Louisiana Politics: The Good, Bad and Ugly Awards, 2015

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By Robert Mann

The past year was the wildest and most unpredictable in my 30-plus years of observing Louisiana politics. Besides the entertainment value, 2015 was a humbling 12 months, especially for those of us who were certain that a Democrat could never be elected governor. (I’m happy I’m not a betting man.)

With the year almost done, it’s time for my second annual Good, Bad and Ugly in Louisiana Politics Awards. The competition was fierce. In almost every category, I could have chosen any of three or four nominees. I present here my choices for achievement in 10 categories. (Thanks to those who submitted nominations.)

Most CourageStephen Perry. In May, under the guise of “religious freedom,” Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an appalling and legally questionable executive order purporting to give state and local officials license to discriminate against same-sex couples. While most convention, tourism and chamber executives initially dived for cover, one valiant leader stood tall and set the pace for the few souls who eventually spoke up. Perry, CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (also one of Jindal’s appointees to the LSU Board), promptly issued a strongly worded condemnation of the order.

Most Cowardice: Louisiana Legislators. During the 2015 legislative session, most legislators opposed an immediate expansion of Medicaid for Louisiana’s working poor under provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Ben Nevers pushed the bill in the Senate while state Rep. John Bel Edwards proposed the same legislation in the House. Now that Edwards is governor-elect and Nevers is his chief of staff, many of those cowardly legislators have suddenly seen the light. Most cannot wait to expand Medicaid.

Shameless Ambition: Bobby Jindal. For abandoning Louisiana for most of his second term while he indulged the folly that was his embarrassing and poorly managed presidential campaign, this category will hereafter be known as the “Bobby Jindal Shameless Ambition Award.”

Most Embarrassing Statement: Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. When I heard his concession speech on election night, my first thought was that Caldwell was sloshed. It appears he was not drunk, only belligerent. Prospective political candidates should study his bitter, rambling and incoherent speech as a master class in how to end a campaign in the most insolent manner possible. Among Caldwell’s incomprehensible statements was this jewel: “Out of the largest pile of manure, grows the prettiest flower.”

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Jindal and Vitter were adversaries to the bitter end

By Robert Mann

They can barely stand the sight of one another. They have never been political allies. Sometimes, it seemed Louisiana was too small for their outsized egos and ambitions.

How ironic, then, that the political careers of Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter should come to abrupt and humiliating conclusions in the same week, only four days apart.

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U.S. Sen. David Vitter

After spending his five-month official campaign stuck at 2 percent or less in the national polls, Jindal bowed to reality and left the race on Tuesday, Nov. 17. By 10 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 21, Vitter had not only lost the governor’s race to state Rep. John Bel Edwards, he also announced he would not seek re-election to the Senate.

The political aspirations of the two Republicans who had ruled Louisiana politics for much of the past decade were suddenly, just days apart, reduced to ashes.

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Gov. Bobby Jindal

While neither man was primarily responsible for the other’s political demise, they had done nothing to help each other in their respective political pursuits.

For anyone hoping to undermine Jindal in places like Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, there were plenty of quotes available of Vitter denigrating Jindal’s leadership.

As for Jindal, the fiscal calamity that was his governorship added to the political headwind facing Vitter. While Republicans did well in the state’s Nov. 21 elections, the most important Republican on the ballot – Vitter – went down hard. And it was a defeat partly attributable to disgust with Jindal.

Even as they left the scene, the two men could not resist jabbing each other.

As Jindal ended his presidential campaign, it was immediately assumed that he had chosen the date to undermine any last-minute surge by Vitter. Right at the moment Vitter appeared to find an issue to lure Republicans back to his side – fear over Syrian refugees in Louisiana – Jindal pushed Vitter off the front pages. If Vitter had any momentum going – and it’s not clear that he did – Jindal’s announcement ended it.

He certainly wasn’t sorry to see Jindal drop out of the presidential race, but you can bet Vitter wished Jindal had waited until Sunday, Nov. 22, to announce his decision. Would holding off five more days have killed Jindal?

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

 

This is why David Vitter lost

 

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Screenshot from John Bel Edwards spot.

 

By Robert Mann

“Politicians, like generals, have a tendency to fight the last war.” — John Bolton

Perhaps it was latent disgust at U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal. Maybe his vicious attacks against his Republican opponents backfired and split the Louisiana GOP. Perhaps Vitter finally ran up against a potent, well-funded Democratic opponent at exactly the wrong time.

The pundits will offer these and other plausible theories about how Louisiana Democratic Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards defied enormous odds in Saturday’s election and vanquished Vitter, a Republican and the once-prohibitive favorite.

