On Saturday, Louisiana voters will elect a new governor—Republican Sen. David Vitter or Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards. They'll also celebrate the end of one of the strangest campaigns in recent history. It has included prostitutes, an alleged love child, a coffee-shop spying scandal, a low-speed foot chase, an IHOP affidavit, the FBI, Santa Claus, and a fake terrorism scare.
Edwards is leading in most polls by double digits in the deep-red state—a testament to the supreme unpopularity of the current Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, and to Vitter's own shortcomings. In some ways, they're not so different. The Democratic challenger is, like Vitter, anti-abortion and pro-gun, and he asked President Barack Obama to halve the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Louisiana. (The Pelican State has thus far accepted 14.)
But Edwards has also backed accepting federal money to expand Medicaid with no strings attached. (Vitter has said he would not take expansion "off the table" but did not want to create an incentive for people to stop working.) Democrats hoping for off-year electoral successes suffered a major blow when Obamacare critic Matt Bevin was elected governor of Kentucky earlier in November. In Louisiana, they have a chance to quietly offset that loss and put a lot more folks on the Medicaid rolls. That's a big deal.
But the race is memorable for less substantive reasons. These are all real things that have happened over the final month of the campaign:
One week before the October election—Saturday's runoff vote between the top two October finishers was triggered because no candidate received majority support—a Louisiana blogger named Jason Berry published a video interview on his website, American Zombie, with a former prostitute who alleged that Vitter paid her $5,000 a month for three years, gave her jewelry, got her pregnant, and told her to get an abortion. The former prostitute, Wendy Ellis, told Berry she was coming forward because she was dying of lupus and wanted a clean conscience.
Berry would not reveal exactly how he found Ellis but admitted he'd gotten in touch with her through a professional political researcher.
On the eve of the first election, a private investigator employed by a law firm paid by the Vitter campaign was caught secretly filming a group of Edwards supporters, including Jefferson Parish sheriff Newell Normand, during a regular coffee meeting at the Royal Blend cafe in Old Metairie.
When a member of the group took a photo of the P.I., he fled on foot through a succession of vacant properties. The Edwards supporters pursued the P.I. through the neighborhood, and found him hiding behind an air-conditioning unit. He was arrested and charged with criminal mischief.
The private investigator told sheriff deputies that he was not spying on the sheriff, but rather "on an assignment to conduct surveillance on a subject with a white beard."
The "subject with a white beard" revealed himself to be a New Orleans lawyer and Edwards supporter named John Cummings, who told the Baton Rouge Advocate, "The stupid son of a bitch was supposed to find Santa Claus in the cafe; that's the guy with the white beard."
Cummings added, "You can tell David Vitter that he doesn't get anything for Christmas. He's been naughty."
The deputies found a LexisNexis dossier inside the private investigator's car about Berry, the American Zombie blogger who published the story about Vitter and his alleged love child.
Berry told reporters that he had seen the private investigator outside his own house two days earlier. "I don't know whether it was incompetence, whether he's like Inspector Clouseau, or whether the guy actually wanted me to see him, but it was pretty clear what was going on when I made eye contact with him and he smiled at me," he told WWL-TV.
Unbeknownst to Vitter's P.I., the opposition researcher who helped Berry track down Ellis was also at the Royal Blend. The investigator, Danny Denoux, told the Advocate that he had been retained by an anonymous businessman.
Edwards' first ad of the runoff election, aired during a Louisiana State University football game, stated, "David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots. Now, the choice is yours."
Vitter told reporters he sent documents to the FBI and the local US Attorney's office accusing Cummings ("the guy with the white beard") of paying a witness to make false statements against him. (Cummings has denied this.)
The next day, Normand, the Jefferson Parish sheriff who chased Vitter's P.I. through the streets of Metairie, held a press conference to announce that he had recovered video footage from theprivate investigator's phone, depicting a 30-minute interview at an IHOP with an acquaintance of the prostitute. The investigator on the tape was attempting to persuade Ellis' friend, an unidentified woman, to sign an affidavit discrediting Ellis' claims. Norman read aloud several excerpts from the meeting. "I'd like you to say Jason Berry made payment to several witnesses," the investigator told the woman. "If I could show then Jason Berry paying people off, that would kind of kill this story." Normand told reporters he was going to turn the tapes over to the FBI. (Berry has denied paying sources for material.)
