Throughout a 2000 movie called “The Contender,” actor Jeff Bridges, playing the U.S. President, impressed visitors by impulsively ordering improbable sandwiches from the White House kitchen.
In real life, however, the president personally pays for all these Dagwoods. Taxpayers foot the bill for state dinners at the White House, but the first family pays for the groceries they use.
Not so in Louisiana. This state’s governors may not have ICBMs, but they can eat for free.
The Jindals socked away $241,422 in groceries during 12 months of the year preceding June 30 — including $12 to buy fortune cookies for one of their children. (Even outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal’s staff had the option of having lunch delivered to their State Capitol offices everyday, regardless of whether the governor was in town, cooked up by Angola-trained chefs in the Governor’s Mansion.)
Taxpayers paid for the Jindals’ laundry and toothpaste, even their newspaper subscriptions. When the governor traveled, his luggage was sent ahead so he wouldn’t have to wait around at the airport.
This is not to pick on Jindal — all Louisiana governors get the perks.
The freebies are supposed to relieve some of the everyday burdens to free up time for work. But former governors say lagniappe also creates a special world that keeps the chief executive in a bubble.
This may be particularly stressful on John Bel Edwards, whose team throughout most of the campaign consisted of old friends and family. As the lone Democrat in a region that is still very Republican, few gave Edwards a chance, even the leaders of his own party.
Edwards now has a whole lot of new best friends.
Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco says in the swirl of decision-making, time demands and pressurized politics, keeping up with old friends helps keep a Louisiana governor grounded. It came as a bit of shock to her that folks who knew her first as Kathleen and had thought nothing of dropping by her home in Lafayette for a cup of coffee and a chat, became really reticent about knocking on the door of the Governor’s Mansion.
“No matter how hard you work at it, after a time there’s an isolation,” she said.
She kept her house and would return there on weekends from time to time. But the non-stop nature of the job cut out those trips, particularly after the 2005 hurricanes. Eventually, she had to invite her family to cross the Atchafalaya to visit her at the Mansion.
Blanco pretty much abandoned the kitchen as governor. The exceptions were for family events, but even then it was mostly showing the inmates how to prepare her family’s traditional dishes, such as poaching a raw egg in gumbo and a chocolate dessert everyone expected.
She ended up having to relearn how to cook after leaving the Governor’s Mansion. Similarly, Jindal recently took driving lessons to refresh his skills after eight years of having state troopers behind the wheels of SUVs.
Former Gov. Buddy Roemer, like Edwards, had a young son in the Governor’s Mansion, so getting access to all sorts of cultural and sporting events was a plus. “I got to see Lyle Lovett and Dakota loved Wrestlemania. That was good,” he recalled last week.
Also similar is that Roemer walked into office in the late 1980s with a fiscal crisis about as big as the one that Edwards becomes responsible for solving shortly after noon Monday.
Roemer spent hours juggling competing interests, poring over numbers and weighing unappealing choices to solve the state’s budget problems. He recalled the workload being immense, with seemingly everyone demanding a few minutes of his time.
There was little time to read anything other than reports and memos, which was frustrating for a guy, who after leaving office, became an afternoon fixture in Baton Rouge bookstores.
Roemer recommended Edwards say “no” more often than he did as governor. And also, Edwards should take a break every day from governing: visit with family, swim in the pool, sit under one of the arbors in the backyard, just to refresh and re-energize, both Roemer and Blanco suggested.
On Monday, Roemer and Blanco will be sitting at the inaugural just on Edwards’ event horizon. But they will be thinking about their time in the Louisiana vortex.
“There are no perks. Get over it. Being governor is a hard job. And Gov.-elect Edwards will find it hard,” Roemer said.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.