Each theory is probably valid and a piece of the crazy puzzle that resulted in Edwards’ improbable victory. My analysis, however, is simple. It’s about how Vitter and his aides incorrectly analyzed the race more than a year ago.

I believe that Vitter lost to Edwards for the same reason the United States lost the Vietnam War to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong. Like the hapless U.S. generals and their Pentagon bosses in the 1960s, Vitter made several fatal miscalculations: First, he underestimated and misunderstood his opponent. And he fought with once-successful, but now-outdated, strategies from previous campaigns. (Full disclosure: Last spring, I would not have disputed Vitter’s strategy. In fact, I wrote that it would probably work.)

In his book On War, the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz observed that the “first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”

Most Vietnam War historians agree that the U.S. military ignored Clausewitz’s wisdom. We badly misjudged the Vietcong, underestimated its strength and tenacity and misinterpreted the very nature of the war we were fighting. The U.S. confronted a well-armed insurgency with a conventional strategy of conquering and holding territory. Put simply, our generals employed World War II and Korean War-style tactics to fight an insurgency in South Vietnam that was not about territory but hearts and minds.

We lost because we did not know what kind of war we were fighting.

Clausewitz’s advice on war applies to politics, as well. Vitter did not know what kind of campaign he was running. In fighting his Democratic opponent, he made the same mistakes as the U.S. generals in Vietnam 50 years ago. He did not adapt to new circumstances. Simply put, Vitter fought “the last war.”

Based on earlier, successful campaigns, Vitter assumed he would easily win so long as he faced a Democrat in Saturday’s runoff (Louisiana has an open election system in which Democrats and Republicans are on the same ballot in a non-partisan primary). As he hoped, Vitter got Edwards as his runoff opponent, after he savagely attacked and eliminated his two Republican opponents.

Vitter’s experience told him that from there, victory was a simple matter of raising as much money as possible and using it to run spots attacking Edwards as an Obama clone. As he had done in the past, Vitter planned to make the election a simple referendum on Obama. Based upon his easy victory in 2010, Vitter also likely assumed that his prostitution scandal was no longer an issue.

If that’s what Vitter thought about this governor’s race (and all the available evidence suggests that he did), he badly miscalculated.

Hard as he tried this election, he never made the race about Obama. Instead, to his dismay, the campaign became a referendum on Vitter – his judgment, ethics and character. The prostitution scandal that Vitter assumed was resolved became, instead, a central theme of the race.

Continue reading on Salon.com at this link.

David Vitter’s desperate last stand: He throws his wife under the bus — again

 

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Screenshot of a new spot by Sen. David Vitter exploiting last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

 

 

By Robert Mann

Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, down in the polls in his race for Louisiana governor, is struggling to explain away his 2007 prostitution scandal. A race that was once his to lose is one he’s losing badly after his Democratic opponent, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, surprised everyone by turning the race into a referendum on Vitter’s questionable character.

And a race about character is one Vitter cannot win. Worse for Vitter, he is running out of time to change the campaign’s trajectory. The election is Saturday, Nov. 21.

First, Vitter tried in a series of spots to tie Edwards to President Obama. That failed. Next, he cut a spot in which he apologized – sort of – for appearing on the phone logs of the so-called “D.C. Madam.” That didn’t move his poll numbers.

So, Vitter went to north Louisiana to record a spot with Willie Robertson, the star of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” Robertson’s willingness to appear with Vitter and forgive him made some news. It did not, however, make Vitter any more acceptable to the state’s voters. Even dragooning Vitter’s teenage son, Jack, into making a spot, in which he vouched for his dad’s decency, failed.

Despite everything Vitter has tried, the polls won’t budge. Edwards has consistently remained in the low to mid 50s in every independent statewide survey for the past two weeks. Vitter is stuck in the mid to high 30s.

That’s left Vitter with only one option before Saturday’s election: try to scare the hell out of Louisiana’s voters. Vitter’s new strategy is to stoke fear and xenophobia after Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

On Saturday, the day after the attacks, Vitter began making phone calls to voters with a recorded message that warned of “the potential for harm in our own backyard” because of Obama’s reported desire “to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees” into the country. “We can’t allow Obama to turn Louisiana into a dangerous refugee zone,” Vitter warned.

On Sunday, Vitter released a letter to the press that he had sent to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “As you know, New Orleans is expecting an influx of Syrian refugees, some of whom have already arrived,” Vitter wrote. “Based on all the information available to me, I have no confidence that these refugees are being fully and properly vetted to ensure they contain absolutely no terrorists elements.”

