Rep. Charlie Melancon (D)
Louisiana 3rd District
Below sea level, veined with bayous and creeks and crossed by only an occasional road or railroad, the wetlands of southern Louisiana are one of America’s unique landscapes. Technically, most of this waterlogged land rests on islands in a broad river mouth, through which the waters of the Mississippi and its tributaries drain into the Gulf of Mexico. It is rich with animal life: herons and egrets, shrimp and crawfish, muskrats and alligators. Until August 2005, it supported more people than one might have thought, in surprisingly sturdy small towns with shopping malls on high ground and in bayou towns, where Cajun French remains the primary language. The steep-roofed Cajun houses were not the only structures. Here and there, jutting out of the swampy land, were huge elaborate metal sculptures—petrochemical plants and refineries, processing the oil and natural gas trapped under the wetlands and the shallow continental shelf of the Gulf. In the 1960s and 1970s, the oil industry, by providing well-paid jobs for young people, helped preserve Cajun culture and nurtured a Cajun pride that was seldom articulated a generation ago. Then oil payrolls plummeted and the wetlands were threatened by coastal erosion and battered by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. As erosion worsened, and the wetlands got less water because the Mississippi is not permitted to flood, shrimp fishermen found their catch declining and their profits threatened by competition from aquaculture-raised Asian and Latin American shrimp. But so long as the petrochemical plants, oil refineries, aluminum smelters, and sugar refineries provided decent jobs in these parts, most Cajuns remained in this land of good hunting and good food.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The good life changed on Aug. 29, 2005, when the eye of Hurricane Katrina made a direct hit on this district, inflicting more immediate damage than anywhere else along the Gulf Coast. Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes were ravaged by high winds and floodwaters, and much of the population fled. By 2008, the population was starting to rebound, but in St. Bernard it remained far below pre-Katrina levels. One sign of the continuing difficulties was the absence of a local hospital. The parish’s one hospital had been destroyed by the flood and had to be bulldozed; as of early 2009, it had not been replaced.
The 3rd Congressional District of Louisiana includes about half of Cajun country. It includes most of Louisiana’s swamplands, covering Houma, where seven bayous converge. It takes in the parishes of St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. James, and Ascension on both sides of the Mississippi. Roughneck Morgan City services offshore oil rigs. Iberia Parish is the home of McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce. The district also has the remains of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, downriver from New Orleans. Behind the Mississippi’s western levee, hunkered side by side in Vacherie, are twin reminders of the region’s grandeur and pain: the stately Oak Alley plantation, whose stunning vista stood in for the home of a fictional, aristocratic governor in the 1998 movie Primary Colors, and the slave cabins of Laura Plantation, believed to be the original home of the famous Br’er Rabbit stories. The ancestral politics in the district are Democratic, though a very conservative brand of Democratic. There has been an influx of Mexicans and other immigrants from Central America, many of whom work on the oil rigs or at the chemical plants. George W. Bush won 58% here in 2004, and John McCain took the district with 61% in 2008. In a measure of the continuing impact of Katrina, in working-class St. Bernard Parish, which votes Republican, the turnout in 2008 dropped 55% from the nearly 30,000 persons who voted in 2004. McCain got 71% of the smaller vote.
Rep. Charlie Melancon (D)
Elected: 2004, 3rd term.
Born: Oct. 3, 1947, Napoleonville .
Education: U. of SW LA, B.S. 1971.
Family: Married (Peachy); 2 children.
Elected office: LA House, 1987-93.
Professional Career: Ex. dir., South Central Planning and Dev. Comm., 1973-79; Owner, Melancon Insurance Agency, 1980-93; Baskin-Robbins franchise owner; Pres. & gen. mgr., American Sugar Cane League, 1993-2004.
