- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2003

When Rodney Alexander attended his first meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on Dec. 10 just three days after his upset runoff victory in Louisiana's 5th Congressional District his future colleagues gave him a standing ovation.

The Democrats' euphoria was based more on mathematics than philosophy. Mr. Alexander's victory reduced the Republicans' majority from 10 seats to nine, but the applause may fade once he starts casting votes.

"He's pro-life and pro-gun; you have to be up there [in District 5]," said John Maginnis, a Baton Rouge-based political columnist who has observed Mr. Alexander as a member of the state House of Representatives since he was elected in 1988. "But given the poverty in the area, a Democrat has to support government programs like health care and vital services."

Mr. Alexander, 56, led a field of seven candidates in the Nov. 5 open primary, then defeated his Republican opponent, Lee Fletcher, an aide to outgoing Rep. John Cooksey, by fewer than 1,000 votes in the Dec. 7 runoff.

Gordon Harvey, a political historian with the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said he and most observers were "shocked" by Mr. Alexander's upset and credited it to the coattails of Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, who won re-election the same day.

"Landrieu getting her vote out helped him immensely," Mr. Harvey said. "If Landrieu had not been in the runoff, Fletcher would have won."

He added that a charge by Mr. Fletcher that a lien for unpaid taxes had been placed on some of Mr. Alexander's property backfired when, in the final debate, Mr. Alexander produced documentation of a tax lien of about $200 against the Fletcher campaign.

One who knows firsthand the frustrations Mr. Alexander may have in store for him is fellow Louisiana Democratic Rep. Chris John of District 7 to the south.

"I think the challenge Rodney is going to have is the same challenge I have every day, and that is to represent our districts, which are a moderate, mainstream-America type of district," he said.

A similar assessment came from John Hill, who has covered the Legislature for the Monroe News-Star, the largest newspaper in Mr. Alexander's district, since 1973.

"He's a very conservative Louisiana Democrat, there's no doubt about that, but he has a very populist streak in him," he said. "He's conservative about costs, but he also wants to make sure those programs get delivered."

Asked how he thought Mr. Alexander would fare in the U.S. House, Mr. Hill said, "Rodney is kind of quiet and speaks softly, and many people vastly underestimate his intelligence. You'll think that he's sitting there hardly paying attention and then he suddenly comes out with a zinger that illustrates that he has a real good grasp of the issues."

Asked if he thought the conservative Mr. Alexander would get along with liberal House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Mr. Hill replied, "Rodney could get along with a cougar. He's one of the really, genuinely nice guys in the Legislature."

Mr. Alexander himself seemed bemused over suggestions he may not get along with Mrs. Pelosi.

"We think alike in some areas," he said. "She has a sense of need for her constituents just like I do with mine. We don't see eye-to-eye on some things like abortion, but I don't see that that will keep us from getting along."

Despite his expertise in health care, Mr. Alexander has asked for assignment to the Agriculture and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, also important for his mostly rural district, which encompasses 22 of Louisiana's 64 parishes. One of them, East Carroll Parish along the Mississippi River, is the second-poorest county in the United States.

Mr. Alexander attended Louisiana Tech University but did not graduate and served in the Air Force Reserve from 1965-71. He made his living in the construction business.

Mr. Harvey predicted that the political thinking in District 5 will keep Mr. Alexander from drifting to the left.

"He's by no means going to be the liberal that Fletcher tried to paint him," he said. "This is still a conservative district, and it's going Republican. You're not going to see him doing anything that smacks of being a liberal."

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