At Washington Mardi Gras, revelry and tension in an election year

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Politics,Congress,Louisiana,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,Mary Landrieu,David Vitter

In a crowded room at the Washington Hilton on Friday night, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., spoke into a microphone to be heard over a throng of black-tie revelers.

“This is important, this is serious,” Fleming said, not the least bit seriously. “On this solemn equation, I would like to propose a toast …”

No one at this particular after-party seemed to notice the noun slip-up from Fleming, who was decked out in beads and a “Chairman 2014” rhinestone pin — because this was Washington Mardi Gras, the biggest D.C. party you’ve probably never heard of, where fun and fancy trump correctness, political and grammatical.

It is perhaps the sole event in this high-stakes midterm election year that could, night after night, draw challengers Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to the same venue to socialize with scores of passionate supporters and detractors -- with some awkwardness, but no outward enmity.

For three nights each year, the same hotel that annually hosts the White House Correspondents dinner is booked up top to bottom, en masse, by thousands of Louisianans who come to Washington to schmooze and booze with businesspeople, lobbyists and lawmakers who make some claim to the Pelican State.

The hotel bar becomes the “65th Parish,” a nod to the state’s 64 parishes. Each member of the congressional delegation hosts a hospitality suite, open for a few hours daily, to receive visitors.

Landrieu's suite was decorated with a French Quarter lamppost and “Landrieu Lane” street sign. And each evening, the hotel ballroom is transformed into a cajun spectacle, including a pageant Friday and parade Saturday, with extravagant entertainment, drinks and food -- all furnished by corporate sponsors and not subject to the standard congressional ethics rules.

The tradition dates to 1944, when a modest group of Washington-based Louisianans organized a Mardi Gras ball at the Statler Hotel, now the Capital Hilton. It has in the years since exploded into a marathon celebration that has drawn appearances by presidents and vice presidents. Each year it is a landmark political event, where consultants comb for business and politicians mine for support.

It was no less so this year, with those entrenched in Louisiana politics keenly aware of the state's banner Senate race. Landrieu, who will be seeking a third term, is among the most vulnerable Democrats in 2014, and the race is a must-win for Republicans if they hope to take a majority in the Senate.

Landrieu used Washington Mardi Gras to the best of her political advantage, one day appearing on a local Washington TV news program with Al Sunseri, president of New Orleans-based P&J Oyster Company, to tout her state’s oyster industry.

“Our production is down about half since the Gulf Coast oil spill, but we’re up, oysters are safe, they’re wonderful to eat, they’re very tasty,” she grinned in the interview, in which she ported an apron and often draped her arm around Sunseri.

At the Hilton on Friday night, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., the “captain” of this year's Mardi Gras, pointed to Landrieu and Cassidy's face-off as a particular source of awkwardness this year. “There are certainly undercurrents of tension,” he said.

“There are 20 people here at any given time who hate each other,” Vitter added. “But they put that aside to have a good time.”

As it happens, Vitter, who will run for Louisiana governor next year, was nearly guaranteed to cross paths with his potential challenger, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who attended Mardi Gras and is rumored to be weighing a bid for governor. But Vitter’s campaign was in full swing during the festivities, and his staff blanketed the hotel’s rooms with door hangers.

On Friday night, though, another member of the Vitter family was in the spotlight: his daughter, Sophie, who had been picked as one of the pageant princesses. The group, among them daughters of other lawmakers and political donors, waited in an anteroom in multi-thousand-dollar crowns, and Sophie waved back as her mother, Wendy Vitter, waved from outside before rushing into the ballroom.

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Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner