Let him eat halibut

It’s not easy being a party switcher.

Nancy Alexander, wife of freshman Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.), knows just how ugly it can get. For the past two weeks she has been welded to her husband’s side as he undergoes the awkward, sometimes painful process of losing a party of friends and getting acquainted with a new one.

Rep. Rodney Alexander

On Aug. 7, just 20 minutes before Louisiana’s filing deadline for the general election, he left the Democratic Party and became a Republican.

For now, Nancy copes as Rodney copes. And at times, she admits, it hurts her more than it does him. Nonetheless, she’s there as he endures the cold stares, the silences and what the couple collectively refer to as “ugly” remarks made by people such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who called him a coward, and CNN’s James Carville, who branded him “one of the stupidest politicians Louisiana has ever known.”

Driving to the Monocle, a French bistro on the Senate side of the Capitol, for lunch
last week, Rodney, 57, is at the wheel of an old-looking green SUV. Nancy is in the passenger seat. He’s aggressive, winding his way down Second Street, which is loaded with police officers, some of whom wish to peer into his car.

“Don’t y’all feel a lot more safer now?” he asks sarcastically after two officers check the car. Realizing that his tone may have been less than politically correct, he adds gravely, “I don’t think there’s any way in the world we’ll know how much 9-11 cost us.”

Nancy fiddles with her husband’s BlackBerry, trying to decipher messages and upcoming votes. “It’s a beautiful day out there,” she says, looking at the sunshine beaming through the car windows.

Rodney isn’t thinking about the weather. He’s rushed, ill at ease. He inches out into the intersection. “Well, I’m about to run this red light,” he says, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s joking because just then the light turns green and he zooms through.

He has votes coming up, and lunching with a couple of reporters who want to watch him eat surely won’t be the highlight of his day. But his antsy impatience for work is less about that than it is the disposition of someone who, at least for now, appears uncomfortable in his own skin.

Perhaps later, after he clears another security checkpoint, after weeks pass, after another series of votes in which he determines which lawmakers are still speaking to him, and after he grows accustomed to an entirely new staff (his Washington aides quit after the switch) — perhaps then, he will relax.

Michael S. Gerber
Alexander's halibut lunch.

Rodney drops us off at the door of the Monocle and says he’ll join us once he has found parking. We are seated at a banquette near the back of the cozy dining room. Nancy, blond and blue-eyed, and Rodney will sit next to each other booth side, and face out into a dining room full of political types in suits and ties and dresses.

A waiter with a thick French accent takes our drink orders. “Unsweetened tea, two,” Nancy says, ordering for her husband, as we peruse the menu.

Soon, Rodney slips in beside her. The waiter returns and recites the specials, one of which is split-pea soup followed by a main course of halibut in white-wine shallot cream sauce accompanied by a vegetable medley of green beans and carrots. Rodney orders that without opening his menu.

“Is that the way you pronounce it, halibut?” Rodney asks sheepishly after the waiter leaves.

He explains that in the small town of Quitman, La., where he lives, the cuisine is nothing like Washington’s. The closest McDonald’s is 10 miles away. The Alexanders prefer the food they get at home — fried catfish, fried chicken, turnip greens, peas and corn.

The couple, married for 37 years now, met in high school when she was 15 and he was 17. “Nancy and I started dating 41 years ago,” Rodney says proudly. “I just sneaked up on her. Before she knew it, four years had passed. We had already saved up a little money to get married, and here we are.”

Whenever a space in the conversation opens, the subject gravitates toward the four grandchildren. “We’re on the road almost all the time now, and when we’re home we grab the grandkids and go to Pizza Hut,” he says.

Rodney is quiet, and won’t dominate every room he enters. Polite and thoughtful, he has a shy demeanor, a large forehead and a long, oval-shaped face with droopy skin.

His hair is a shiny puff of gray, neatly combed back. His warm, brown eyes look sad and hopeful, like those of a basset hound.

His green salad arrives, and he picks at it without either interest or enjoyment. At the moment, he’s explaining that his older brother, who runs the family construction business in Louisiana, has always been Republican. His mother and sister, also Republicans. His father, who died two years ago, was a Democrat.

Only now, when he starts talking about his decision to switch parties, does he seem eager. He sits straighter and takes advantage of his 6-foot-4-inch height. “I’m in the Republican Party because I’m more comfortable there,” he says. “I wasn’t
necessarily embarrassed to be a Democrat. I just didn’t agree with their national stances. I feel real good because I had gotten the encouragement from friends on the Republican side for a few years.

“George Bush won Louisiana by 60 percent. He will win Louisiana again.”

Rodney forks lettuce into his mouth and takes a large sip of his iced tea. Nancy helps him wipe food from the corner of his mouth.

Before his halibut even arrives, he has to leave. He has been called to a series of votes, so he grabs a corner of nut bread and heads off, promising to return shortly.

The ownerless halibut arrives, appetizing but lonely, and is placed in front of his empty seat.

Nancy remains, and fields hard questions. “In my opinion, it’s basically some of the media and the party leaders,” she says of the nastiness since her husband’s decision.
“We don’t get criticism in the district. It’s overwhelming support.”

Nancy, a grant writer at a local university, understands her role as political spouse.

“I do everything I can to help him,” she says, explaining that her husband’s decision to switch parties was one “he had to anguish over” and wasn’t planned for a particular date.

One shining moment for the Alexanders was the post-switch phone call he received from President Bush. “It’s not like he calls us on a routine basis,” she says.

The grandchildren have also alleviated the Alexanders’ pain by making them “forget about all the mean things in politics.”

Certainly losing an entire Washington staff wasn’t easy. “That was probably the most hurtful thing of all — that they were loyal to the party and didn’t consider him at all,” she adds.

Rodney does not return to his lunch. The waiter wraps up the halibut so that we can take it to his office. “Can y’all understand him?” she asks, referring to the waiter’s French accent. She laughs. “He’s probably saying the same thing about me.”

Back in Rodney’s third-floor Cannon office, his meal awaits. He returns, ignores the fish on his desk and wants to end the interview and get on with his day.

“I’ve still got friends who are Democrats,” he insists. “It’s not been as bad as I thought it would be. I’ve always been treated nicely, but there are some who are nicer to me now. Maybe they feel sorry for me; I don’t know.”

Not all of his colleagues have been gracious. Some whom he considered friends no longer speak to him. “I knew I was going to fall under some heavy criticism,” he says. “I knew it was going to fracture some relationships that I wouldn’t be able to repair. Some won’t be the same to me, and I hate that. But life goes on.”

The poor halibut has waited long enough. Rodney finally sits and begins eating, again without apparent enthusiasm. He neither shovels it in nor savors it. “Can I pull my coat off?” he asks. “Will that offend anybody?”

He cuts the fish carefully, pushing around the carrots and beans. “I’m a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. Lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I like all kinds of food. It’s my weakness, I guess, especially Lebanese. I’m from the country, but I like sushi. I don’t like the raw stuff. I like the California roll, the cucumber roll, deep-fried crunchy catfish rolls.”

He looks up from the halibut. “This is good,” he says, as though surprised. He shuts the plastic cover and, he hopes, closes a hard chapter in his political life.