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In Louisiana, Candidates Fight For – And Over – Oil Jobs

Gulfoilspill_08051-e1282186572465.jpg
Gulfoilspill_08051-e1282186572465.jpg

A BP well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April. (Flickr, SkyTruth)

Rep. Charlie Melancon’s (D-La.) best chance of stealing Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) Senate seat come November might involve winning the ongoing war of words over the Gulf oil spill.

[Environment1] Not surprisingly, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster has become one of the top campaign issues in Gulf Coast states in the run-up to the November mid-term elections. And it has taken center stage in the Vitter-Melancon Senate race. Both candidates, ever-conscious of the oil industry’s influence in the region, must walk a fine line between castigating BP for the spill and ensuring that regulators do not stifle an industry that is a key part of Louisiana’s economy.

In walking this line, the lawmakers have set their sights on the Obama administration’s six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, which went into effect following the BP oil spill. Both lawmakers argue that the drilling ban could have a devastating effect on the already-struggling Gulf economy. “The moratorium is the biggest issue that has cropped up in the reelection campaign,” says Louisiana Republican Party communications director Aaron Baer.

But environmentalists are becoming frustrated by both Vitter and Melancon, arguing that the candidates have focused too much on ensuring that the oil industry thrives in the Gulf and not enough on protecting the region’s natural resources. “It’s a choice between really, really bad and less bad if you’re just looking at the race through the environmental lens,” says Darryl Malek-Wiley, a field organizer in the Sierra Club’s New Orleans office.

Nevertheless, both candidates remain focused on overturning the moratorium and hammering their opponent for not opposing the ban enough. Most of the debate centers on a drilling loophole Melancon proposed. The Democrat authored an amendment to the House oil spill response bill that would allow oil companies to bypass the moratorium if they comply with new Interior Department safety guidelines — and the House adopted it into the oil spill response package it passed on July 30.

Vitter attacked the popular measure, calling it a “sham” and saying it will be ineffective as it will leave the final decisions about whether oil companies can drill up to the Interior Department. The Republican also noted that a number of liberals, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), voted for the amendment, in an attempt to undercut Melancon’s image as a moderate.

In an Aug. 3 statement, Vitter’s re-election campaign battered Melancon for not refusing the oil response bill full stop. It noted that Melancon voted against a Republican amendment offered by Rep. Bill Cassidy (La.) that would have sent the bill back to the House Natural Resources Committee in order to add a provision saying the drilling moratorium “shall have no force or effect.”

“Charlie Melancon voted no on lifting Obama’s job-killing moratorium,” a campaign statement read. “Let him try to defend his ‘sham’ amendment that was endorsed by Nancy Pelosi, but how can he explain voting NO on legislation to immediately lift the moratorium?”

Luke Bolar, communications director for Vitter’s reelection campaign, echoed those sentiments in an interview with TWI. “Voting against that legislation was voting against immediately lifting the moratorium and that says a lot,” he says.

Melancon spokesperson Robin Winchell dismissed Vitter’s criticisms in a previous interview with TWI: “The Secretary of the Interior has always had the final say on drilling permit applications for public lands and oceans. The Melancon amendment does not change that.” But calls to Melancon’s reelection campaign for comment for this story were not returned.

All of the shouting over the moratorium may in fact be moot, as Interior Department officials have said they are open to ending the drilling ban early. But University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Joshua Stockley said the issue will nonetheless continue to be a major part of the campaign.

Melancon can point to his amendment to argue that he is able to work with his fellow Democrats to pass measures that help the state, Stockley said. If the Senate passes an oil spill bill with Melancon’s amendment in it, he can say, “Because I’m a Democrat, I’m able to work inside the Democratic party, the majority party currently, to do what people in the minority party can’t necessarily do,” according to Stockley.

But Stockley said that Vitter can use Melancon’s status as a Democrat to compare him to President Obama, who called for the moratorium and is unpopular in the right-leaning state. “Melancon has a big albatross around his neck,” Stockley said. “And that’s the fact that he’s a Democrat and Barack Obama’s a Democrat. Barack Obama is fully supportive of this moratorium. So, Melancon has to distance himself from Obama.”

And Vitter is doing all he can to associate the two Democrats. In a recent radio advertisement, for instance, his campaign argues that Melancon sided with Obama by voting against Cassidy’s proposal to block the moratorium — costing 150,000 jobs. “To help put them back to work,” the ad says, “Congress just took a critical vote to immediately end the job-killing drilling moratorium and every Louisiana congressman voted for this important legislation except Charlie Melancon, who voted ‘no.’ Again, Charlie Melancon sided with Obama over the interests of Louisiana families.”

Campaigning over the Gulf Coast looks certain to heat up in advance of the Aug. 28 Republican and Democratic primaries. Melancon is almost certain to win the Democratic primary. Vitter will likely win, though he faces a more-competitive race, against former Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor. (He also remains dogged by a prostitution scandal.) And a recent poll shows that Vitter may not be able to secure the votes necessary to avoid an October runoff.

Polls show Vitter well ahead of Melancon, though the Democrat might be gaining. A Rasmussen poll published at the end of June puts Vitter at 53 percent and Melancon at 35 percent. Internal polling by Democrats released last month shows the candidates locked, with Vitter at 44 percent and Melancon at 43 percent.

“While Vitter is obviously ahead in this race, he is ahead by an uncomfortable margin, meaning he is vulnerable,” Stockley, the political scientist, argues.

Environmentalists are watching the Senate race closely and they say that both Melancon and Vitter have focused too much on appeasing the oil industry. “David Vitter is in the drill, baby drill category. Congressman Melancon has more concerns for coastal wetlands, but he still supported lifting the moratorium, which we disagree with,” Malek-Wiley, of the Sierra Club, says.

Aaron Viles, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group in the region, acknowledges that supporting the oil and gas industry is a necessity for any Gulf Coast politician. “Clearly, the Louisiana political system is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the oil industry. They get what they want,” he says.

But Viles maintains that good politicians are able to balance working with the oil industry and ensuring that Gulf natural resources are protected. Neither Vitter nor Melancon have focused enough on the environment, he says. “Are we going to get an environmental champion out of this race? No,” Viles said.

Still, “Melancon has certainly been more willing to ask some questions in the wake of this disaster,” Viles said. “He hasn’t been just a cheerleader for the oil industry. He’s certainly no Edward Markey, but this ain’t Massachusetts.”

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