WASHINGTON – Growing up in Oak Grove, Vance McAllister always wanted to become a doctor.
After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Army as a combat medic, doing a tour in South Korea.
Then he went to college and learned that “life is not always fair” when he failed to gain acceptance into medical school.
He “got frustrated,” left college and went to work as an entry-level rodman on a surveying crew with Mustang Engineering. He eventually worked his way up to become Mustang’s supervisor of global surveying field operations.
McAllister, 39, now owns multiple successful companies in the oil-and-gas industry, as well as several Subway sandwich franchises, land developments and even a mixed martial arts and wrestling promotions company.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that when a door opens up you walk through it,” McAllister said.
Now, another door has opened up and McAllister finds himself as the surprising first-time candidate in the congressional 5th District runoff election Saturday against state Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia.
The congressional seat was vacated when former U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, took a cabinet position in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.
In the all-GOP runoff, McAllister is campaigning as a Christian conservative and an anti-establishment candidate, but he is setting himself up as the more pragmatic choice who can work well with moderates and Democrats.
“I really think it’s my people skills more than anything,” McAllister said of his successes. “I’ve always had an ability to lead and, when I say I’ll do something, know that I’m going to do it.”
Being a businessman, he has witnessed firsthand the government “red tape and bureaucracy” that goes long with “trying to provide jobs.”
Entering the congressional race as a political outsider felt right, he said, because he wants to work to ensure the government is not a “hindrance” on the economy.
McAllister’s first major move as a business owner came in 2005.
He learned the oil-and-gas pipeline industry through Mustang and he started Legacy Contractors to provide polyurethane foam breakers and pads — rather than more inefficient sandbags — to protect the pipelines.
He started the business with his father, Gene, who did not know the pipeline industry, but who was looking for a new opportunity at the time because of layoffs at the now-defunct International Paper plant, where he had been a longtime employee.
“It was probably the peak of the pipeline industry, so we had a lot of work,” Gene McAllister said.
He credited his son’s business savvy that he said would translate to politics. “He’s a shaker and a mover,” Gene McAllister said of Vance. “He has the business sense to get things done.”
That business success is allowing McAllister to largely self-finance his campaign.
Riser led the 14-candidate field in the open primary Oct. 19 election with 32 percent of the vote, about 15 percentage points more than McAllister.
McAllister has thus far invested $825,000 out his pockets into the race, out of his nearly $920,000 in total campaign contributions, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Riser, on the other hand, has raised nearly $880,000, none of which is his own.
McAllister first gained attention with the support he has from “Duck Dynasty” star and patriarch, Phil Roberston.
But McAllister also is endorsed now by the third-and-fourth-place finishers in the open primary election, Democratic Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo and Republican former Congressman Clyde Holloway, of Forest Hill.
Riser is backed by Alexander and U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson; Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; and John Fleming, R-Minden, as well as some tea party groups. U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has helped Riser with fundraising.
The redrawn 5th District is the state’s poorest, most rural and by far the largest geographically, stretching into 24 parishes from Monroe down to Alexandria and into the Florida parishes, which include the north Baton Rouge suburban and bedroom communities in East Feliciana.
The district includes the following parishes: Avoyelles, Caldwell, Catahoula, Concordia, East Carroll, Franklin, Grant, Jackson, LaSalle, Lincoln, Madison, Morehouse, Ouachita, Rapides, Richland, Tensas, Washington, West Carroll, West Feliciana and Winn, as well as parts of East Feliciana, St. Helena, St. Landry and Tangipahoa.
University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Joshua Stockley said Riser remains the frontrunner, but that the race is “tightening.” Stockley said it is telling that Riser has gone “negative” in his campaigning, while McAllister has not thus far.
“I think that’s an indication that you feel things are getting away from you and Vance has some real momentum,” Stockley said.
Riser has tried to paint McAllister as a “chameleon” who shifts his stances to suit his audience and is soft on issues like health care and immigration.
Riser is all in on the effort to repeal “Obamacare,” while McAllister said he acknowledges the reality that doing so is virtually impossible while Obama remains president.
“I will vote to repeal it, but the reality is this nightmare is amongst us,” McAllister said. “What we have to do is dig into and mitigate it and lessen its impact.”
McAllister though has come out in favor of Louisiana accepting the Medicaid expansion to insure about 265,000 more Louisianians, noting that the 5th district has a high percentage of uninsured residents. Jindal has declined to accept the expansion.
On immigration, McAllister said he backs addressing border security first, in its own separate legislation.
Then, “as a Christian,” he said he would support providing a “tough, hard path to citizenship” for many of those living in the country illegally. He said those eligible would have to learn English, get an education, pay some back taxes and not have a criminal background.
If elected, McAllister said he would limit himself to no more than 10 years in Congress at which point, he jokes, “It’ll be my house or the White House.”
“I don’t want to be a career politician,” he said. “I want to try to help and give back.”
His top priority in office, he said, would be to continue and build upon Alexander’s legacy of strong constituent services. He said the most important part of the job is helping the district’s residents dealing with Medicare, Medicaid, veteran’s affairs issues and much more.
In a district with a lot of agriculture, McAllister said he also wants to work on legislatively helping the industry grow and add jobs.
A few years ago, McAllister co-founded Irving-based Texas Coast Energy Company with the president and CEO, Jeff Gordon, not long after they met and became friends.
Gordon described McAllister as an inspiring leader and “straight shooter” who isn’t afraid to disagree with people at times. That mentality seems to be resonating with the people in the 5th congressional district, Gordon said.
“He’s just a good guy,” Gordon said. “Just as a business partner, he’s somebody you can count on. I mean that sincerely. If he says he’s going to do something, he does it.”