Vitter returned to the scene of the crime, holding a private meeting with donors at—of all places—the Royal Blend cafe in Metairie, where his P.I. had filmed Normand's coffee meeting.
After Vitter took umbrage at the ad about the prostitutes during their debate, Edwards told Vitter, "If it's a low blow, it's only because that's where you live, senator—it's 100 percent truthful":
Citing "those extracurricular activities that you don't want to admit to," the Democrat continued, "You're a liar and you're a cheater and you're a stealer and I don't tolerate that." (Vitter has denied being a liar and a stealer.)
Trailing in the polls by double digits, Vitter wrote an open letter to Obama warning him that a Syrian refugee who had resettled in Louisiana had gone "missing." The Louisiana GOP picked up Vitter's talking point and emailed supporters, "There is an unmonitored Syrian refugee who is walking around freely, and no one knows where he is."
In a speech at Georgetown University on Thursday afternoon, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont who's seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, did something unprecedented for a major candidate: He made the case for democratic socialism.
The address, which Sanders wrote himself, had been in the works for weeks, and in it Sanders embraced a label that has most often been used to attack him. (At the first Democratic presidential debate last month, front-runner Hillary Clinton distanced herself from Sanders' "democratic socialist" views.) At times, this address sounded much like Sanders' stump speech: He railed against Wall Street, the "ruling class," and the billionaire Koch brothers. But he tied those stances to an ideology that he contended was an essential part of the United States' heritage.
On Tuesday, jurors in Charleston, West Virginia, heard closing arguments in the trial of Don Blankenship, the former CEO of coal giant Massey Energy, who stands accused of conspiring to commit mine safety violations and making false statements to federal regulators. Blankenship, a larger-than-life figure who built the company into the biggest coal producer in Central Appalachia, faces up to 30 years in federal prison if convicted on all charges.
The indictment itself was unprecedented. It was the first time a major coal kingpin faced criminal charges for mining-related practices, and investigators uncovered a culture of deception in which Blankenship's miners—allegedly with his knowledge—ignored and in some cases covered up serious safety violations from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. The marathon trial, which began in early October, was built on a mix of audio recordings, SEC statements, and internal memos, as well as the testimony of more than a dozen subordinates and mine workers who experienced firsthand the effects of the coal boss's hard-assed managerial methods. The jury began its deliberations on Wednesday.
But the trial was also about two things that aren't technically part of the case at all. The first is the 2010 explosion at the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch mine that left 29 of Blankenship's workers dead in the worst US mine disaster in 40 years. The second is President Barack Obama.
Blankenship is not on trial for the Upper Big Branch disaster. If there was any ambiguity about that, the judge's jury instructions on Tuesday made it quite clear. But the explosion was omnipresent during the proceedings nonetheless. The period in which Blankenship was accused of conspiring to commit mine safety violations ended the day of the blast. The false statements Blankenship allegedly made to federal regulators, in the form of a rosy Securities and Exchange Commission filing about Massey's commitment to workers' safety, were made when the company's stock was falling in the aftermath of Upper Big Branch. The details about the blast were so well known that the defense pushed, up until the final week before the trial, to have the proceedings relocated to as far away as Baltimore.
When Bernie Sanders was asked at a recent Democratic presidential forum to name his dream job, the Vermont senator didn't hesitate. "President of CNN." The South Carolina audience laughed—and so did his interrogator, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. But Sanders was dead serious. "If I was president of CNN, trust me, the way media deals with politics would radically change," he said.
Of that, there's little doubt. Republican candidates have fumed publicly about slanted questions posed by the moderators at last month's presidential debate hosted by CNBC, accusing the pro-business cable network of holding the GOP contenders to a tougher standard than their liberal counterparts. But they're not the only ones who believe the media is broken. Sanders' critique of mass media is much older, more sophisticated, and runs far deeper than mere accusations of bias. It is a theory he's trumpeted since before he won his first election in 1981, and it goes to the heart of his critique of the capitalist system. He believes the media is making us dumber, making us poorer, making us sicker, and rotting the democratic system to its core.