David Vitter’s Democratic Rival: You Lie, Cheat, and Steal

The Louisiana governor’s debate turned personal when the conversation devolved into a near-shouting match over Vitter’s prostitution scandal and a recent spying episode.

Gubernatorial candidates, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Baton Rouge, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., in New Orleans, October 1, 2015.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Nov. 11, 2015, 6:46 a.m.

The ten­sion in the Louisi­ana gubernat­ori­al run­off over Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter’s pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal and a more re­cent epis­ode in­volving a Vit­ter-paid private in­vest­ig­at­or spilled out in­to a heated verbal brawl Tues­day night dur­ing the fi­nal 10 minutes of the first tele­vised de­bate of the run­off between Vit­ter and his Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent, state Rep. John Bel Ed­wards.

At the de­bate, sponsored by Louisi­ana Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing, Ed­wards de­fen­ded his choice to take on Vit­ter’s past dir­ectly. “With re­spect to the neg­at­ive ad, if it’s a low blow, it’s only be­cause that’s where you live, Sen­at­or,” Ed­wards charged. “It’s 100 per­cent truth­ful. The fact of the mat­ter—you didn’t say it was un­true. You want me to take it down be­cause you don’t like it. I un­der­stand that you don’t like it. It hits you where you live.”

In the de­bate’s fi­nal minute, Ed­wards and Vit­ter were nearly shout­ing over one an­oth­er. Be­fore the two men were cut off for a fi­nal time by the mod­er­at­ors, Ed­wards heatedly lobbed at Vit­ter, “You are a li­ar, … you are a cheat­er, you are a steal­er, and I don’t tol­er­ate that.”

Vit­ter’s re­sponse: “You’re not liv­ing by the hon­or code John Bel, you’re liv­ing by the law­yer’s code, try­ing to parse words and cre­ate tech­nic­al­it­ies that don’t ex­ist.”

The de­bate’s heated con­clu­sion was em­blem­at­ic of one of the nas­ti­est and most per­son­al gubernat­ori­al cam­paigns in re­cent years. Ed­wards launched a con­tro­ver­sial TV ad last week that took dir­ect aim at Vit­ter over his pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal. The ad ac­cuses Vit­ter of choos­ing “pros­ti­tutes over pat­ri­ots” by skip­ping a 2001 Sen­ate floor vote to hon­or fallen sol­diers to take a call from a D.C. pros­ti­tu­tion ring. The ad promp­ted a mea-culpa ad this week from Vit­ter, in which he ob­liquely ad­mits, “15 years ago I failed my fam­ily.” Vit­ter didn’t con­test the con­tent of the Ed­wards ad, ex­cept to ex­press dis­ap­point­ment that some vet­er­ans were of­fen­ded by the ad’s use of im­ages of Ar­ling­ton Na­tion­al Cemetery.

Ed­wards, a West Point grad and former Army Ranger, reg­u­larly uses his mil­it­ary back­ground as the frame­work through which he draws a con­trast with Vit­ter and the pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal, cit­ing the West Point hon­or code, which reads: “A ca­det will not lie, cheat, steal, or tol­er­ate those who do.”

In Tues­day’s de­bate, Vit­ter and Ed­wards also had a heated back and forth over the use of track­ers and private in­vest­ig­at­ors in the race. A private in­vest­ig­at­or hired by the Vit­ter cam­paign was caught re­cord­ing a loc­al sher­iff, an Ed­wards donor, a Re­pub­lic­an state sen­at­or, and a sep­ar­ate P.I. just be­fore the Oc­to­ber primary, prompt­ing Ed­wards to de­scribe Vit­ter’s tac­tics as “Nixoni­an.” Jef­fer­son Par­ish Sher­iff Newell Nor­mand, the sher­iff in ques­tion in the Oc­to­ber in­cid­ent, held a press con­fer­ence Tues­day claim­ing video foot­age on the phone of the Vit­ter in­vest­ig­at­or showed Vit­ter’s cam­paign was wor­ried about sup­press­ing re­newed news cov­er­age of Wendy El­lis, the wo­man who came for­ward in 2007 claim­ing Vit­ter as a former cli­ent at a New Or­leans brothel.

Vit­ter re­peatedly ac­cused Ed­wards in Tues­day night’s de­bate of act­ing “ho­lier than thou” be­cause Ed­wards claimed his cam­paign hasn’t em­ployed track­ers, though out­side en­tit­ies sup­port­ing Ed­wards’s cam­paign do. Vit­ter par­tially brought the dis­cus­sion of his scan­dal on him­self Tues­day night. In the fi­nal seg­ment, Vit­ter com­plained, “In terms of neg­at­ive cam­paigns, there’s nobody who’s been the tar­get of more neg­at­ive cam­paign­ing than me,” and singled out one PAC—the Louisi­ana Wa­ter Co­ali­tion—which ran TV ads ques­tion­ing Vit­ter’s eth­ics in re­la­tion to his pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal. Vit­ter’s claim led to the heated ex­change over Ed­wards’s latest ad.

Dur­ing the early stages of the de­bate, ten­sion over Vit­ter’s past stayed at a low sim­mer. Ed­wards at one point ac­cused Vit­ter of be­ing “un­faith­ful” to Louisi­ana tax­pay­ers and later claimed in re­sponse to a Vit­ter jab over Ed­wards’s low vot­ing score from a statewide busi­ness as­so­ci­ation, “When it comes to vot­ing re­cords, I don’t in­tend to give any­body 100 per­cent, ex­cept for my wife.” 

The first 50 minutes of the hour-long de­bate were dom­in­ated by a much more civil dis­cus­sion over the two can­did­ates’ gov­ern­ing styles, edu­ca­tion (par­tic­u­larly Com­mon Core), the state budget, taxes, work­force de­vel­op­ment, health care (in­clud­ing Medi­caid ex­pan­sion), and in­fra­struc­ture. But it was the fi­nal line of ques­tion­ing un­der the cat­egory of “is­sues re­lated to each can­did­ate’s cam­paign” that turned up the heat.

The more policy-ori­ented bulk of the de­bate fea­tured re­peated at­tempts by Ed­wards to cast Vit­ter as a third term of Gov. Bobby Jin­dal, who took part in the Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary de­bate Tues­day. Vit­ter, mean­while at­temp­ted to tie Ed­wards to Pres­id­ent Obama and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id.

“I’ll say, you con­stantly refer to Bobby Jin­dal, and I get that polit­ic­ally. The fact of the mat­ter is that I’ve on sev­er­al oc­ca­sions pub­licly fought, but­ted heads, dis­agreed with Bobby Jin­dal on im­port­ant things,” Vit­ter said, claim­ing he dragged Jin­dal “kick­ing and scream­ing to pro­pose and pass” a spe­cif­ic law­suit re­form meas­ure. “In con­trast, when have you ever pub­licly dis­agreed strongly with your party lead­er, Barack Obama?”

Ed­wards and Vit­ter will meet for a second and fi­nal tele­vised de­bate Novem­ber 16 be­fore the run­off elec­tion takes place on Novem­ber 21. There was no live stu­dio audi­ence at the Tues­day de­bate. There will be for the pair’s fi­nal de­bate next week, sponsored by WVLA-TV.

Most pub­lic polling has shown Vit­ter trail­ing Ed­wards by a sig­ni­fic­ant mar­gin, dam­aged by the re­newed de­bate over his past. 

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