Holding his cellphone, a calendar and two pens in one hand while shaking hands with the other, Taylor Barras walked off the dais after his first full day as Louisiana House speaker, apologizing to everyone he met for failing to return their phone calls as timely as he usually does.
The life of the New Iberia Republican, a soft-spoken banker, abruptly changed Monday when he became perhaps the first speaker of the House to be elected instead of by governor’s choice.
When Barras arrived in Baton Rouge on Sunday for a GOP caucus and reception, he was not on anybody’s short list — even his own — to become the top leader in the House. That all came about when it became apparent that Rep. Cameron Henry — the candidate most House Republicans had rallied behind — couldn’t get enough votes to close the deal, according to interviews with 17 GOP House members who gave similar accounts of how events played out on condition they not be identified revealing internal party secrets.
A contingent of Republicans — about a dozen total — appreciated Henry, a Metairie Republican, but they felt he was too closely aligned to Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, whom Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards defeated in the Nov. 21 election. Choosing Henry would send the wrong message to Edwards, a governor with whom they wanted to work to fix the budget crisis.
“We wouldn’t be here right now without Cameron Henry. He worked for months and months on this. He got us to where we were, but at that time, he couldn’t get over the hump,” said one representative.
Henry also recognized that he was too conservative for some of his GOP colleagues.
“We just thought it would set up a contentious House. The citizens of the state had said they didn’t want that Washington-style, scorched-earth partisan style here in Baton Rouge,” said one Republican.
On the other hand, as the majority party in the House, they didn’t want to go along with Edwards’ hand-picked speaker candidate, New Orleans Democratic Rep. Walt Leger III.
Another representative said, “We wanted a Republican. We wanted an independent House.”
As late as Friday before the inauguration, Edwards was calling representatives to shore up support for his candidate, saying Leger had 63 votes in a ballot where only 53 was needed. Sixty-one of the House’s 105 members are Republicans and 42 are Democrats. Two have no party affiliation.
On Sunday afternoon, GOP House leadership met with Henry at the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center hotel. He told them he thought he had the necessary 53 votes but wasn’t sure.
Members of the House Republican caucus then gathered for two hours in a meeting room at the hotel where Huey Long once held court.
The conversation was supposed to be wide ranging, but it turned out that only one topic was on the agenda: whether Henry could win.
Over the objections of some members who wanted to ferret out recalcitrant Republicans, the caucus decided to hold a secret tally to see just how strong Henry’s support was among Republican members. He received 43 votes.
The meeting became angry and broke up with many Republicans heading into a reception at the same hotel thinking that Leger would be speaker. Edwards and his chief of staff, Ben Nevers, also attended the party.
Rep. Kenny Havard, of St. Francisville, mingled through the party asking fellow caucus members not to give up. Throughout the evening, members clustered in corners, met in side rooms and hallways going over names of possible candidates and various scenarios.
In the end they came up with three names: Reps. Havard, Barras and Johnny Berthelot, of Gonzales.
A group of eight freshmen had decided to vote as a bloc, so the veterans decided to get them behind a single alternative candidate first. Several of the Republican votes in Leger’s 63 were those of the newly elected representatives.
Nailing down the rookies on one of the alternative candidates would help move some of the veterans who were uncomfortable with Henry.
Freshmen legislators gathered in a hotel meeting room while Havard gave them a little history and background on each of the candidates. He left and sat outside the room until they emerged, saying they would back Barras.
He’s a veteran, entering his third term, known for his even temperament. But Barras also is an expert on the capital outlay process and had briefed the freshmen on the intricacies of securing government money for projects in their districts. He said that familiarity may have helped secure those freshman votes.
“Also, I think I offer that moderation, maybe, between the two sides,” Barras said.
Havard returned to the party and found Barras and called him Mr. Speaker. Together they tracked down House Majority Leader Lance Harris. He said he heard out Havard and Barras and agreed it was still possible to elect a Republican speaker.
With those freshmen serving as Barras’ base, the trio started working on representatives they thought opposed Henry. Then, they broadened the circle from there.
Calls and text messages went on until 2 or 3 the next morning. Henry learned what was happening when he was texted by one of his supporters.
By morning, New Orleans Democratic Rep. Neil Abramson also was looking for votes. The Republicans say they didn’t put Abramson up to it but calculated him as part of the strategy: The first vote would show if enough Republicans would abandon Leger and vote for the alternative. If so, a runoff would seal the race.
The delegation gathered in the State Capitol about 45 minutes before the House convened Monday morning.
The tick sheets showed 53 votes between Barras and Henry, which was enough for one of them to win, but just barely, provided nobody got wobbly.
Henry told the members that if Leger didn’t win on the first go around, he would drop out of the runoff and, if nobody wavered and they all voted for Barras, a Republican would win the speakership.
“It was the most selfless act I’ve ever seen in a politician,” said one member.
Henry said, “Some members felt that I almost was a little too conservative for the body. This allowed for some of the members who maybe are not as conservative to be in a better place.”
After the first round of votes, Leger had 49, Henry came in with 28, Barras had 26 — 54 Republicans between them — and Abramson had two. With his mentor, U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, looking on, Henry, as promised, withdrew. The second round Barras won 56-49. Only seven Republicans stayed with Leger.
Edwards issued a news release but didn’t really speak directly about the speaker election until Thursday.
“I’m going to work with the leadership there just the same as I would have no matter whom else might have been speaker, whether it was Walt Leger or whoever,” Edwards said. “My approach was going to be the same. I don’t have any concerns, right now.”
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