McAllister’s fight for forgiveness crucial in continuing political career
MONROE — In his unlikely bid for Congress last year, Vance McAllister, a political neophyte who had never set foot in the nation’s capital, offered a refreshing promise of change that seemed almost too good to be true for voters like Glenda Morris.
A self-described “constitutional purist” from West Monroe, Morris took McAllister at face value as he billed himself as an upstanding family man who would faithfully represent the conservative fabric of Ouachita Parish in the partisan halls of Washington, D.C.
Morris experienced a bout of cognitive dissonance this week when a leaked surveillance video emerged of McAllister, R-Swartz, passionately kissing a married staffer in his district office here, setting off a metastasizing scandal that has embarrassed the community and tarnished the reputation of its brightest rising political star.
In the special election held last fall to fill the seat of former U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, McAllister distinguished himself from a crowded field and the candidate backed by the GOP establishment, state Sen. Neil Riser, in part by underscoring his devout Christianity and beseeching voters to pray for him. Without having previously held public office, he soared to victory on the coattails of the bearded stars of “Duck Dynasty,” the hugely popular, West Monroe reality television show steeped in family values widely shared across Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, a swath of parishes stretching from Monroe to Alexandria and across the Florida parishes to Bogalusa.
“To have someone who touted so loudly these family values, things which I hold so dear, lose his focus so soon, concerns me,” Morris said. “The same thing that has happened to his wife now in his marriage has happened between the constituents and him: We don’t trust him.”
A palpable sense of buyer’s remorse has gripped northeastern Louisiana, though it remains unclear what impact the controversy over the “kissing congressman” might have on McAllister’s re-election prospects this November as he asks constituents to send him back to Washington for a full two-year term.
“This is a storm that he can weather depending on the strategy that his office takes,” said Joshua Stockley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Stockley pointed to the resilience of politicians such as Sen. David Vitter, who in 2007 admitted to a “very serious sin” after his number appeared on the list of a Washington escort service and went on to be re-elected.
One question will be whether establishment Republicans rally behind McAllister, who hasn’t been afraid to stake out positions that are out of step with the mainstream GOP — most prominently, his support of the state expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. McAllister, a millionaire who largely self-funded his campaign, defeated Riser, R-Columbia, with about 60 percent of the vote, even though Riser had his campaign steered by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief political adviser and was widely seen as the heir apparent to Alexander’s seat.
“If the right challenger comes out and makes the right argument and has the right amount of funds and endorsements,” Stockley added, “McAllister could find himself electorally in the fight of his life.”
Riser said Tuesday he wanted to be sensitive to the families affected by the kissing scandal, noting there will be time in the future to contemplate running for McAllister’s seat. “Now is not the time to be talking about elections,” he said during a break from debate on the Senate floor. “I’m busy in session.”
State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, said McAllister should resign, adding he is looking at running for the office next year.
“Vance McAllister owes it to his voters and his family to resign. I don’t think he can be effective while he’s fighting ethics charges and trying to heal his family,” Johnson said.
In interviews, voters on both sides of the aisle who supported McAllister voiced disappointment in their newly minted congressman. His widely publicized indiscretion was the talk of the town from a regular McDonald’s kaffeeklatsch along U.S. 165 to the Northside Barber Shop. Several questioned whether he was still fit to lead.
“We needed change, and he appears to be able to do that, or at least did at that time,” said Alvin Palmer, a self-described conservative who cast his ballot for McAllister last November. “Right now, I’m uncertain, and this has cast a shadow over my certainty.”
“I think he fooled people,” said Denille Fleming, who described herself as a Christian and an old-fashioned liberal. “I think he took us in.”
McAllister asked voters for forgiveness Monday after The Ouachita Citizen newspaper of West Monroe published a video showing the congressman locking lips with Melissa Anne Hixon Peacock, the wife of a longtime friend. The 33-year-old aide had served as McAllister’s district scheduler before reportedly being taken off the payroll after the video went viral.
McAllister grew up near the woman’s husband, Heath Peacock, in West Carroll Parish, and worked with him over a 16-year period at Mustang Engineering, a Houston oil and gas company, according to the Citizen. A self-employed cosmetologist, federal payroll records show Melissa Peacock began working for McAllister as a part-time aide the day after he was elected.