Vitter’s statement struck some observers as strange. That’s because his wife, Wendy Vitter, is general counsel for the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, the organization hosting most of the 14 Syrian refugees who have landed in Louisiana since January 2015.

Why Vitter didn’t ask his wife about those refugees was puzzling, unless one understands that Vitter’s letter was about nothing more than reviving his gubernatorial campaign by injecting terror into the state’s political bloodstream.

Continue reading on Salon.com at this link.

 

Vitter absent from two of three U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Syria held from 2012 to 2014

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By Robert Mann

U.S. Senate records show that Sen. David Vitter, who served on that body’s Armed Services Committee from January 2009 to January 2015, missed two of three public committee hearing on Syria held from 2012 through 2014.

Vitter, running for Louisiana governor, is seeking to make an issue of what he calls an “influx” of Syrian refugees. On Sunday, he wrote New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, demanding the mayor take immediate action to stop refugees from entering New Orleans. He wrote, in part:

As you know, New Orleans is expecting an influx of Syrian refugees, some of whom have already arrived. Based on all the information available to me, I have no confidence that these refugees are being fully and properly vetted to ensure they contain absolutely no terrorists [sic] elements.

Please join me and others in demanding that President Obama stop accepting these Syrian refugees immediately, and stop settling any into New Orleans, given this unacceptable lax security and lack of full vetting on their backgrounds.

There is no “influx” of refugees into Louisiana, as Vitter suggests. According to the U.S. State Department, only 14 Syrian refugees have been settled in Louisiana this year.

Vitter is also running online petitions about the issue on Facebook, making robo-calls to Louisiana voters about the refugees and even attempting to use the issue to raise money for his campaign.

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However, Vitter’s interest in matters relating to Syria appears to be new-found.

Transcripts of U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on March 7, 2012 and April 17, 2013 show Vitter absent both times. Vitter was present for some or all of another hearing on September 16, 2014.

These were the only open hearings the committee held on Syria during those years. (Vitter is no longer a member the committee, as of January 2015.)

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Vitter was also absent for several other important Armed Services Committee hearings, dating back to 2011.

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Correction: This post originally said Vitter was absent for all three Armed Service Committee hearings on Syria. He was absent for two of the three hearings. I regret the error.

How a David Vitter loss could hurt Bobby Jindal

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By Robert Mann

As he no doubt celebrates Sen. David Vitter’s political struggles, Gov. Bobby Jindal probably has mixed feelings. Sure, he and his staff despise Vitter. There’s been no love lost between the two men and their aides for the past eight years.

Jindal and Vitter have never been close. Jindal declined to endorse Vitter in 2010 in the aftermath of his 2007 prostitution scandal. “Voters can make up their own mind,” he said at the time. Throughout his second term, Vitter has been a constant critic of Jindal, as he noted in Monday night’s debate on Louisiana Public Broadcasting. “I’ve publicly fought and butted heads with Bobby Jindal on many important issues,” Vitter said.

Vitter has certainly done nothing to help Jindal as he campaigns for president, and Jindal remains conspicuously absent from Vitter’s campaign for governor. It’s clear that Jindal won’t endorse Vitter, even if Vitter wanted his endorsement (which he doesn’t).

The reasons why Jindal won’t help Vitter in the governor’s race are as complicated as the two men’s stormy relationship. It’s not that Jindal doesn’t want Vitter to lose. A large part of Jindal would surely love nothing more than to see the state’s senior U.S. senator go down to a crushing defeat on Nov. 21. If Vitter loses the governor’s race to Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, Jindal knows that Vitter’s political career may be over.

Vitter might run for re-election to the Senate in 2016, but Republican leaders in Louisiana and Washington might also urge him to step aside, lest a politically crippled Vitter hand the seat to a Democratic challenger. The only person happier than Louisiana’s Democrats at that outcome would be Bobby Jindal. Read more

David Vitter: Louisiana’s most feared Republican is now its most loathed | Salon.com

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Sen. David Vitter

By Robert Mann

It’s been an article of faith for almost two years in Louisiana that U.S. Sen. David Vitter would become the state’s next governor. Politicians and political observers here (this writer included) resigned themselves to the idea that the senior Republican senator would almost certainly succeed two-term Gov. Bobby Jindal, who steps down in January. Vitter aggressively leveraged that assumption to raise more than $10 million for his campaign and a supportive super PAC, which only added to the faith about his inevitability.

