Disappointment, forgiveness mix in 'kissing congressman' scandal
MONROE, La. (AP) - To Louisiana voters accustomed to tawdry scandals involving elected officials, disappointment with an eye toward forgiveness is the prevailing sentiment about their new congressman, caught on video embracing an aide married to one of his friends.
Republican Vance McAllister was a wealthy businessman without prior political experience when he won a special election last fall, trouncing his party's establishment candidate in a conservative district that comprises northeast Louisiana.
While some Republicans have urged the faith-and-family politician to resign, McAllister has said he will respect the verdict of his constituents this fall, when he seeks a full two-year term.
McAllister's "main thing now is to get straight with his family," said Jackie Coleman, a retired law enforcement officer from Olla, south of Monroe.
"Then, this should be over," said Coleman, one of McAllister's constituents interviewed by The Associated Press.
Many are as eager to speculate how a local newspaper got video of McAllister kissing Melissa Peacock as they are to offer an opinion about what it shows.
And they're sure there's more than enough hypocrisy and political intrigue to go around. For example, they note the histories of former President Bill Clinton, former Louisiana governor and current congressional candidate Edwin Edwards (who served eight years in prison for a felony conviction arising from the licensing of riverboat casinos in his fourth term), U.S. Sen. David Vitter (who survived a prostitution scandal a few years ago).
There's been little subtlety in the response from Republican powers.
Gov. Bobby Jindal said he should quit. So did the state Republican chairman, who said McAllister had become an "embarrassment."
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said McAllister has "decisions that he has to make."
The closest thing to support McAllister has found among his colleagues are statements of concern for his wife and five children.
Many voters seem more inclined to forgiveness.
Wearing a T-shirt from her Baptist church in the community of Start, Pamela Nolan made it clear she abhors marital infidelity of any kind.
But, the hospital pharmacist added, "What laws has he broken? What trust has he violated, other than his wife's? ... The next election should be the determinant of how we feel about it."
McAllister hasn't appeared publicly since the weekly Ouachita Citizen posted online a grainy security tape showing McAllister and Peacock kissing in the congressman's district headquarters.
McAllister's Washington-based spokesman said that Peacock has since resigned voluntarily, but that the lawmaker had no plans to step down.
McAllister won a special election last fall to succeed Republican Rodney Alexander, who resigned to take a spot in Jindal's Cabinet.
McAllister spent his own money and got a boost from endorsements by his most famous constituents, the bearded Robertson men of the cable television hit "Duck Dynasty." He earn a runoff spot against Neil Riser, a state senator and Jindal ally with backing from GOP brokers.
McAllister sought support from social conservatives. For example, the Robertsons are outspoken Christians, and McAllister appeared in ads with his family, promising to "defend our Christian way of life."
But he defied Republican orthodoxy by calling for Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama's health care law. That won him the endorsement and runoff campaign muscle of Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a Democrat who finished third in the initial open primary. McAllister routed Riser on Election Day.
Coming into office an outsider, McAllister turned to the establishment that he'd beaten.
He took over the lease for Alexander's Monroe office, where the security videotape was taken, and he retained top members of Alexander's staff.
One of those aides, McAllister's district director, Leah Gordon, has figured prominently in speculation about how the tapes were leaked to the newspaper.
Voters say they're wise to all of those variables.
Terry Parker, who owns a painting company in Start, said he voted for McAllister because of his emphasis on biblical morals. "He did this to himself," Parker said. "But it's dirty, dirty politics being done to him, too."
The congressman's office floated the idea of an FBI investigation into the leaked tape, but then backed off.
Bill Land, an architect who owns and shares the building with McAllister's office, said just two people had access to digital security archives: one of his staff members and Gordon, McAllister's district director.
Land's employee, Lance Hilton, told the AP that he's never accessed old footage. But he said Gordon reviewed tape on multiple occasions, including when she served as Alexander's district director. Hilton said she usually told him she suspected theft by an employee.
Gordon declined an interview through another McAllister aide.
Land said he supported Riser last year but now considers McAllister "a friend," enough so that he contributed the maximum $2,600 toward his re-election.
Mayo, the mayor, offered similar sentiments and a cautionary tale to any politician campaigning on personal uprightness: "It's a dangerous platform to run on for anyone. We all live in glass houses of some variety."
Indeed, Heath Peacock, the husband of the woman in the video, told CNN that McAllister is "about the most nonreligious person I know" and "broke out the religious card" only for votes.