for governor, trailing Democrat Cleo Fields by just 9,000 votes, and Republican Mike Foster, who won the race.
Landrieu declined to endorse Fields in the runoff, triggering a rift that continues today. Fields did not return a call for comment for this story.
In 1996 she was elected to the U.S. Senate by fewer than 6,000 votes in a bitter contest with Republican Woody Jenkins.
Only after a 10-month investigation did the Senate Rules Committee conclude that no election fraud occurred.
Jenkins and other critics contend that Landrieu is a liberal who portrays herself as a conservative.
"I think she is an example of running to the right and governing to the left," Jenkins said.
"At election time we hear commercials that she is for prayer in schools and against partial-birth abortion and a litany of conservative values that she promotes at election time," he said.
"But basically she does vote with the liberal Democrats," Jenkins said.
In 2002 Landrieu defeated Republican Suzanne Terrell by 42,000 votes out of 1.2 million cast.
Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy, Landrieu's chief opponent, calls Landrieu the most liberal U. S. senator in state history and repeatedly questioned recent votes in Congress.
In 2003 Landrieu voted "yes" on the war powers resolution that President George Bush sought to act against Iraq.
Landrieu now says she would not have done so if she knew what she knows now including the inability of the U.S. to find weapons of mass destruction.
In January 2007 the Democrat announced support for a nonbinding resolution that opposed Bush's plan to increase U.S. troop strength in Iraq the "surge" strategy that Kennedy says has clearly paid off.
Federal aid since Hurricane Katrina struck has been a key Congressional topic since 2005.
In 2006 Landrieu won some of the credit for landing $12 billion in hurricane relief, including $4.2 billion to help repair damaged housing and $3.7 billion to restore levees.
Earlier this year Landrieu was rated as one of the highest members of Congress in terms of earmarks dollars put in the federal budget for a home state or special interests, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Landrieu secured $103 million by herself and signed onto requests with colleagues for $470 million.
Kennedy contends earmarks are part of what is wrong with politics in Washington. Landrieu said she will keep working to land dollars for Louisiana.
Landrieu frequently becomes entangled in the abortion controversy.
Landrieu is a longtime supporter of abortion rights with restrictions.
Kennedy has run ads that criticize Landrieu for voting with Obama in the Senate on abortion and other issues.
In 2005 the archbishop of New Orleans rebuked Loyola University for honoring the Landrieu family, in part because of her abortion stance.
Landrieu says the ups and downs of life in the U.S. Senate are worth it.
"I like being at the table when big decisions are made on how our society should function," she said.