Louisiana gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards (D) didn’t need to utter the word “prostitution” for viewers of Tuesday night’s debate to understand that he was hitting Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) over his involvement in the 2007 “D.C. Madam” scandal.
“Hundreds of veterans have contacted me,” Edwards said, “and they wanted to know that you were missing out on your public performance of your duties in Congress in order to engage in those extracurricular activities that you don’t
want to admit to.”
Vitter had just criticized Edwards, a state representative, for releasing a “vicious negative ad” that he said offended veterans. The ad was released last week and juxtaposed Edwards’ service as an Army Ranger with the claim that Vitter “answered a prostitute’s call minutes after he skipped a vote honoring 28 soldiers who gave their lives in defense of our freedom.”
“David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots,” the ad’s narrator intoned. “Now, the choice is yours.”
The senator famously admitted that he committed a “very serious sin” after his phone number was revealed on the call list of the late Deborah Jean Palfrey, known as the “D.C. Madam,” in 2007. But the scandal never served as political kryptonite for Vitter until now. Trailing in the polls and abandoned by his GOP primary rivals, Vitter is suddenly playing defense in a race that he seemingly had locked just months ago.
Democrat John Bel Edwards, left, accepts the endorsement of Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, his former primary rival, Nov. 5 in Baton Rouge.
The senator responded to Edwards’ attack ad with his own 30-second spot in which he stared straight into the camera and copped to letting his family down.
“Fifteen years ago I failed my family, but found forgiveness and love,” Vitter said in the ad. “I learned that our falls aren’t what define us, but rather how we get up, accept responsibility and earn redemption.”
Vitter did not use the word “prostitution.” But his campaign notably changed the title of the ad from “Hard Times” to “Difficult Times” after posting it to YouTube.
It’s not just the 2007 “D.C. Madam” revelation that’s dogging the Vitter campaign, either. A second prostitution scandal has reared its head in recent weeks and gained even more steam in a press conference the powerful sheriff of Jefferson Parish, in metro New Orleans, gave hours before Tuesday’s debate.
The second scandal involves Wendy Ellis, who gave an interview to Hustler magazine in 2007 under the name Wendy Cortez alleging that Vitter was one of her customers. Ellis recently gave a series of videotaped interviews to a local blogger, Jason Berry, in which she went even farther in her claims about Vitter.
Ellis told Berry that she and Vitter had a years-long relationship and that he impregnated her. She also claimed she had the baby and gave him or her up for adoption even though Vitter demanded she get an abortion. Ellis’ unsubstantiated claims received little play in the Louisiana press before last month’s nonpartisan gubernatorial primary.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand revealed evidence Tuesday afternoon that Ellis’ story had collided with another ripped-from-the-silver-screen subplot to the governor’s race: “Spygate,” as some Louisiana news outlets have dubbed it.
Last month, Normand arrested a private investigator who fled a coffee shop after the sheriff caught him recording a breakfast meeting of the sheriff himself and some of his political pals. The private investigator, Robert Frenzel, was working for J.W. Bearden & Associates, an investigative agency employed by Vitter’s campaign. Normand said Tuesday he confiscated another video from Frenzel that he said shows the agency tried to discredit Ellis and “keep the mainstream media neutered” on the prostitution story.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand
The sheriff said the video shows Wes Bearden, the principal of J.W. Bearden & Associates, coaching a friend of Ellis’ as to what to put down in an affidavit.
“I’d like you to say Jason Berry made payment to several witnesses,” Normand quoted Bearden as saying in the video, as reported by local TV station WWL. “If I could show then Jason Berry paying people off, that would kind of kill this story.”
Bearden told WWL in a statement that the woman shown in the video was not “coaxed” but had contacted the campaign and offered to sign an affidavit. Berry, for his part, denied to the news station that he paid Ellis or anyone else for the prostitution story.
Vitter dismissed Normand’s revelations as distractions timed to benefit the Edwards campaign.
“John Bel Edwards’ political allies are clearly using their badges to play politics, which is horrible,” Vitter said in a statement, as quoted by WWL. “They’re also trying to distract attention from serious wrongdoing by an Edwards business associate that I referred to the U.S. Attorney and FBI some time ago, along with a stack of supporting evidence.”
That move may have backfired. At the end of Tuesday night’s debate, Edwards urged Louisiana voters to go back and watch Normand’s full press conference. That request echoed an earlier plea from Scott Angelle, one of Vitter’s GOP primary rivals, during the final gubernatorial debate before the October primary.
“We have a stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana, if we
elect David Vitter as governor,” Angelle said before asking voters to watch Ellis’ videos on Berry’s blog, www.theamericanzombie.com.
Should they heed Edwards’ call, Louisiana voters have 10 days until the Nov. 21 runoff to catch up on Vitter’s various scandals. They’re finally starting to stick.
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.