For his part, Heath Peacock told CNN on Tuesday that he and his wife were “headed for divorce,” and that McAllister had apologized to “everyone in the world except me.”
“I’m just freaking devastated by the whole deal, man,” he told the network. “I loved my wife so much. ... I feel like I’m going to wake up here in a minute and this is all going to be a bad nightmare.”
McAllister and his staff have not returned repeated requests for comment from The Advocate this week, though the congressman issued a prepared statement promising to do “everything I can to earn back the trust of everyone I’ve disappointed.” McAllister told the Monroe News-Star he does not intend to resign, and said he had confessed to his wife before the video came out and is “trying to work through this difficult time.”
“If the people are willing to forgive me, I’ll keep fighting,” he told the newspaper. “If there’s somebody more perfect than me who they support, it’s their will.”
Even as McAllister hunkered down, attention seemed to be shifting from the kiss heard ’round the state to the actual filming and leaking of the surveillance video, which was taken Dec. 23 in the dark of McAllister’s Monroe district office. Adam Terry, McAllister’s chief of staff, told the News-Star that the congressman’s staff was conducting its own investigation of the leak, saying “a breach in security in a federal office is a grave concern for us.”
Sam Hanna Jr., publisher of The Ouachita Citizen, said the video had been dropped off anonymously in an envelope at the newspaper’s office. His reporters “did a good bit of due diligence” to verify its contents before publishing it Monday afternoon, he said, adding no editing was done to the video. “We don’t have the capability to do that,” he said.
Hanna said he recognized right away what the video depicted, but he didn’t expect it to explode the way it has. The newspaper has 5,200 paid subscribers and attracts, on average, about 30,000 unique visitors a month to its website. At noon Tuesday, the McAllister video had drawn some 290,000 unique visitors to the site over the course of about 24 hours, Hanna said.
“We had an idea this was a big story, but I really never thought it would evolve into a national story,” Hanna said in an interview here. “It seems like it’s about every six months you turn around and some member of Congress is getting busted for something he shouldn’t have been doing.”
It was not clear whether McAllister would request a criminal investigation into the leak, and Terry, his chief of staff, did not respond to calls and questions sent via text message Tuesday. The Monroe Police Department said no formal complaint had been filed regarding the video, and a spokeswoman for the FBI in New Orleans said the agency was not investigating.
State Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-Monroe, hotly denied allegations that he had somehow been involved in leaking the tape, saying Tuesday afternoon that it had been a tough day for him. The News-Star quoted a West Monroe minister who claimed that a manager in McAllister’s Monroe office, Leah Gordon, told him she was taking the footage to Walsworth and Jonathan Johnson, who worked for Alexander, the former congressman.
“I didn’t see the video until yesterday,” Walsworth said, who attends Christian Life Church, where the minister the newspaper quoted is pastor. “I’m not part of any effort to undermine my congressman.”
Stockley, the ULM professor, said McAllister’s camp would be ill-advised to pursue a criminal inquiry.
“Every day that this is investigated is a day that there is potentially a headline, and every day that there is headline, there is a reminder of why this investigation is occurring to begin with,” Stockley said. “At the end of the day, he obviously shouldn’t have been engaged in the original behavior to begin with.”
Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Clyde Holloway, who ran for the congressional seat and was a U.S. congressman from 1987 to 1993, said he was “truly sad for the families and children directly involved in this set of circumstances.
“I pray they can heal,” said Holloway, a longtime fixture in Republican politics in central and northeast Louisiana. “The situation is personally disappointing to me given that Vance made faith the centerpiece of his platform. There is always a danger when one consistently references his or her faith during a campaign, and then regrettable circumstances like these develop and are brought to light.”
While voters expressed dismay in McAllister’s actions, many said they would be willing to give him a second chance.
“We all have feet of clay at some point,” said Palmer, a conservative who supported McAllister, “and I would not be willing at this point to cast a stone.”
“You can’t just discard someone — we’re all human,” said barber Jeff Robinson. “Where he goes from here is going to depend on how he conducts himself from here on out.”
Michelle Millhollon and Mark Ballard of the The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.