Politics 2002Week of December 16

The House Race That Wouldn’t Die

Reading with disappointment about Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s narrow re-election victory December 7, conservatives and Republicans nationally got a second shock when, further down in the stories, they found out that, in the only other race of the day, Democrats had picked up the seemingly safe Republican U.S. House seat in Louisiana’s 5th District. With more than 170,000 voters turning out to choose a replacement for outgoing Rep. John Cooksey (R.-La.), Democratic state legislator Rodney Alexander had eked out a 518-vote win over conservative Republican Lee Fletcher, chief of staff to Cooksey (who had relinquished his seat after three terms to unsuccessfully run for the Senate, losing in the November primary).

How could this happen? That was the common question among GOP pols from Baton Rouge to Washington. How on earth, they wondered, could a Democrat win in a district George W. Bush had carried by 59% to 38% over Al Gore two years ago, where Cooksey was always an easy winner and where as recently as the November “jungle primary”-topped by Alexander and Fletcher-the three Republican candidates pulled 66% of the votes cast?

Very simply, “The Clyde Factor,” as Alexandria (La.) Town Talk political pundit Roy Pitchford put it, was the reason for the Alexander upset. “Clyde” is former Rep. (1986-92) Clyde Holloway, who lost a run-off slot to Fletcher by less than 1% of the vote in the initial balloting. Conservative Republican Holloway did not go gentle into the night. At a post-election press conference that reminded people of Richard Nixon’s famous “last press conference” after losing the governorship of California in 1962, Monroe nurseryman Holloway said that Fletcher “would not be good for our district and would be horrible for our country” if elected. Holloway said he would not support his fellow GOPer against Alexander. The Democrat, in turn, made an anti-Fletcher TV spot featuring the Holloway blast.

“I don’t feel good about a Democrat winning,” Holloway told me last week between chores at his nursery. “But you can’t beat up on another Republican and then expect them [sic] to say, ‘It’s OK. I support the nominee.’”

The former congressman was referring to what he said was a flood of telephone calls to potential voters on the eve of the November balloting that “charged I voted to raid the Social Security trust fund, that I had a loan from the Farmers Home Loan Bank, and that I bounced checks at the House bank. Well, every time I voted for an appropriations bill, I guess you could say that was a raid on Social Security. And that loan is an old story. I did get a loan from Farmers Home, as did just about all of the 200 or so nurseries around here. And I paid it back on time-$500,000, plus interest-a year ago.

“As for the House banks, I had five overdrafts that I truly didn’t know about and this was used against me in 1992 [when fellow Republican Rep. Richard Baker was a narrow victor over Holloway after reapportionment merged much of their former districts]. While you may know the difference between ‘overdraft’ and ‘bounce,’ people think something’s bad when you say ‘bounce.’”

Did he have firm evidence that the calls came from Fletcher’s camp? Holloway replied he was “99% sure” they originated with him and also voiced his suspicion that Fletcher’s political gun-for-hire Roy Fletcher had something to do with the alleged “attack calls.”

Prior to the calling, maintained Holloway, “the Mason-Dixon poll and our own polling showed us the front-runner, followed by Alexander, [fellow Republican and State Sen. Robert] Barham, and then Fletcher. But it came out another way.”

‘Young LBJ’ and the Sorehead

“The 36-year-old Fletcher is one of the most scrappy, gutsy, hustling candidates to burst onto the Louisiana political scene in some time,” wrote John Magannis in his Louisiana Political Fax Weekly. “He evoked memories of author Robert Caro’s depiction of young Lyndon Johnson in his first race for Congress.”

A former district office manager for Rep. Jim McCrery (R.-La.) and then campaign manager and top aide to Cooksey, Fletcher, like LBJ, had long anticipated a race for Congress when a seat became open and he moved back to his hometown of Monroe more than a year ago to lay the groundwork for the campaign.

