When ACORN provocateur James O’Keefe and three accomplices were arrested at Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office last week in the course of “maliciously interfering with a telephone system operated and controlled by the United States of America,” according to an FBI affidavit, a lot of people wondered what it was about Mary Landrieu and her telephones that merited O’Keefe’s interest.
In a post on biggovernment.com on Friday and again on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Monday night, O’Keefe said that his intent was to determine whether Landrieu was intentionally avoiding constituent phone calls during the late-2009 run-up to the Senate health reform vote. “I decided to investigate why a representative of the people would be out of touch with her constituents for “weeks” because her phones were broken,” he wrote. “In investigating this matter, we decided to visit Senator Landrieu’s district office – the people’s office – to ask the staff if their phones were working.”
O’Keefe wasn’t the only one who had been investigating the matter. In fact, by the time he showed up in Landrieu’s office in late January, a couple of Louisiana political reporters had already examined the allegations that the senator had been ignoring her constituents. We spoke to two of them to find out why the Landrieu phone complaints never made the headlines in their respective newspapers.
Jonathan Tilove, who covers Lousiana’s congressional delegation for the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s bureau in Washington, D.C., and who has since written about O’Keefe’s arrest, said complaints about Landrieu’s phones just didn’t rise to the threshold of news, in his opinion. “The story portrayed by O’Keefe was that there was some intention here not to hear from her constituents. I think the idea when everyone is calling a congressional office and they’re not getting through is not surprising,” Tilove said.
Tilove readily admits he heard from plenty of readers who wanted to voice their opinion of the bill, but had trouble contacting Landrieu’s office. Landrieu had been on the fence about the health care bill and was buffeted with calls from all sides of the debate, Tilove explained. At first she had opposed a public option, and was targeted by public option supporters, he said. Then, several political action groups launched campaigns urging their supporters to tell Landrieu to vote against the bill. When, in late November, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh called Sen. Landrieu a high-priced prostitute for accepting $300 million in Medicaid benefits for Louisiana, in exchange for voting to allow the bill to go to the floor for debate, Landrieu was likely fielding calls from an even larger national audience. She was a “lightning rod,” he said.
I’m not discounting that a lot of people were having trouble getting through to her, but when you are the focus of as much attention and effort to systematically get everyone to call you—because she was so prominently out there as a swing vote on this and because she went in a direction that was out of step with the majority opinion in her state and because a variety of ad campaigns were telling people to call her and tell her what you think—while I understand the frustration, I’m not entirely surprised you would have trouble getting through.
The first media mention of any complaints about Landrieu’s phones can be traced back to a Dec. 23 article in the Baton Rouge Advocate by Mark Ballard, who covered a health care reform protest in front of Landrieu’s Baton Rouge office. In the story, Ballard quoted Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, one of the groups that organized the protest, who implied that Landrieu was being purposefully unreachable.
“We were stunned to learn that so many phone calls to Sen. Landrieu have been unanswered and met with continuous busy signals. We asked them to call their senators. They could get through to Sen. Vitter, but not Sen. Landrieu,” Perkins told Ballard.
(Tilove points out that David Vitter’s vote was never in play, and therefore he wouldn’t have received as many calls—and prompted as many busy signals—as Landrieu. “Vitter’s position on this was unambiguous and ironclad,” he said. “There would be no comparison, and very few offices in the country were as much the subject of calling as hers.”)