The Magazine

The Battle of New Orleans

From the December 9, 2002 issue: The last election of 2002, Terrell vs. Landrieu, may also be the meanest.

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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When they faced off in a televised debate here last week, Suzanne Haik Terrell accused Senator Mary Landrieu of abandoning her Catholic faith because of her votes in favor of abortion. The comment--one of the strongest in-person attacks in recent memory--was virtually ignored by the media.

Perhaps that's because the charge is just one among dozens of harsh attacks traded in a race that is quickly becoming one of the most bitter of the 2002 election cycle. Maybe it's because Louisiana voters have heard similar sentiments before. In 1996, Archbishop Phillip Hannan said, if "a person actually believes in Catholic doctrine, then I don't see how they can vote for Landrieu without a feeling of sin." Or maybe the remark was overlooked because Landrieu's protest--she called it the "pit of politics"--was unconvincing. Landrieu, after all, has been playing victim on just about everything. When Terrell criticized her six years representing the Bayou state in the U.S. Senate, the incumbent responded pitifully. "Well, somebody thinks I'm doing a good job." And when Terrell spoke with pride about her three lovely daughters, Landrieu had had enough. "Ms. Terrell, who knows me quite well, fails to say that I also have two beautiful daughters." Oh, the indignity.

The likeliest reason the media missed Terrell's whack at Landrieu's faith is simple. They were focused on Landrieu's meltdown. Shortly after the contentious 30-minute debate, Landrieu menacingly told Terrell: "This is your last campaign." To which a surprised Terrell responded, "She threatened me." Alec Gifford, a local TV anchor and host of the debate, said Landrieu "stalked out of the studio" without saying another word. A Landrieu spokesman tried to spin the outburst as less a threat than a prediction.

Terrell's campaign suggests that Landrieu is just feeling the pressure of a tight election. Polling on the race has been erratic, but most observers believe it will be close. The fact that Landrieu is in the December 7 runoff at all is something of a defeat for the incumbent. In a four-person race on November 5, she failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote in this heavily Democratic state. (Governor Mike Foster is a Republican, but a quirky one, and Louisiana voters have not sent a Republican to the Senate since Reconstruction.) Although the media picked up on Landrieu's post-debate comments, they didn't report an earlier tirade. Landrieu stormed into the studio complaining about the timing of the taping--late Saturday afternoon. When a Terrell staffer reminded her that the format was first proposed by her campaign, she protested again, complained out loud about her clothing, and left the scene to change. Landrieu managed a pageant grin throughout the televised portion of the exchange, which while tense, was cordial compared with the episodes before and after the debate.

Landrieu's behavior is certainly interesting and may reflect the strains of a bitter campaign. But in a state with high concentrations of Catholic voters and highly motivated evangelical Christians, and where the most popular yard signs bear not the names of candidates but a call to "Please Vote Pro-Life," Terrell's criticism of Landrieu's abortion position may ultimately prove more important. That's because the campaign has shaped up as being about power--which candidate will have better access to it, and which will better use that access to advance not just Louisiana interests but "Louisiana values."

With a Republican in the White House and a Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, who lives 70 miles from the Mississippi-Louisiana border, Terrell argues that Louisiana voters would be better served with a senator in the majority party. Landrieu constantly touts her position on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, arguing that her defeat would leave Louisiana empty-handed when Congress doles out goodies each year. She touted it until last week, anyway. Lott came to Baton Rouge the Monday before Thanksgiving and announced that he was considering a smaller appropriations committee. This, Lott suggested, means Landrieu would be unlikely to keep her seat. And that, Terrell would later explain, "takes the issue away from her."

As for "Louisiana values"--Terrell used that phrase in the first sentence of the New Orleans debate, and returned to it several times over the next half-hour. "The people of Louisiana are extremely family-oriented and they have tremendous faith," she said, defining the term in an interview two days later. "It's a recognition of those things that are important--estate taxes and the tax structure, personal responsibility, raising children, the sanctity of life, guns, crime, and faith. Sixty percent of southern Louisiana is Catholic," she adds. Terrell insists that her opponent is out of touch with those values--voting with Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Tom Daschle more than 80 percent of the time.