Louisiana Election

Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy waves to supporters at his election watch party, after being elected to the senate seat vacated by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., in Baton Rouge on Dec. 10. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Gerald Herbert

During the U.S. Senate campaign Democrats tried to paint John N. Kennedy as a partner of the fiscally challenged Bobby Jindal. After all, the argument ran, it was Kennedy’s signature at the bottom of all the checks that lined the path to Louisiana financial perdition.

The flaw, of course, is that disbursement of the public funds, as ordered by the executive and Legislature, is the key part of a treasurer’s legal job description, along with being the number four designated survivor in Louisiana’s line of succession.

It was Kennedy’s interpretation of the treasurer’s remaining constitutional duty to report to the governor and the Legislature “on the financial condition of the state” that transformed the post from a line of what-was-their-names-again public servants into a bully pulpit.

Campaigning for the October election to succeed Kennedy, who announced he would resign Jan. 3 to take up his new post in the U.S. Senate, will be colored by that interpretation.

Already pundits have long lists of speculative candidates. But only five have been unequivocal and most of those admit to having started raising money for a race that could cost about $1 million.

New Orleans Democratic lawyer/accountant Derrick Edwards, who made a quixotic run for the U.S. Senate, announced his intentions last week. Four Republicans also say they’ve moved beyond “thinking about” the race: Julie Stokes and John Schroder, two state reps; state Sen. Neil Riser, who owns a funeral home in Columbia and chairs the Senate committee that works closely with the Bond Commission; and Mike Lawrence, a Mandeville accountant who ran, for a short while, David Duke’s Senate campaign.

Picking a treasurer has followed a routine for years — election, then multiple re-elections without opponents.

Pat Tugwell, a Winn Parish intimate of Huey Long’s, was treasurer for 32 years. He retired in 1968. Mary Evelyn Parker, a Baton Rouge insurance agent, won election, then served until 1987, when she retired.

In the first competitive treasurer’s race, perhaps ever, Mary Landrieu, then a 32-year-old state representative known mostly as Moon’s daughter, handily beat Kevin Reilly, the crusty Baton Rouge scion of Lamar Advertising, who was considered an expert on state fiscal matters. There was 14 percent drop off in votes cast — 187,365 — between her race for treasurer and the top race on the ballot.

Landrieu faced no opposition in her re-election bid and the next campaign didn’t occur until 1995 when she decided move up the political ladder.

Kennedy ran in 1999 after Treasurer Ken Duncan’s first and only term was pockmarked with stumbles from an unsuccessful effort to get a private bathroom in his office to trying to hire a personal driver to having a first assistant punch out a Burger King clerk for failing to hold the onions.

Once elected, Kennedy endured a string of re-elections without opponents.

Luckily for Kennedy, while speculation in 2015 swirled around a possible Senate bid, he drew an opponent who hardly campaigned. But her candidacy allowed him to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars of his considerable war chest to run a string of television commercials.

After winning with 80 percent of the vote, Kennedy shifted the rest of his state-raised campaign funds to a Super PAC that would support his bid for federal office.

The state treasurer has about 30 legally-prescribed duties, including sitting on the State Bond Commission, which oversees the huge loans state and local governments must use for major projects like constructing new buildings and repairing highways.

But it was Kennedy’s interpretation of his advise duties that really redefined the office, say the handful of candidates wanting to replace him in the State Capitol.

Kennedy was the first major Republican to publicly question the fiscal decisions Jindal was making. While the GOP majority in the Legislature was marching lock-step with Jindal’s plans, Kennedy explained how state government had created an unsustainable financial structure. He had no vote and little actual power to do anything, but Kennedy used his pulpit to create the “we need to fix this” narrative that has dominated state politics since.

The early candidates intend to carry on that conversation.

“We need somebody paying attention to the state’s spending habits,” said Schroder, a contractor from Covington who has focused on fiscal issues as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Stokes, a certified public accountant from Kenner, said “One thing Kennedy did was to posture us into identifying some of the problem areas and identifying some of the possible ideas to alleviate those problems.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.