Gov. John Bel Edwards' chief of staff is retiring from his role as top aide to the governor and Edwards has tapped a one-time leader of Louisiana's disaster response to replace him.
Ben Nevers, a former state lawmaker from Bogalusa, has served as Edwards' chief of staff since the governor took office in January 2016.
Mark Cooper, who currently works as senior director of global emergency management at Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas, will join the administration as Edwards' new chief of staff in the spring.
Edwards wished Nevers "a happy, relaxing and well-deserved retirement," in a statement Thursday evening after The Advocate broke the news of Nevers' departure.
“Ben Nevers has been one of my closest friends in the Legislature and a fierce advocate for the people of Louisiana for more than 30 years,” Edwards said. "Over the last year and during my time in the Legislature, I turned to Ben for guidance, support and prayers, and he has delivered on each. I know I speak for a lot of folks at the State Capitol when I say that we will miss seeing Ben around here every day, but we know he won’t be going far."
Nevers, 70, was a Democratic member of the state Legislature from 2000 to 2016 and previously served on the Bogalusa School Board. He is the president and CEO of Nevers Electrical and Contracting, a company he founded in 1980.
During his time at the Capitol, Nevers cultivated a reputation as a legislator respected by members of both parties. Last month, he testified before a state Senate committee, defending the Democratic governor's response to historic floods that swept the state last year.
"We're hampered by the rules the federal government has implemented," he told committee members, many of whom were previously his legislative colleagues. "We're frustrated, too."
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State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, joked during the hearing that Edwards had sent Nevers in an attempt to try to win over the committee because he is so well liked.
"Ben's ever calming, steady and caring voice will be missed at the State Capitol,” Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said. “Throughout his years of service as a school board member, state legislator and then as the governor's chief of staff, Ben has earned the respect and friendship of his colleagues, staff and constituents. He has always been dedicated to giving Louisiana's hardworking families the tools they need to improve themselves, their communities and their state. His public service will be truly missed."
Nevers said he is looking forward to spending more time with his family, including six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“There are some very real challenges facing the state of Louisiana, but I know this governor has the best interest of the people of our state at heart," he said. "I’ve been so blessed to serve the people of this state for so many years, and I’m looking forward to seeing great things from this governor and his team in the future."
Cooper, a Bossier City native with degrees from LSU, is expected to join the administration in the coming weeks, but Edwards' office didn't give a specific start date. Matthew Block, executive counsel to Edwards, will serve as acting chief of staff in the interim.
Cooper previously headed the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from 2008 to 2011 under then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. He left that position to take the job at Walmart's headquarters.
Text of Gov. John Bel Edwards' speech, as prepared for delivery, on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017:
Cooper managed the state's response during hurricanes Gustav and Ike and the BP oil spill, among other disasters. During the 2016 floods across Louisiana, he said he supported the recovery through his position with Walmart.
He said he has "always had a sincere interest in the well-being of the state and have called Louisiana home."
"I look forward to this next opportunity and supporting the governor and his team," he said.
Before joining the Jindal administration, Cooper worked for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He has been called on as a disaster recovery expert and has served on the advisory board to the administrator of FEMA.
“He brings a wealth of knowledge about our state to this role, and I know he’ll be an invaluable asset to our state," Edwards said. "I look forward to working with him, and I know the people of Louisiana will be well-served with Mark advocating on their behalf.”