Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards clears air with teachers, says he's not banning vouchers or closing charter schools _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD --  Gov, John Bel Edwards speaking to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers earlier this year.

Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards told Republican House leaders Tuesday that he backs New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger III, a fellow Democrat, as speaker of the Louisiana House.

“He told me that this afternoon at a meeting,” House Republican Majority Leader Lance Harris said in an interview Tuesday night while driving to his home in Alexandria.

“I asked the governor-elect, ‘Is it public knowledge? Is it going to be public knowledge that you are supporting Walt Leger as speaker?’ He said, ‘Yes. It is public as of now because I’m telling you.’ ”

Leger did not respond to two messages. “No comment at this time,” wrote Mary-Patricia Wray, Edwards’ communications director for the transition, responding to a request for further information.

Harris met with the governor-elect shortly after the Republican majority in the House had gathered for several hours behind closed doors in the basement of the State Capitol.

They adopted a resolution saying they preferred one of their own as the chamber’s top leader.

“It’s only right. We have the majority. We want someone out of our delegation,” Harris said. Sixty-one of the 105 members in the House are Republicans.

Because the GOP meeting broke up before Harris learned of Edwards’ intentions, he said he is unsure how the members of the delegation will react. “It’s too early to tell,” Harris said.

Edwards and the legislators will be sworn into office on Jan. 11. The votes for legislative leadership positions will be held then.

“But we want to work in a bipartisan way,” Harris said. “We are committed to working with Gov.-elect Edwards on solving our fiscal problems. It’s a monumental task.”

“We have to put a team together that can work with the administration. We don’t want Washington-style gridlock,” St. Francisville Rep. Kenny Havard said after the meeting, which he said focused mainly on the state’s dire fiscal problems.

Rep. Julie Stokes, of Kenner, agreed: “If we try to play hardball partisan politics, we’re not going to solve any of our problems.”

Traditionally, Louisiana governors choose the leaders of each chamber, and approve the leader’s choice of committee heads and sometimes the legislators assigned to key committees. It’s a power unheard of in other state assemblies that also have a constitution requiring co-equal branches of government.

In 2007, the House had a Democratic majority. But eight weeks before the new House was sworn in, Republican Bobby Jindal, who was then governor-elect, tapped as his speaker fellow Republican Jim Tucker, the House minority leader from Terrytown who spearheaded opposition to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Edwards is the first representative since at least the Civil War to jump directly from the Louisiana House to the Governor’s Mansion. As House minority leader, Edwards often spoke of the need for breaking the tradition and asserting legislative independence.

Now that he has the power, Edwards said he began meeting individually with House and Senate members at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans the day after his Saturday night victory party.

On Monday, Edwards co-opted a conference room at the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino in Lake Charles to talk individually with legislators and officials who attended his address to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers Convention.

“I will be talking to them and I will be in communications with them, but the Legislature will choose its leadership,” Edwards said Monday.

The speaker of the House wields considerable power. He or she chooses the leaders and members of each legislative committee. He or she decides when legislation will be heard, oversees the debate and enforces discipline. House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, for instance, removed several members from committees after they voted against Jindal.

Several Republicans have been campaigning for the speakership among their colleagues. They include Reps. Cameron Henry, of New Orleans; Steve Carter, of Baton Rouge; John Schroder, of Covington; Kirk Talbot, of River Ridge; Thomas Carmody, of Shreveport; and Chris Broadwater, of Hammond, which is 20 miles from Edwards’ home in Amite. Broadwater and Edwards have children who attend the same school.

The dynamics are different on the state Senate side, as the upper chamber now uses a secret ballot to select its president. But that’s new.

“In the past, the governor pretty much dictated who the leaders would be. Now, at the end of the day, the members can feel confident, at least with the secret ballot system in the Senate, that it’s their choice,” said Ville Platte Sen. Eric LaFleur, who heads the Democratic minority caucus.

The only candidate asking his colleagues for votes over the past six weeks is incumbent Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego. “I think he has strong support. I’m comfortable saying I support him,” LaFleur said.

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