With the campaign for governor now in full swing, another campaign is quietly underway to elect perhaps the second-most powerful position in state government: the speaker of the House of Representatives.
About a dozen men — and, yes, they are all men — are trying to line up support to be the next speaker. But along with questions about their plans and qualifications, each candidate is also facing this unusual question: Will the speaker campaign actually matter?
In theory, the 105 members of the Louisiana House will choose their leader when the new Legislature convenes Jan. 11.
“But until we have the coronation of the imperial governor, no one can say they have a lock on anything,” said state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, a former mayor and former staffer in a governor’s office.
The 39-member Senate will also choose its leader. Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, who wants to keep the job, is revered by his colleagues.
“I’m not sure who will be the next governor, but I’m pretty sure that John Alario will be the next Senate president,” said state Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, echoing what his colleagues say. But even Alario won’t know until after Louisiana elects its next governor on Nov. 21.
While there’s no campaign underway in the Senate, the more active candidates for speaker are raising and spending money to support their campaigns and traveling the state to make their case one-on-one with House members who have already won re-election.
State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, has probably worked it the hardest.
“I’ve been touring the state since before the legislative session,” Henry said in his Metairie Road office, standing by a wall-sized map of Louisiana dotted with mini-photos of House members pinned to each of their districts. “I’ve probably been to the districts of 85 percent of the members who we know will be in Baton Rouge next year.”
Henry and most of the other candidates for speaker say the key issue is making the House more independent from the governor.
“Too often the governor is too involved in the day-to-day activities of the House,” said Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, another speaker candidate.
And therein lies the rub: Most of the speakers chosen every four years, going back decades, owed their selection to the governor. That is by custom, not law.
Four years ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal chose Rep. Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, over Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, who appeared to have more support within the House.
Disenchantment with Kleckley’s taking marching orders from Jindal — longtime legislative watcher C.B. Forgotston at one point called Kleckley a “lapdog” — and Jindal’s giving orders to legislators through his aides is fueling the independence movement today.
Count E.L. “Bubba” Henry as a skeptic that it will actually happen.
“If the governor says it’s going to snow tomorrow, everybody in the Legislature puts on a snow suit,” said Henry.
A Democrat from north Louisiana, Henry knows more about being speaker than just about anyone. He served as speaker during Edwin Edwards’ first two terms as governor — from 1972 to 1980 — although in his case, Henry said, he rounded up the votes each time, and Edwards accepted him without a challenge.
That wasn’t the case after Dave Treen was elected governor in 1979, Henry noted. Treen tapped state Rep. John Hainkel from New Orleans to be his guy. And so it has gone, more or less, since then.
Henry, though, thinks the House ought to become more independent.
“If you put everyone’s minds together, you have the potential for a better solution, rather than just taking what the governor says,” said Henry, who still works as a lobbyist for insurance companies. “There’s a reason why we have three branches of government.”
Besides Cameron Henry (no relation), speaker candidates who have been traveling the state to meet with fellow members include Reps. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond; Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge; John Schroder, R-Covington; Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge; and Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans.
“A lot of members are wondering about what role the next governor will play,” Broadwater said in an interview in his law office in downtown Hammond. “I don’t worry about that. I can’t control that. All I can control is what I can do. If I don’t campaign now, I definitely have no shot. All I can do is talk to colleagues and make my case.”
Other candidates include Reps. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans; Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie; Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport; Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia; and Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette.
“The budget is the critical issue,” Leger said. “We need to set the ship straight.”
The budget approved by the Legislature in June is already out of balance. The outgoing Jindal administration and Legislature will make cuts in December — the full amount is not yet known — or they will instead bequeath the problem to the next governor and Legislature.
Once that deficit is eliminated, the new governor and legislators also will have to eliminate another $700 million to $1 billion deficit when they pass next year’s budget. It will take effect July 1.
Of the 12 candidates running for speaker, only two have endorsed one of the four major candidates for governor. Henry is backing U.S. Sen. David Vitter — also a Republican — while Leger is supporting state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a fellow Democrat. The other two major gubernatorial candidates are Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. Both are Republicans.
Other legislators say Henry is positioning himself as Vitter’s guy; Henry said that is not true.
The speaker wields considerable power. He chooses who serves as the chairs and vice chairs of each legislative committee and indeed who serves on the committees. He expects loyalty on important votes. Kleckley, for example, removed several members from committees after they voted against Jindal, including Cameron Henry. The speaker also decides what legislation is heard on the House floor and oversees the debate from the speaker’s chair.
To be sure, a speaker doesn’t have unlimited powers. Kleckley faced a potential coup when Jindal was losing his shine with the public and members were voicing their uneasiness with Kleckley’s closeness to the governor. Kleckley responded by charting a more independent course for the House during his final two years as speaker and ended up winning over many of his critics.
Not many House members are mourning the end of Jindal’s term, though.
“There’s a consensus that the (Jindal) administration failed to communicate with members over the past eight years,” said Carmody, who is the only candidate from north Louisiana. “Communication is not a text message just before a vote saying the governor needs you on this one.”
Most of the would-be speakers say that the House should continue to work in a bipartisan fashion, which is a sharp contrast with how business is conducted in Washington, D.C. When Democrats in Baton Rouge served as speakers, they chose Republicans to chair some committees, and that tradition has continued in reverse since Republicans achieved a majority in 2008 — an unthinkable notion in Washington.
Abramson points to that bipartisan tradition as a reason for his candidacy, even though Republicans will continue to hold a majority in the new Legislature.
“We’re going to have a lot of difficult and controversial issues that will require bipartisan support,” Abramson said, noting the need to form a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to get 53 votes on big issues and 70 votes to change spending and tax laws embedded in the state constitution.
While the dozen candidates hustle for votes, it’s worth noting that it’s possible to be chosen as speaker without actually campaigning. That happened in 2003, when Gov.-elect Kathleen Blanco selected Joe Salter for the job. Salter wasn’t a candidate, but Blanco knew him well because he had sat next to her when both served in the House following the 1987 elections.
“A smart governor reads the tea leaves and figures out who is popular among his colleagues and who communicates well with the governor,” Blanco said. “When the governor gives the nod, everything falls that way.”
Alario got the nod in 1983 after Edwin Edwards was elected to a third term. He wanted to keep the job after Edwards lost the 1987 governor’s race and had well over the 53 votes needed. Then Gov.-elect Buddy Roemer announced he favored Rep. Jimmy Dimos. Alario’s votes evaporated overnight. When Edwards won a fourth term in 1991, he turned again to Alario.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view, Louisiana’s governor has a great deal of power,” Alario said. “The Legislature has given that to the governor over the years.”
He saw that process again firsthand in 2011 when Jindal won re-election and needed a new Senate president. By now, Alario was a Republican senator, and he got the nod.
Only one factor may keep Alario from staying on as Senate president: the election of Vitter as governor.
If Cameron Henry is Vitter’s favored choice to be speaker, both the governor and speaker would be from Jefferson Parish. Wouldn’t it be too much to have the Senate president from there, too?
“It’s not too much for me,” Alario said with a laugh. “I hope it’s not too much for other folks.”
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter @TegBridges. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.