Boustany Ready for His Close-Up in Delegation

Posted June 27, 2008 at 5:39pm

For a state that has such a storied history of electing Members who populate the highest levels of power in Congress, Louisiana’s current seniority drain has caused more than a bit of concern both in the Bayou State and among its delegation on Capitol Hill.

The resignation of 11-term Rep. Richard Baker (R) this year, the pending retirement of 11-term Rep. Jim McCrery (R) and last year’s election of rising star Bobby Jindal (R) as governor left many Louisianans fearing just how far the state might fall in influence and clout.

And those developments are coming on the heels of the departures from Congress of former House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R), former House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R) and former Senate Chief Deputy Whip John Breaux (D).

However, where there is a void, there is also opportunity, and Rep. Charles Boustany (R) is one Member of the delegation who has made the most of the current situation.

Although Boustany is just a second-term Member who will be only the third-most senior Republican in the Louisiana delegation, power brokers on Capitol Hill and K Street have begun to take note of Boustany’s rising stature in the delegation. And that influence will only grow if, as expected, he lands himself a spot on the powerful Ways and Means Committee next Congress.

But before he gets there, Boustany will first have to face down a Democratic challenger who is running on a message of change in what is expected to be one of the worst anti-incumbent environments in decades.

Last week, state Sen. Don Cravins Jr. (D) entered the 7th district race against Boustany with the full-throated support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

With Cravins making change the central theme of his campaign and Boustany emphasizing the value of his seniority, it will be interesting to see where voters place their faith, and votes, come November.

The 7th is a conservative district that voted for President Bush by 21 points in 2004, but it had long been represented by moderate Democrats before that election. The district is about one-quarter black and also has a large number of Catholics.

Cravins is a black, pro-gun, anti-abortion-rights Catholic whose father was also a state legislator. Don Cravins Sr. (D) was one of five candidates to vie for the 7th district seat when it was an open race in 2004. In that race, the elder Cravins came in third, missing the runoff with Boustany by fewer than 2,000 votes. Boustany won the runoff by 10 points and cruised to re-election in 2006 by 42 points.

DCCC spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said last week that despite concern about the dearth of long-serving Members in the Louisiana delegation, Cravins’ message will resonate with voters, especially when Democrats show that Boustany hasn’t accomplished much for the state while he’s been raising his own profile among his colleagues and lobbying interests.

“Seniority is one thing, but if it’s not doing anything for the state then it’s time for new leadership,” Jennings said.

But Boustany said he has always voted for the interests of southwest Louisiana, even if it meant disagreeing with his party leadership.

“I’ve demonstrated my independent voice in Congress, both with ideas and with votes,” Boustany said last week.

But Boustany also said candidates for change don’t have to come from outside Congress.

“I see myself as one of a new generation of Republican leaders who is going to bring new ideas to our party,” he said.

Congressional colleagues and Louisiana insiders said last week that Boustany’s path to increased influence began in 2004, when he won in convincing fashion a seat that had been long held by Democrats.

That election and Boustany’s easy re-election in 2006 “told people in Washington that this guy has got a handle on his district both substantively and politically,” said Richard Hunt, McCrery’s former chief of staff who now serves as a lobbyist at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

Boustany furthered his reputation because “he made a decision early on instead of going on the floor every day and tooting his own horn, he was in committee hearings learning about various legislation while at the same time taking care of politics back home,” Hunt said.

But Boustany really began to turn heads after the state was hit by its trio of seniority losses in late 2007 and early 2008.

“In effect, that was a political hurricane for Louisiana. There was a lot of talk both in the state and outside the state about the loss of seniority,” Boustany said.

Amid that growing concern, Boustany invited 30 of the most powerful Louisianans living in Washington, D.C., to his home in mid-February to discuss the state and its priorities. For many, it was a signal that he wanted to fill the new vacuum in seniority.

“I called a meeting of Louisiana lobbyists because I wanted to, first of all, get their input as to how they were perceiving the situation with the retirements and what was going to be the impact for Louisiana,” Boustany said. He also wanted to “let them know that I’m willing to be the conduit to the rest of the delegation to make sure that we are setting our priorities and all working toward common goals.”

Not long after that meeting, Boustany was tapped by McCrery to become an honorary co-chairman of his political action committee, the Committee for the Preservation of Capitalism. As the head of the seventh-most financially active leadership PAC this cycle, Boustany will certainly be well-positioned to continue to gain clout when he takes over the CPC after McCrery departs.

“I think we have some excellent Members throughout the delegation and I want to try do as much as I can to help each one of them gather as much influence as possible over the next few years,” McCrery said last week at a reception where he and Boustany were handing out $5,000 checks from the CPC to several fellow House Members. “Giving Charles this opportunity to take over a very robust leadership PAC should give him a little head start on moving up the ladder in terms of influence in the Republican Conference.”

Another big step up that ladder will be if, as is expected, Boustany moves onto the Ways and Means Committee after McCrery leaves Congress.

After last week’s CPC reception, newly elected Rep. Steve Scalise (R) said the sky’s the limit for how far Boustany might go in the Louisiana delegation.

“He’s definitely emerging as one of the new leaders of the delegation at a time when we’re losing some very experienced, knowledgeable Members,” Scalise said. “When I decided to run right after Bobby won the governorship, he was one of the first people I called.”