A conservative group is drawing a line in the race for Louisiana House Speaker by purchasing time on television and radio to run attack ads against Republicans who might back a Democrat for the chamber’s top job.
These internal campaigns for legislative leadership posts often are heated, but rarely do they attract much attention outside the State Capitol building.
This time around, however, Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards’ announcement that he backed fellow Democrat Rep. Walt Leger III, of New Orleans, for speaker, set off protests, at least among some Republicans.
The GOP holds a clear majority in the Louisiana House and should have a Republican speaker, said a state party email to its members. And Louisiana Family Forum, a powerful religious-oriented lobbying group, emailed its members to rally support for a Republican to assume the speakership.
Now a PAC is weighing in, this time with attack ads aimed at wayward Republican legislators.
“We have the largest Republican majority in the history of Louisiana and to have a Democratic speaker is outrageous,” Chris Comeaux, of the Committee for a Free Louisiana, said in an interview Wednesday. “We can’t let that go without consequences.”
The group is targeting state Rep. John Schroder and 13 other GOP House members. But those numbers could go up or down, Comeaux said, depending on who ends up supporting Leger. He would not identify who was funding the effort, other than to say there were several donors and the group had enough money to begin airing the ads on Dec. 28.
One Committee for a Free Louisiana television ad has an arrow calling Schroder a “cheap date” while the announcer says: “John Schroder is willing to sell out conservatives and help John Bel Edwards have more control over your tax dollars just so he can be in charge of a committee? That’s just another shady back room deal.”
Schroder did not return two calls seeking comment.
Leger said Schroder, who had been a candidate for speaker, would be his selection to chair the House Appropriations Committee, which deals with the $25 billion state operating budget. Schroder is a conservative Republican from Covington. “This is a time to put party politics aside,” Leger said.
Leger’s chief rival, Rep. Cameron Henry said he has no idea who is behind the commercials. He has worked with Edwards across party lines on past budgets.
The Metairie Republican and Leger are five or six votes apart with several of the 105 members still undecided, Henry said. Six other representatives say that’s a fairly accurate estimate. Leger said he has enough votes to win.
Balloting for legislative leadership positions will be held on Jan. 11 after the 61 Republicans, 42 Democrats and two without party affiliation are sworn in.
Senate President John A. Alario Jr., R-Westwego, is expected to easily win reelection in the upper chamber.
Some Republicans want to work with the incoming Edwards administration, particularly as the new Legislature will almost immediately be plunged into trying to fix a state budget that chronically is too short. Others in the GOP are more adamant about Republicans taking the top spots.
The House Speaker selects the leadership of key committees, usually with input from the governor, decides when bills will be heard and has power over all sorts of perks including parking spaces and housing for the representatives.
Unlike most other state assemblies — which operate as independent, co-equal branches of government — Louisiana governors traditionally have chosen the leaders of each chamber. In 2007, the House had a Democratic majority. But Republican Bobby Jindal, as governor-elect, chose Republican Jim Tucker, of Terrytown, as his speaker.
Rep. Joe Lopinto, one of those targeted by the PAC, said he would “probably” back Leger and has been responding to his constituents who have called him on the issue.
“Unfortunately at the end of the day, you have some people willing to play Washington politics,” Lopinto said. “Would I prefer a Republican speaker? Yes. But, I’m realistic ... I’m going to do what I think is best for the state and my constituents, especially with the situation the way it is now.”
Slidell Rep. Kevin Pearson, another Republican on the Committee for a Free Louisiana target list, said he’s undecided after Schroder pulled out of the speaker’s race. He’s a bit uncomfortable with both the top legislative jobs going to Jefferson Parish pols, but is leaning towards Henry.
“If the vote were today, I feel fairly confident I would go to Cameron,” Pearson said. “But I’m not going to be strong-armed by anybody.
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