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Family history not much help in House races

Billy Tauzin III wants his father's seat in the House, but a family thing is not always a sure thing in House succession, as primary contests earlier this year in California and Michigan show.
Billy Tauzin III, right, shakes hands with Louisiana Secretary of State Fox McKeithen at the state capitol in Baton Rouge, La. on Aug. 4.Bill Haber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some voters affectionately call him "Little Billy." A political rival calls him simply: "That Boy."

Billy Tauzin III's name is as famous as any in south Louisiana politics, familiar to the oilmen, shrimp fishermen and sugar cane farmers of Cajun towns like Houma and New Iberia.

His father is U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin Jr., a former oil rig worker who won a seat in Congress in 1980 and rose to become one of Washington's biggest power brokers. The father is retiring and the 30-year-old son wants his seat in the House.

But a family thing is not always a sure thing in House succession, as primary contests earlier this year in California and Michigan show.

And "Little Billy" has a tougher race than his father ever did. He is in his first political campaign and has five opponents, most of them veterans of state politics with connections across the southeastern Louisiana district.

They can be vocal in their disdain for Tauzin, a newcomer fewer than 10 years out of college whose job as a lobbyist for BellSouth coincided with his father's oversight of and closeness to the telecommunications industry as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"I'm just not comfortable with the idea that a 30-year-old boy has had enough life experience," said Republican state Sen. Craig Romero, 50. "I mean, this is the United States Congress, that boy needs to have had some experience in life."

As other political families have found this year, a lot of voters don't like the idea of a retiring lawmaker bequeathing a seat in Congress to a close relative, as if it were some right of inheritance.

Voters not following the family
In Michigan, Brad Smith lost the Republican primary for succeeding his father, Rep. Nick Smith in a race that ultimately produced admonishments from the House Ethics Committee to both Nick Smith and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. In California, Republican primary voters rejected Rep. Doug Ose's attempt to give his seat to his older sister Mary.

"It seems to me that the son is trying to run on his dad's name," Forest Oliver, a pipeline technician and a Republican in Thibodaux, La., said of the Tauzins. "And I don't think his dad's done that much himself."

In many races this year, the family name is a definite asset. Republican Connie Mack is favored to win in Florida's 14th District, the seat vacated by new CIA Director Porter Goss and one that Mack's father held before being elected to the Senate.

Democrat Dan Boren, the son of former Sen. David Boren, is expected to win Oklahoma's 2nd District seat now held by Democratic Senate candidate Brad Carson; and Democrat Russ Carnahan, the son of former Sen. Jean Carnahan and the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, is favored to take Missouri's 3rd District seat now held by retiring Democratic Rep. Dick Gephardt.

The Tauzin name also is one that registers with voters in Louisiana's 3rd District. Polls so far show him with a lead of 10 or more percentage points over Romero and the others. He has the endorsement of the state Republican Party as well as financial support from his father's colleagues in Congress.

The polls also show, however, that none of the candidates is close to getting 50 percent of the vote Nov. 2. The top two finishers will almost certainly face off in a runoff Dec. 4.

Campaign experts consider Romero and Democrat Charlie Melancon, 57, a former state legislator and president of the American Sugar Cane League, as having the best chance of facing Tauzin in a runoff. Whatever happens, they say, Tauzin can expect a stiff challenge as he tries to keep the family name on Capitol Hill.

"This is one of the first honest-to-goodness, wide-open, tee-it-up congressional races we've had in a long time," said Elliott Stonecipher, a Louisiana-based political consultant.

The other candidates are a varied group:

  • Democrat Damon Baldone, 39, a lawyer and state legislator.
  • Democrat Charmaine Caccioppi, 50, a former Senate aide and an economic development official with the New Orleans-area chamber of commerce.
  • Republican physician Kevin Chiasson, 56.

The race's outcome is considered especially tough to predict because voters here have a strong independent streak. About 61 percent are registered Democrats, yet the district voted solidly for George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000.

Tauzin dismisses charges that he's too young and inexperienced to be in Congress. He points out that his father was 28 when he was elected, and retiring Sen. John Breaux, D-La., was 27 when he won his first congressional race.

"The same criticism was made of my father, they said he was green as grass, but I think they'd agree that he turned out to be a good public servant. John Breaux also turned out to be a great senator," Tauzin said.