“I was a supporter of Lee’s because I thought he would be a younger, bomb-throwing kind of congressman that we need now with all the moderation of the message,” said Tom Lizardo, chief of staff to Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Tex.) and a longtime conservative activist, who attended a steering committee meeting and fund-raiser for Fletcher more than a year ago. “I also happen to know and like Clyde Holloway. He was a YAF [Young Americans for Freedom] adviser when I was its executive director and we supported him when he ran for governor [in 1991]. I was very disappointed in the way he handled his loss.”

To a person, Fletcher supporters insist that their man was not behind any negative telephone calls, that the only calls the campaign made were through phone banks to turn out supporters. As one Fletcher backer put it, “Holloway’s shooting at the wrong target. It was Barham who made the charges about the loan and the overdrafts-both of which are public information-in attack spots on TV. Barham’s ads also attacked him for high absenteeism while in Congress.” (After placing fourth in the initial primary, recent Democratic convert Barham called Fletcher and said he would vote for him. He never, however made any appearances with Fletcher, but did refuse to join Holloway in any public denunciation.)

Apparently Holloway’s problem this year was, as national political analyst Stu Rothenberg concluded, that “he doesn’t take defeat well.” When state and national Republicans shunned his gubernatorial campaign in ’91 and instead backed incumbent and former Democrat Buddy Roemer, Holloway began attacking Roemer. Holloway finally got about 5% of the vote, Roemer missed a run-off position by less than 2% of the vote and Louisianans were left with choosing between former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke and scandal-tinged former Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards. (A footnote: Duke is still being used against the GOP. Democrat Alexander shamelessly sent out mailings linking Fletcher to Duke because of the Republican candidate’s strong anti-illegal immigration stand.)

For his part, Fletcher refused to discuss the election outcome other than to say, “I wish Mr. Holloway and his family the best.” Hinting he might run again in ’04, he told me, “Our best days are ahead.”

Charles Chamberlain, R.I.P.

It’s rare that a candidate for Congress is pictured on the cover of Time magazine, but that is precisely what happened to Republican Charles E. Chamberlain in 1956. A hard-hitting conservative, Ingham County Prosecutor Chamberlain’s eventually triumphant challenge to Democratic Rep. (1954-56) Donald Hayworth in Michigan’s 6th District (Lansing) was the subject of a Time cover story titled “How to Run for Congress.” That was just one of the recollections friends had of former Rep. (1956-74) Chamberlain when hearing of his death from heart failure November 25.

Chamberlain, whose family had settled in Michigan before statehood, graduated from the University of Virginia and its law school. Following service as commander of a Coast Guard subchaser in World War II, he returned home and plunged into Lansing politics. He served as city attorney for Lansing, legal counsel to the state senate Judiciary Committee and was then elected prosecutor.

In Congress, Armed Services Committee member Chamberlain quickly established himself as a strong supporter of the military and pushed aid to Taiwan. In later years, he became an outspoken backer of the U.S. effort in Vietnam and critic of the antiwar movement. But Chamberlain was perhaps best known for his long fight to repeal the 10% federal excise tax on automobiles and trucks, finally achieving success in 1971 when President Nixon signed the bill repealing the World War II-era tax.

Chamberlain narrowly survived a rematch with Hayworth in 1958, but easily beat the former congressman in 1962 in their third meeting. By then, redistricting had removed union-laden Flint from the 6th District, making re-election easier for Chamberlain. But in 1972, the just-enacted 18-year-old vote and Chamberlain’s unyielding pro-Vietnam stance nearly brought down the Republican incumbent. Backed by battalions of college volunteers from Michigan State University in Lansing, Democratic lawyer Democrat Bob Carr came within 2,500 votes of unseating the seemingly invincible Chamberlain. Two years later, Chamberlain announced his retirement (whereupon Carr won the first of seven terms, edging out Republican and present State Supreme Court Justice Cliff Taylor by just under 700 votes).

Chamberlain then launched a high-powered law firm in Washington and he and his wife sold Christmas trees from their Leesburg, Va., house. He was 85.