Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards in ‘transition mode’ with fewer than 25 business days until inauguration _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards makes a point while speaking at the CABL membership meeting.

Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards spends much of his time these days in meetings with legislators, business leaders and other state officials on issues such as higher education and health care.

He’s in “transition” mode — the official term for the period between his Nov. 21 election and Jan. 11, when he takes the oath of office.

“We’re working tremendously hard to get it right,” Edwards said during an interview at his transition headquarters. “It’s a daunting challenge, but we are up to it.”

Edwards’ transition team is working out of tight quarters on the 12th floor of LSU’s Kirby-Smith Hall, which houses college students on the 11 stories below the governor-elect’s makeshift office space.

It’s not glamorous.

The transition is operating out of two narrow, fluorescent-lit hallways of converted dorm rooms. There is one slow elevator that leads from the residence hall’s lobby to the transition office upstairs.

Edwards, a West Point graduate who served eight years in the Army, jokes that he’s seen worse.

“This is actually pretty plush,” he said, sitting at his desk inside his “office,” a small, stark-white former dorm room.

Like most others on the 12th floor, Edwards’ office is sparsely decorated, save for a digital clock on the wall directly in front of his desk. It’s set to military time. In a little over a month, he’ll move to the roomy governor’s office, where the walls are trimmed in deep wood and the desk doesn’t resemble cheap office furniture.

But for now, this works.

“I’m an Army guy. I used to make a living under a poncho at night with a flashlight trying to read maps in the cold and rain,” Edwards said, joking that the experience offers insight into the need for higher education funding.

Just a few doors down from Edwards’ office, a former dorm room has been converted to a conference room — just big enough for a table and eight chairs. Across the hall is a sparsely furnished room for Edwards’ State Police detail. Other rooms are dedicated to communications staff, Edwards’ scheduler and others who keep the transition in constant motion.

In the coming days, the 12th-floor hallways will be buzzing with even more people.

Edwards has selected eight groups who will serve as advisory committees on key issues. He’s already named members of the committees that will give him recommendations for the state budget, economic development and higher education.

The chaotic transition period is a time for Edwards and his advisers to develop detailed policy plans that will define the successes or failures of his administration. The transition committees also are helping him identify key personnel for the new administration.

Edwards said he expects to begin making major appointments next week.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle: time.

Edwards has fewer than 25 business days left until inauguration, factoring in the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays.

In that time, he wants to develop sound policy proposals on a variety of issues, from workforce development to college affordability to addressing structural flaws in the state budget.

He also has to prepare, logistically, to set up an entire administration and move his family to the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge.

On top of that, he wants to develop a legislative agenda for the special session he plans to call in February, and Edwards said that makes his transition advisory committees’ work even more important.

“We’re working within some very significant time constraints,” he acknowledged. “But I’m very confident in what we’re doing and what the end result will be.”

Edwards, a Democratic state representative from Amite, was once considered a long shot in the governor’s race. He’ll become Louisiana’s only statewide elected Democrat when he takes office and one of only two across the Deep South.

A frequent critic of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Edwards met with the outgoing governor for nearly an hour on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming power shift.

Both described the meeting as cordial during a joint news conference immediately afterward.

“I want to make sure this process is as easy as possible,” Jindal said.

In the middle of all of the transition planning, Edwards’ supporters also are trying to raise money to fund the transition and inauguration costs, which Edwards has estimated at about $2 million to $3 million to cover salaries, the purchasing and rental of office equipment and supplies, and other expenses. Edwards also has to cover the costs of his inaugural ball, which will take place at Celtic Studios in Baton Rouge, but few other details have been released about it.

All of the money for that — save for $65,000 that state law allows for the transition — has to come from donors, who are capped at $5,000 each.

Edwards said he has had an “avalanche” of people reach out to him since his victory over Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the runoff. “You try very hard to manage that, but you can’t keep adding people because of time and also because a committee can be too large to function,” he said.

He said the goal was to make the advisory committees large enough to allow for diverse voices — members named so far have spanned the political spectrum and have been ethnically and geographically diverse — but also to give them the maximum ability to be effective.

“It’s hard to get the balance exactly right, but I’m very pleased by the effort that’s being made,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.

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