New House speaker has kept low profile as a state lawmaker _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, right, shares a laugh with Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, left, during the Legislative session Wednesday.

As a rank-and-file lawmaker, Louisiana’s new House Speaker Taylor Barras wasn’t one to seek the spotlight. The Republican from New Iberia never chaired a committee, and he wasn’t the face of high-profile debates during his first eight years in office.

Barras’ victory as House speaker this week was a surprise, and his lack of history as a House leader makes him somewhat of an unknown as he takes the helm of the chamber during one of the state’s worst financial crises in decades.

Both those who supported his win and those who voted for his opponent say they expect the mild-mannered banker to be fair and forthright. They don’t see Barras as an obstructionist who will be consistently at loggerheads with Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who unsuccessfully backed Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, to be speaker.

Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, supported Barras and described him Wednesday as a “good-hearted gentleman.”

“Taylor has demonstrated during the time that I’ve known him an ability to maintain a calm demeanor, fairness in his treatment of others and a willingness to work with all people regardless of party, in a respectful and statesman-like manner,” Broadwater said.

Rep. Bryan Adams, R-Gretna, supported Leger but had only kind words for Barras.“He’s got great personal skills, a low-key guy. I like the guy,” Adams said.

Traditionally, lawmakers decide behind the scenes who will be speaker, with heavy influence from the governor. Barras, however, won the job in a rare, contested vote Monday after Republican leaders balked at Edwards’ push for a Democratic leader in the majority GOP House.

Barras, who hadn’t been campaigning for the position, emerged shortly before the vote as the candidate who could rally enough GOP support, after several Republicans refused to support Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.

Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, who nominated Barras for speaker, described his colleague as “honest, fair-minded and focused on issues.”

Barras is a market president for Iberia Bank in New Iberia. He took office in 2008 in a district representing parts of Iberia, Lafayette and St. Martin parishes. He’s in his third term and will be forced out by term limits in four years.

A Democrat when he first won his seat, Barras jumped to the GOP in 2011, a party switch in-line with his strong voting records with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and with the religious conservative group, the Louisiana Family Forum.

Barras has spent his eight years as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, the House tax committee. That position gives Barras a strong background on the central purpose of a mid-February special session that Edwards plans to call to make tax changes aimed at generating more money for state government.

Two days after losing to Barras, Leger spoke warmly of the new speaker. Lawmakers in the House re-elected Leger to the chamber’s No. 2 job after he was defeated for the top position, and Leger said he and Barras had been working together ever since.

“I think he’s a kind, intelligent guy, and he and I are both working hard to sure we build bridges, and we’re on our way,” Leger said. “I expect Taylor’s style to be fair and straightforward.”