Stephanie Grace: Riser too clever by half in bid for 5th District seat

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

Even in a state that’s infamous for political shenanigans, some maneuvers are so brilliantly brazen that they become the stuff of legend.

One such scheme is known as a “Chehardy,” after the popular Jefferson Parish assessor who once signed up for re-election, waited until qualifying was almost over, watched as his son filed papers and then announced his sudden retirement — in effect installing the younger Chehardy without the bother of an election.

Among the politicians who’ve successfully pulled some variation on the Chehardy is retiring U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander. Alexander was elected to Congress in 2002 as a Democrat, and qualified for reelection under the party’s banner two years later. At the last minute, though, he switched to Republican, leaving no time for Democrats to field a challenger.

Then there are the maneuvers that don’t work out as planned, and in some cases actually backfire.

State Sen. Neil Riser, who has done everything possible to position himself as Alexander’s inevitable successor now that the congressman has announced plans to join Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, would have done well to study the cautionary tale of another attempted father-son handoff.

Let’s call this one the “Bruneau,” after longtime state Rep. Peppi Bruneau, the New Orleans Republican who quit in 2007 months before his final term ended, setting up a special election featuring his son Jeb.

Riser, a reliable conservative and chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, seems to be a perfectly reasonable fit for the 5th Congressional District. Jeb Bruneau was an entirely plausible candidate too, having led the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association through the difficult aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Like Jeb Bruneau’s ultimately unsuccessful effort, though, Riser’s campaign may be dominated by questions not about his ideas or qualifications, but about whether the fix was in.

When Alexander made a pair of surprise announcements, first that he would leave Congress and, the next day, that he would become Jindal’s secretary of veterans affairs next month, Riser was clearly ready.

Once the news broke, he quickly unveiled a campaign web site and started collecting endorsements from potential congressional colleagues John Fleming, Charles Boustany and Steve Scalise. Soon Jindal’s top political adviser, Timmy Teepell, and his fundraiser, Allee Bautsch, signed on. Reports emerged saying Riser had registered with the Federal Election Commission even before Alexander went public, although Riser says the FEC’s information is incorrect. Then came word that Alexander himself wants Riser to replace him, and that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had scheduled a fundraiser to help him out.

Riser had good reason to hit the ground running. Jindal called the special election for Oct. 19, so qualifying had to take place just two weeks after most people found out that there would even be an election. That’s not a lot of time for candidates to test their viability, figure out if they can raise money and search their souls.

Now, there’s no rule against doing everything possible, within legal and ethical bounds, to position oneself for an election. But if Riser gets to tap into all these advantages, he’s also got to deal with the questions they raise over whether this is a fair fight.

And there’s no shortage of questions. Bloggers have chimed in. The Town Talk of Alexandria ran an editorial recounting the turn of events, including the fact that Riser registered his candidacy with the state the same day Alexander said he’d leave early, and concluded that, “If this feels a lot like someone has stolen your vote, well, let’s just say you’re not alone.”

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who generally zigs when Jindal zags, said he’d stay out of the race but noted that these things obviously “didn’t happen by accident.”

Riser also faces accusations of collusion with a governor who’s not exactly at the peak of his popularity — which he, Jindal and Alexander deny — and over the cost to taxpayers of holding a special election at all.

And if his early show of strength was designed to clear the field, it actually had the opposite effect. Thirteen candidates have signed up to run against Riser, including three state representatives (Marcus Hunter, Robert Johnson and Jay Morris), a mayor (Monroe’s Jamie Mayo), and a public service commissioner who has already served in Congress (Clyde Holloway).

Morris, a fellow Republican, gave Riser a taste of what to expect when he came right out and alleged a backroom deal.

“It looks like they tried to rig this election,” Morris said. “I didn’t think this kind of thing was supposed to happen in our country.”

It’s hard to predict how such a free-for-all will turn out. What’s already plain to see, though, is that Riser’s attempt to play offense has instead put him on the defensive.

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