Stephanie Grace: Compromisers like Alexander a dying breed

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

There’s something almost quaint about suddenly soon-to-be-ex U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander’s parting shot to Congress.

Announcing his surprise resignation this week, Alexander bemoaned the contentious state of affairs on Capitol Hill, and said he hoped his successor might have better luck finding middle ground.

“Rather than producing tangible solutions to better this nation, partisan posturing has created a legislative standstill,” said Alexander, a onetime Democrat who switched parties nearly a decade a ago. “Unfortunately, I do not foresee this environment (changing) any time soon. I have decided not to seek re-election, so that another may put forth ideas on how to break through the gridlock and bring about positive change for our country.”

Let’s just say that Alexander’s got the right diagnosis, but the wrong remedy.

On issue after issue, Congress is indeed at a standstill. But the departure of the 66-year-old Alexander and many of his old-school comrades is likely to make the problem worse, not better.

In style and substance, Alexander is about as conciliatory as it gets these days, particularly on the Republican side. His voting record isn’t exactly centrist; he has, for example, joined his fellow Republicans in voting to repeal Obamacare 40 times. But a recent Washington Post analysis of House Republicans pegged him as among those most likely to support the GOP leadership’s efforts to compromise with Democrats on major issues such as immigration and the debt ceiling. Alexander was the only Louisiana Republican to fall into that camp.

Alexander has also embraced his role in steering money to Louisiana from his seat on the Appropriations Committee, which doesn’t always jibe with his party’s austerity agenda. In fact, the assignment has allowed him to tag-team with Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who sits on the parallel panel on the Senate side (She seems to have forgiven him for qualifying to run as a Democrat back in 2004, then switching parties once it was too late for the Democrats to field a challenger. And he, in turn, has presumably forgiven her for labeling him a “coward.”)

Candidates that moderate just aren’t running for Congress much these days, and they’re certainly not winning. At least at this early stage of the race to replace him, it doesn’t look like Alexander will be succeeded by anyone with his taste for compromise.

The day after he said he’d leave Congress, Alexander announced he’s joining Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration as head of veterans affairs, setting up a short-order special election that’s likely to fall on Oct. 19, with qualifying in just two weeks.

There’s some talk that Democrats might be able to make a credible run for the seat, on the theory that 36 percent of the district’s voters are non-white. John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge pollster and strategist, also pointed out that 48 percent of the current district’s voters backed Landrieu in both 2002 and 2008. Landrieu, though, had the advantage of name recognition, a substantial record, long and well-funded campaigns and larger general election turnouts -— particularly among sympathetic voters who showed up en masse to support President Barack Obama five years ago.

The early frontrunner to replace Alexander, state Sen. Neil Riser, is a Republican Jindal ally who chairs the Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee. Riser spearheaded last year’s constitutional amendment to expand gun rights, and has already won endorsements from two potential congressional colleagues, Charles Boustany and the delegation’s most conservative member, John Fleming.

Riser was heavily involved in fighting off efforts to combine the northeast Louisiana district with Fleming’s northwestern district during a contentious redistricting fight two years ago.

Whether Riser or someone else ultimately fills Alexander’s shoes, University of Louisiana at Lafayette political scientist Pearson Cross predicted, the next person will be less able to break through the gridlock. “The conservative web sites are already crowing that we finally got rid of that darn moderate,” he noted.

“Rodney Alexander is truly a gentleman and throwback to a prior era. But we’re seeing more and more of his kind leaving Congress,” Pearson added. For those who see value in reaching across the aisle, he said, “it’s lonely on the Hill.”

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.