Landrieu’s Very Shaky Start

It was exactly two decades ago this month (January 2017) when Louisiana found itself sending a new U.S. senator to Washington for only the second time in nearly 30 years. But a close election, in concert with an investigation and a formal Senate inquiry, threatened to end Mary Landrieu’s tenure before it ever began.

Her opponent from the November election, then-state Rep. Woody Jenkins, had refused to concede the race, claiming that Landrieu’s 5,788 vote margin was fraudulent. After attempting a lawsuit, Jenkins filed a formal complaint with the Senate contesting the election. Jenkins alleged that massive voter irregularities had taken place, particularly in Orleans Parish.

Over Jenkins’ objections, Secretary of State Fox McKeithen had already certified Landrieu’s election.

On Jan. 7, 1997, Landrieu was seated "without prejudice," a unique legal circumstance in which the Senate recognized her victory, but retained the right to investigate the election and, if necessary, remove her from the upper chamber.

The matter was referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration, which reviewed Jenkins’ petition and heard his testimony. Jenkins and his supporters also intensively lobbied Republicans on the committee to open a formal investigation. The majority of members agreed in a vote that divided along party lines.

Seeing the investigation as purely partisan, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd said, "The majority has decided to go to war."

Assisted by the FBI, Senate investigators spent weeks in Louisiana reviewing voter records and collecting testimony. GOP Sen. John Warner, the committee’s chairman, held four days of hearings in the state during a congressional recess.

With no significant evidence produced, Senate Democrats rallied around Landrieu and attempted to use parliamentary measures to block the investigation. Majority Leader Trent Lott countered by moving daily adjournment times around to accommodate his party’s ongoing hearings.

While uncovering a handful of instances of voter fraud, investigators were unable to find the proverbial "smoking gun" to reverse the election. On Oct. 1, 1997, the committee unanimously voted to end the investigation, stating in a final report that "no evidence has been uncovered that Senator Landrieu was involved in any fraudulent election activities."

Addressing reporters after the committee vote, Landrieu said of the ordeal, "It has been an unwelcomed baptism by fire for me in the Senate."

By Mitch Rabalais

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