The congressman from the 3rd District is Charlie Melancon (meh-LAW-sawn), a Democrat elected in 2004. He took a seat that had been held by a Republican and now is the only Democrat in the seven-member Louisiana delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives. He grew up in Napoleonville, on a dead-end street called Hog-Pen Alley. His father was mayor. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Melancon worked on the 1971 campaign of Democrat Edwin Edwards for governor and then on his transition team. He returned to Napoleonville, where he worked on the South Central Planning and Development Commission. Later, he ran an insurance agency and owned several Baskin-Robbins ice cream franchises. He ran for the state House in 1975 and lost. He ran again in 1987 and was elected to the first of three terms. He co-sponsored the bill that resulted in creation of the state-backed Louisiana Workers Compensation Corporation. He resigned the Legislature in 1993 to become president of the American Sugar Cane League.
|Charlie Melancon (D)||Unopposed||($904,878)|
|Charlie Melancon (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (55%), 2004 (50%)
Melancon was one of three serious candidates in contention to succeed Republican Billy Tauzin, a popular, powerful lawmaker who chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee when the Republicans controlled the House. Tauzin left Congress in 2004 to head PhRMA, the giant pharmaceutical lobby. The early front-runner for the seat was his son, Billy Tauzin III, a lobbyist and regional manager for BellSouth who inherited some financial advantages from Dad—the senior Tauzin gave $200,000 in political funds to the state Republican Party that could be used for his son’s campaign. Also in the field was Craig Romero, an Iberia Parish cattle farmer and oil-field supply salesman who had served in the state Senate as a Republican since 1996. He criticized the younger Tauzin’s lack of experience in politics and in south Louisiana.
In the nonpartisan November primary, some Democrats feared that Tauzin and Romero would be the two front-runners, leaving no Democrat in the runoff. But in the final weeks before the initial vote, Melancon benefited from a large investment in political advertising by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That spending proved to be a wise investment. In the November vote, Tauzin won 32% of the vote and led in eight parishes, mostly in the bayous. And Melancon edged out Romero, 24%-23%; each ran strongly in his political base. In the runoff campaign, Melancon and Tauzin split over tax cuts for the wealthy, school vouchers, tort reform and missile defense. Melancon voiced doubts about the war in Iraq, but said that he would not second-guess President Bush’s decision. He said that he was pro-gun, anti-abortion and opposed to gay marriage, though he opposed amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. He emphasized his experience and said that he would protect sugar interests from the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Tauzin fought to establish and identity apart from his father’s and said that he was his own man, but he also benefited from large contributions by interest groups that had benefited from his father’s work in Congress. Each national party spent close to $2 million in the runoff, mostly on negative ads. The final tally gave Melancon a victory by just 569 votes, 50.2%-49.8%. He carried six parishes in the northern and western parts of the district. Tauzin won all of the parishes along the Gulf, but it wasn’t enough.
In the House, Melancon’s voting record has been among the most conservative among Democrats. He joined the conservative Blue Dog Democrats and became their communications co-chairman in 2009. Following Hurricane Katrina, he was the only House member from Louisiana to join Sens. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, in filing the proposed $250 billion relief package prepared by a home-state commission. Despite objections from Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, he participated in a Republican-led select committee chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., that investigated the federal response to the disaster. He worked with Republicans to craft details of the landmark legislation for Louisiana to share royalties from offshore drilling.
When the Democrats got majority control of the House in 2007, he criticized House Democratic leaders for “not moving fast enough” to address Katrina issues. He contended that people were still dying in his district because of Katrina, from the stress of life and from suicide. In response, Democrats created a working group on Gulf Coast recovery, led by Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina. Melancon called for changes in immigration law to make it easier for seasonal businesses to hire temporary workers. On the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he is well positioned to work on oil and gas issues, he strongly opposed the move by Rep. Henry Waxman of California to oust John Dingell of Michigan as chairman, although Waxman ultimately succeeded. Melancon became a swing vote on climate-change issues, and with fellow Blue Dog Jim Matheson, D-Utah, he drafted principles for a “balanced approach” to guide legislation putting new emissions controls on U.S. factories. Melancon was one of seven House Democrats who voted against final passage of the energy bill in December 2007. Working on the 2008 farm bill, he helped pass the first increase in sugar loan rates in more than 20 years.
At home, Melancon appears to have secured the district. When Melancon sought re-election the first time in 2006, he had already proved himself to his constituents with his post-Katrina advocacy work. In a contest that became something of an afterthought, he won 55%-40% over Romero, who led only in Iberia Parish, his home base. Melancon was unopposed in 2008. In August 2009, he announced his candidacy for the Senate in 2010. He is challenging Republican Sen. David Vitter, who has been weakened politically by revelations he had used a prostitution service run by the so-called “D.C. Madam” even as he portrayed himself as a family man and a Christian conservative.