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Party Won't Let Lawmaker Switch Without a Fight

Louisiana Democrats mount a legal challenge in congressman's bid to run as a Republican.

August 13, 2004|Scott Gold and Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writers

PLAQUEMINE, La. — Ten days ago, Rep. Rodney Alexander was a Democrat. Eight days ago, he was a Republican. Today, to many in the rural Louisiana district he represents, he is a pariah -- and a judge in this tiny town will try to sort the mess out.

As leaders of both political parties expected, Alexander qualified last week for reelection as a Democrat. But 15 minutes before the qualifying period for the Nov. 2 election was to end, about 4:45 p.m. Friday, he walked into the secretary of State's office in Baton Rouge and switched parties.

The move left Democrats no time to field a candidate in the race. It was a mendacious ploy, Democrats charged, and the reaction back home has been so venomous that Alexander said he was taken aback.

Alexander, 57, of Quitman has been lampooned and pilloried -- called a "traitor" and a "coward," and that's just by his brethren in Congress. His entire staff in Washington resigned in protest. Scores of Democrats have demanded that the freshman congressman return more than $250,000 in contributions; he has agreed to return some of the money. And the candidate who was the Republican front-runner before Alexander's switch has rejected pleas from the GOP establishment to drop out of the race.

And today, a lawsuit seeking to have Alexander removed from the ballot will be heard. It charges that Louisiana election law made his move improper and illegal. If that doesn't work, and if Alexander is elected, Democrats promise to launch a recall drive.

"Everybody has a right to be in the party of their choosing and to switch parties. It's just the way he did it," said Trey Ourso, a former director of the Louisiana Democratic Party and head of one of three political consulting firms that severed ties with Alexander this week in protest.

"To sneak in there with 15 minutes to go is inexcusable," Ourso said. "After all the Democratic Party has done locally and nationally to support him and build him up, it was an act of political treason. The guy essentially went in there and stole a seat of Congress."

In a letter to constituents posted on his website Thursday, Alexander, who could not be reached for comment, said his decision was "reached through lengthy soul searching."

He has pointed out this week that voters should not have been surprised by his decision to switch parties, since he was a conservative Democrat -- "pro-life, pro-guns and pro-business," as he put it -- who often voted with the GOP majority. About 59% of his district voted for President Bush in 2000.

"I am a Louisiana man, with Louisiana values," he wrote. "I strongly believe it is in your best interests that I vote Republican."

Bush called to welcome him to the GOP and Rush Limbaugh declared his maneuver a "great trick." The National Republican Congressional Committee sent him $10,000 and dispatched staffers to his office to answer phones after his staff quit.

"He's been a friend of conservatives for a long time," said Pat Brister, chairwoman of the Louisiana Republican Party. "He's certainly being welcomed."

Brister called Alexander's decision to switch parties "very honest," because voters would know what they were getting if they chose to reelect him. Asked if it were a dirty trick, Brister said: "Why would he do anything to give Democrats more time to put someone in against him?"

The answer, Democrats charge, is that doing otherwise violated election law.

Today's hearing on that claim could help determine the Democrats' chances of climbing their way back into power in Washington. Democrats must gain 12 seats this fall to assume the House majority.

The lawsuit seeking to remove Alexander from the ballot was brought by Jeremy Lacombe, a constituent who voted for Alexander in 2002. Lacombe is represented by Christopher Lee Whittington, a legal advisor for the state Democratic Party.

State law says that "no candidate shall change or add his political party designation ... after he is qualified for the election." The law also bars someone who withdraws from the race from entering again, and Whittington said Alexander's new ballot application switching his political affiliation effectively meant withdrawing from the race and then filing again.

Either violation, Whittington said, is enough to disqualify Alexander from the ballot. Alexander called the lawsuit "frivolous," but the district seems divided.

"They should kick him out," said Jaime Tompkins, 18, a waitress at the Bayou Cafe Grill in Plaquemine. But Daphine Denny, 43, who was heading into a nearby grocery store, said: "This is America. You can do whatever you want."

State officials aren't sure what the answer is; they say the election law is vague. Scott Madere, spokesman for the secretary of State, said the department could not find a law that explicitly barred Alexander from qualifying twice for the same election.

"There is going to have to be a decision," he said of the court case. "We follow the rules pretty tightly here. The rules just simply don't address this."

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