That Vitter would again loom so large in Louisiana politics would have been a ridiculous suggestion eight years ago, in the summer of 2007, when a prostitution scandal nearly ruined his career. Vitter apologized for his “serious sin.” Afterward, he focused on his Senate work and labored to redeem himself with constituents. His rehabilitation seemed complete in 2010 when he faced re-election and dispatched his Democratic opponent in a landslide.

Last year, Vitter began flexing his renewed political muscles. He prominently backed then-U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy against the state’s three-term Democratic U.S. senator, Mary Landrieu. Cassidy was a flawed candidate, but he had Vitter’s strong support and his former communications director running his campaign. Cassidy beat Landrieu handily in an election that became a referendum on President Obama. With Vitter’s help, Cassidy had vanquished the only remaining Democrat to hold statewide office in Louisiana.

Invigorated, Vitter began 2015 as the early favorite to replace Jindal, despite eventually drawing two prominent Republican opponents and a little-known Democratic challenger. Read more

David Vitter hooker shocker: New John Bel Edwards spot raises new questions

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By Robert Mann

On the evening of Monday, Feb. 25, 1991, only five hours before Baghdad Radio would tell Iraqi troops to begin withdrawing from Kuwait, all hell rained down on a U.S. Army barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. It was, as the New York Times described it the next day, “the most devastating Iraqi stroke of the Persian Gulf war.” An Iraqi Scud missile struck the barracks, killing 28 Americans and wounding 100 more.

The barracks had been home to the 475th Quartermaster Group, an Army Reserve unit from the small western Pennsylvania town of Farrell.

Reading the grisly details of that night’s events still evokes horror and grief. Here is how New York Times reporter R.W. Apple, Jr., described the aftermath in his Feb. 26, 1991, story, “This morning, under the pitiless glare of portable floodlights, excavating equipment began plowing through the blackened remains of the building. Servicemen joined in the search for the missing, using picks and shovels, as some of the survivors milled about. Many wept.”

Fast-forward ten years to February 27, 2001: On the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives members were preparing to host President George W. Bush, who would deliver his State of the Union address that evening.

Before hearing from Bush, however, the House had some business to conclude – considering a resolution “honoring the ultimate sacrifice” made by those killed and wounded that horrible day 10 years earlier. When the votes were tallied at 5:27 p.m., the resolution passed overwhelmingly, 395-0.

Thirty-five members, however, did not vote that afternoon. Among them was U.S. Rep. David Vitter, a Republican from suburban New Orleans serving his second term.

Vitter may have missed this vote because he waiting on a return call from an escort service based in California that sold the services of women in the Washington, D.C., area. As his colleagues and constituents would later learn, Vitter was a regular customer of the escort service. In July 2007, the New Orleans Times-Picayune would report:

A phone number for Sen. David Vitter, R-La., appears at least five times in the billing records of what federal authorities say was a Washington call-girl operation, the first just four months after he was sworn in to the U.S. House in 1999 and the last on Mardi Gras of 2001.

Under pressure earlier this week, Vitter acknowledged committing a “very serious sin” and that his number showed up in the records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who has come to be known as the “Washington, D.C. Madam.” An attorney for Palfrey earlier said that Vitter’s number was found once in the records, but a search of the documents by The Times-Picayune turned up four more calls to a number once registered to Vitter. The attorney said that clients also used phones in hotel rooms, so that not all the numbers can be traced to individual callers.

The records show that Vitter number was called by Palfrey’s service beginning Oct. 12, 1999 and ending Feb. 27, 2001, which was Mardi Gras. Palfrey has said she was running an escort service that her employees were instructed not to engage in sex acts. But federal prosecutors say she was running a prostitution ring that netted more than $2 million in assets.

Where, exactly, was Vitter when the House voted that afternoon to honor these fallen soldiers? That’s not clear and Vitter and his staff steadfastly refuse to respond to questions about his 2007 prostitution scandal. During his run for Louisiana governor this year (he’s in a Nov. 21 runoff with Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards), Vitter has been asked about the scandal only one time by a journalist. He refused to answer the question and the Baton Rouge station that employed the reporter promptly fired him.

Palfrey cannot answer questions about her Feb. 27 phone call to Vitter. She committed suicide in 2008 after her conviction in federal court on charges of money laundering, using the mail for illegal purposes and racketeering.

Continue reading on Salon.com at this link.

Once a conquering hero, is David Vitter now a dead man walking?

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By Robert Mann

Whether he wins or loses the Nov. 21 runoff for governor, it was never supposed to be this difficult for Sen. David Vitter.

