Vitter: Governor’s office isn’t a stepping stone

From Common Core to Medicaid expansion, U.S. Sen. David Vitter tackled political hot-button topics Monday in his first wide-ranging remarks since announcing his run for governor.

Vitter, R-La., spoke largely in broad strokes. He thinks the TOPS program is a runaway spending train, but he offered no specifics on how to slow it down. He’s looking carefully at the Common Core standards, but he hasn’t decided if he’s for or against them. He has serious concerns about a New Orleans-area levee board’s lawsuit against 97 energy companies, but he hasn’t carefully read the controversial legislation that would kill the litigation.

The senator was more concrete about making the Governor’s Office his last political job and lobbing criticism at Gov. Bobby Jindal. In contrast to Jindal’s position, Vitter said he just might be able to accept an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program.

“I will lead. I’m not running for governor as a stepping stone. ... I’m not even running to gain a cameo appearance on ‘Duck Dynasty,’ ” Vitter said, referring to Jindal’s political ambitions and recent appearance on the reality TV show.

Jindal was out of state Monday for the second time in four days. He was in Iowa over the weekend, telling the Des Moines Register that he and his wife are praying about a possible run for the White House. On Monday, the governor was in Texas, where he participated in a discussion about federal rules aimed at lowering power plants’ impact on global warming. Jindal and other governors want changes before the rules take effect.

Vitter, meanwhile, was in Louisiana’s capital, sipping iced tea and standing behind the podium at the Press Club of Baton Rouge luncheon. Journalists and political watchers crowded into a conference room at the Belle of Baton Rouge to listen. Casino staff hurriedly set up an extra table to accommodate the crowd.

In January, Vitter announced he will run for governor next year. Also in the race are Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Louisiana House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite. Other possible candidates include Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy and Democratic New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Jindal cannot seek a third consecutive term, making the 2015 race wide open.

The groundwork for Vitter’s gubernatorial bid was laid in advance of his announcement. A third-party super PAC, The Fund for Louisiana’s Future, raised $1.5 million last year to support Vitter’s re-election or a run for governor. Vitter has plowed money from his own U.S. Senate campaign fund into the super PAC, neatly sidestepping prohibitions against using federal campaign dollars for a state race.

Now Vitter is gearing up for a series of leadership forums across Louisiana this fall. He’ll visit Shreveport, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and Monroe, apparently skipping his native New Orleans-area. The forums will focus on education, job development, higher education, public-private hospital partnerships and traffic congestion, among other topics.

Vitter said several big themes have emerged, including a need to stop devaluing career paths that do not include a college education. He said the starting pay for welders with technical certificates in the Lake Charles area soon will be more than $60,000 a year.

The senator said higher education does need attention, especially after six years of what he characterized as cuts and uncertainty under the Jindal administration. State general fund dollars for public colleges and universities have dropped, replaced by tuition increases. Vitter said the state’s operating budget seems to be held together with yarn and tape.

“This will be my last political job, elected or appointed,” he vowed, suggesting that Jindal’s focus has been elsewhere during two terms as governor.

Louisiana Democrats pulled up seats at Vitter’s Press Club appearance. State Sen. Karen Peterson, the chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, kept her phone handy to offer live tweets. Peterson, D-New Orleans, didn’t like Vitter’s opener, tweeting, “#dumbjoke to start speech!”

Then Vitter opened the door for Medicaid expansion — something over which Jindal and Democrats have bitterly sparred. Jindal refuses to accept the expansion, saying it would be too costly in the long run for the state to make thousands more people eligible for the Medicaid program that provides health care to the poor.

Democrats argue the expansion would benefit working poor families.

Unlike Jindal, Vitter didn’t offer a firm “No” to Medicaid expansion. He offered several conditions that would have to be met, including significant improvement and reform to the program as well as assurance that it wouldn’t push more resources away from areas such as higher education.

Afterward, Peterson welcomed Vitter to the conversation on Medicaid expansion. “It’s a shame that he waited until after session to make his opinions known ... If he’s truly serious, we hope he will urge the governor and his legislative allies to call a special session to expand access to affordable health care,” she said in a prepared statement.

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter, @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog