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Player of the Week: 'Charlie Boy' for Speaker?

BATON ROUGE, La. -- State Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-La.) is refusing to endorse House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should he win a special House election Saturday and get to cast a ballot in the next vote for the speaker's gavel in January.

In an interview Thursday, Cazayoux went a step further and endorsed his home-state colleague, Rep. Charlie Melancon, a backbench conservative Democrat in office barely three years.

"Nancy Pelosi's going to be speaker of the House when I get elected regardless," Cazayoux said after a meet-and-greet at a senior citizens center outside the state capital. "[But] who knows who's running in the fall for speaker? I mean, 'Charlie Boy' Melancon might run. If Charlie Boy's running, that's going to be where I am."

Rest assured, "Charlie Boy" is not running for speaker. Nor is any other Democrat.

Pelosi's hold on power inside the Democratic caucus is stronger than it's ever been, even as national Republicans craft a strategy making her and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) co-stars in attack ads linking them to House Democratic candidates. This is particularly the case in southern races such as Saturday's special election to fill a vacancy in Louisiana's 6th Congressional District, which Cazayoux stands at least a 50-50 shot of winning.

Cazayoux's dilemma is similar to that faced by moderate Republicans in the mid-1990s, after Newt Gingrich led House Republicans into power after 40 years in minority exile. Because of his lightning rod status in swing districts some moderate Republicans needed to take symbolic stands against Gingrich (R-Ga.) after the House ethics committee rebuked him for a questionable book deal.

So a handful voted against Gingrich's second term as speaker in January 1997 as a means of political self-defense, but Gingrich remained speaker for another two years.

By endorsing Melancon's nonexistent speaker's bid, Cazayoux hopes to distance himself from Pelosi. More importantly, Cazayoux is following a route already taken by Melancon earlier this decade in winning a previously GOP-held seat in an oddly timed election after the incumbent retired to become a high-priced K Street lobbyist.

[My thanks to Mike Dowty -- the encyclopedic editor-reporter-photographer-do-everything of the Livingston Parish News, who's covered his area's politics for more than 30 years -- for pointing out my error in forgetting Melancon's victory in yesterday's post.]

In 2004 Melancon took advantage of rising discontent with the Bush administration among the liberal Democratic base, and he benefited from a divided local GOP. Billy Tauzin, a Democrat-turned-Republican after the '94 elections, was retiring to become a lobbyist, although he didn't announce his job as the top lobbyist for PhRMA until after the elections.

Tauzin's son was the top Republican in the open primary held in Louisiana on Election Day, beating out a more experienced GOP state senator, who felt embittered by the race and declined later to endorse Tauzin's son. Melancon ran a no-frills campaign hailing gun rights and opposing abortion, and won the December 2004 runoff by less than 600 votes, a rare bright spot in an otherwise bleak election cycle for southern Democrats.

Now, Cazayoux is attempting the same trick. Richard Baker, who represented the 6th District for 21 years, quit earlier this year to become a lobbyist for the hedge fund industry. Local Republicans had a bitter primary that ended with Woody Jenkins securing the nomination. The victory disillusioned some GOP activists because he was a rough and tumble figure in his 28 years in the state legislature.

Cazayoux has a slightly tougher voter base, for a Democrat, than Melancon, whose district went for President Bush with 58 percent of the vote in 2004 compared to 59 percent in the 6th. But Melancon's district routinely voted for Tauzin as a Democrat in the 1980s and early 1990s. Cazayoux is attempting to return the 6th District to the Democratic fold after 33 years in GOP hands.

Ultimately, Saturday's race is not going to turn on whether Cazayoux votes for Pelosi as speaker next year. It's more likely to focus on the Democrat's ability to turn out African-American voters who are upset a black state senator lost to him in the Democratic primary. And it may also turn on whether he can convince enough white voters that, like Melancon, he's his own man on the issues, not Nancy Pelosi's.

Jenkins is trying to make Pelosi, and Obama, stick to Cazayoux. "Back home they're 'Blue Dogs,' but when they get to Washington, they're going to vote overwhelmingly with her," he told me.

Melancon has shown that, in Cajun Country, that argument sometimes doesn't work. For blazing that potential trail for Cazayoux, Charlie Melancon is the Player of the Week.

But he's still not running for speaker.

-- Paul Kane

By washingtonpost.com Editors  |  May 2, 2008; 5:44 PM ET
Categories:  Dem. Leaders , House , Player of the Week  
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