He had the money. Between his campaign account and his super PAC, he raised more cash than his three major competitors combined. He had the stature and name recognition that comes with being a two-term United States senator. He appeared to have put his 2007 prostitution scandal behind him, as evidenced by his runaway reelection in 2010. He was running in a ruby red state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2008. Until a few months ago, he was leading in the polls.

All he needed was the right person in the runoff and victory seemed assured. That’s certainly what I believed back in May when I wrote that if Vitter’s opponents wanted to deny him the Governor’s Mansion, they should not vote for Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, but rather for one of his GOP opponents – Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne or Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle.

Then something unexpected happened on Vitter’s march to the Governor’s Office. On Oct. 24, he came perilously close to missing the runoff, earning a weak 23 percent of the vote to Edwards’ 40 percent. Vitter staggered, not charged, into the next round. In several polls released over the past 10 days, he is stuck in the 30s, while Edwards sits in the low 50s.

A race that was Vitter’s to lose now appears to be a race Vitter is losing. So, what happened?

The Jindal-GOP brand is toxic. Vitter and Gov. Bobby Jindal are mortal enemies, but most people know little about their mutual disdain. Jindal’s profound unpopularity – he’s even less admired in Louisiana than President Barack Obama – is an onerous burden for Vitter to lug into the runoff. It’s hurting him among voters hesitant to award the job to someone whose policy positions are almost identical to Jindal’s.

Voters are disgusted with Washington insiders. Perhaps just as damaging to Vitter as lingering questions about his 2007 prostitution scandal is his long affiliation with Washington/congressional dysfunction. Conservative voters hate D.C. insiders with a red-hot fury, which is one reason Ben Carson and Donald Trump are the GOP presidential frontrunners.

Attacks on Edwards as an Obama clone aren’t sticking. Vitter has always made elections about someone or something else. As he did in 2010, Vitter wants this race to be a choice between him and Obama. So far, trying to link Edwards to Obama isn’t working – and his racially charged attacks may only energize the black vote for Edwards.

The election is becoming a referendum on Vitter. Vitter’s best bet is to make this race turn on ideology (even though he and Edwards share many positions, especially on social issues). Instead, the race is becoming a referendum on Vitter’s personality and character. That often happens with a well-known incumbent. However, Vitter cannot afford for the race to be about his personality or character defects.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Vitter says “zero perks” in new spot while he’s busy abusing the congressional mails

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By Robert Mann

According to his new TV spot, Sen. David Vitter is all about saving the taxpayers from waste, fraud and abuse. As reported by NOLA.com:

On Tuesday, [Vitter] launched a television advertisement depicting Baton Rouge elected officials as cigar-smoking, backroom dealmakers who spend more time on the golf course than in the legislative chambers. 

“As governor, I’ll make sure politicians use zero funds for perks,” says a voiceover of Vitter as two cartoonish groups of politicians race down a fairway in golf carts. 

That is an odd promise for Vitter to make, considering the aggressive and unethical way he has been misusing the congressional franking privilege most of 2015.  As I first reported in July,

U.S. Sen. David Vitter may be in violation of U.S. Senate rules regarding official, franked mail that his office sent to Louisiana voters in early July, omitting a required disclaimer that indicates the letters were printed and mailed at taxpayer expense.

The first letter apparently targets women voters, a group Vitter has struggled to win over in his quest to become Louisiana governor, and it raises more questions about whether Vitter is using federal resources to support his campaign for governor. (Vitter’s aggressive use of Senate “field hearings” has also been questioned. Vitter, alone, is responsible for almost half of the field hearing held by U.S. senators in 2015.) The second letter is apparently aimed a gun-control opponents and stresses Vitter’s commitment to “Second Amendment rights.”

Vitter’s press secretary and his campaign press secretary declined my repeated requests for more information about the letters, including why they do not have the required disclaimers.

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Strangely, when first questioned about the first letter last Friday, Vitter’s Senate’s press secretary, Lindsay Bembenek, suggested that I contact, Luke Bolar, Vitter’s campaign spokesperson, for more information. Asked why she would refer me to Vitter’s campaign press secretary, when the questions concerned official Senate correspondence, Bembenek did not reply.

The July 2 letter by Vitter, written on official U.S. Senate stationery and sent to an undetermined number of constituents. “I want to take this opportunity to update you on my efforts to protect the health and safety of women and the unborn,” the letter begins.

The second letter, dated July 6, begins: “I want to take a moment to update you on the letter I wrote to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Director Ted Jones regarding their attempt to ban M855 ‘green tip ammo.’” Read more