Gov. Bobby Jindal tapped a former floor leader in the Edwin Edwards administration Tuesday to be the next Louisiana Senate president.
State Sen. John Alario is the governor’s choice in the Senate.
The governor’s chief of staff, Stephen Waguespack, said Jindal is backing state Rep. Chuck Kleckley for House speaker, a decision that drew sharp words from another legislator who aspires to the position.
Majorities in the Senate and the House still have to agree to the governor’s picks. However, both chambers traditionally bow to the governor’s wishes on leadership positions.
The role of Senate president would give state Sen. John Alario matching bookends in a lengthy legislative career. For Kleckley, the position of House speaker would elevate him to presiding over the Legislature’s largest chamber.
Alario, R-Westwego, previously served as Louisiana House speaker. Becoming Senate president would give him the rare distinction of having presided over both chambers.
He was a Democrat until last year and would succeed a Democrat who had Jindal’s blessing.
“He’s been a great friend, a great partner,” Jindal said dur-ing a news conference with Alario at the Governor’s Mansion.
On the other side of the Legislature, the governor is encountering friction with his choice for House speaker.
State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said he met with the governor Tuesday on the House leadership. He said he refused the governor’s request to drop his bid to become House speaker and back Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.
“It did not go swimmingly well,” Robideaux said of the meeting. “I was in there seven minutes.”
Robideaux said Kleckley does not have the necessary votes to become House speaker, which is the top leadership role in that chamber.
Waguespack said Robideaux is mistaken about Kleckley’s support. He said the Jindal administration has been working on the issue for more than a month.
“It’s clear to us he has the majority support,” Waguespack said of Kleckley.
State Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, said he is supporting Kleckley despite once aspiring to become House speaker himself. Ponti said he looked at the numbers and determined he could not win.
“At this point and time, Chuck seems to be the best consensus candidate,” he said.
Robideaux criticized the governor for involving himself in legislative leadership decisions.
Jindal said he wants to ensure that he has the support he needs to pass his agenda, an area in which he struggled in this year’s legislative session.
A relatively quiet figure in the Legislature, Kleckley chairs the House Insurance Committee. His name emerged early as a possible contender to succeed House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown.
Alario is known as a political power broker capable of lining up votes and pulling together diverse coalitions.
Just four years ago, when Alario still was a Democrat, Republicans tried to prevent his election to the state Senate by airing campaign commercials that characterized him as a Tony Soprano-style politician and raised questions about his involvement in a landfill project.
Already, there is some grumbling about the governor’s pick. Alario served as House speaker under Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards. He became a Republican late last year, admitting he had his eye on the Senate presidency in a chamber that now is majority GOP. Alario defended Edwards Tuesday but also took care to distance himself from the former governor who recently finished serving a federal prison sentence for corruption.
“He did some good things. I do not condone the problems he had,” he said.
Jindal characterized Alario as a man of his word who consistently supported his proposals.
The governor said Alario has well in excess of the 20 votes he needs to become Senate president. The role is a powerful job that entails presiding over the chamber and selecting committee members.
Term limits prevented Senate President Joel Chaisson II, D-Destrehan, from seeking another term.
A number of legislators were jockeying for the job, including state Sens. Dan Claitor, Danny Martiny and Mike Walsworth.
Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said he is unlikely to continue his push to become Senate president. He said such an ambition would be a Don Quixote-like quest.
“As a practical matter, Gov. Jindal’s word and endorsement carries more weight than my own,” he said.
Claitor said Alario is a coalition builder who knows the rules of the Legislature.
He said he has worked well with Alario despite the senator’s past political allies.
“I’ve heard a lot of discussion about who John Alario was once upon a time. I never worked with the guy I hear folks describe. The one I hear them describe is the guy who was around when I was in the sixth grade,’ Claitor said.
Martiny, R-Metairie, said he wishes the governor had picked him.
‘It was never a personal fight between me and John. The governor’s support is critical in that situation,” he said.
Unlike most states, the governor has a key role in the selection of Senate and House leaders in Louisiana.
Like Claitor, Martiny said he has heard the grumbling about Alario’s politics. He said he served under Alario when he was House speaker.
‘His word is his bond,” he said.
Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said he accepts Jindal’s decision.
“I’m respectful of the governor. He and I have been very good friends for a long time,” he said.
Walsworth said Jindal likely chose Alario because of disappointment over legislators watering down or rejecting some of his past proposals. He said Alario gets things done.
Alario said no decisions will be made on committee memberships until four Senate runoffs are decided next month.
However, Martiny said he fully expects to be a committee chairman. Walsworth said he hopes to head the Senate Finance Committee.