One of the best political stories of last year was John Bel Edwards’ remarkable rise to the governorship of Louisiana.
But his inaugural day was marked by a reminder that the ascension of a Democratic governor in a Republican state has its political limits.
Rep. Taylor Barras, of New Iberia, a Republican, emerged as a candidate for speaker of the House, besting Edwards’ own pick for the job.
Barras defeated Rep. Walt Leger, of New Orleans, a Democrat, by a vote of 56 to 49. While it remains to be seen what that means in terms of passing legislation, the governor’s inaugural day showed that the political surprises of the Edwards era are not over.
It was the first time the speakership had been contested since 1984 and usually the governor’s man wins. There might be some to-and-fro behind the scenes, but the reality is that the governor’s nominee as speaker would collaborate with the administration on key committee appointments, vital to the passage of legislation.
Leger had said going up to the inauguration that he had a majority locked up. Clearly, his commitments were eroded by a campaign of the Louisiana GOP and conservative organizations for an alternative, originally Cameron Henry of Metairie but ultimately Barras.
That the House immediately re-elected Leger to the largely ceremonial position of speaker pro tempore was perhaps an olive branch but it hardly lessened the shock factor in the State Capitol.
In the Senate, meanwhile, President John Alario, of Westwego, was comfortably re-elected without the roll call vote required in the House. A secret ballot is hardly a reputable way to do anything in a legislative body but there was no serious opposition to Alario this year.
Alario is a Republican but reliably served a former governor named Edwards when a Democrat; the wily veteran of the Legislature is expected to be friendly with the administration in power.
On one level, the same is true of Barras.
As a compromise candidate, a party-switcher five years who ago served two terms with John Bel Edwards, the new speaker and the new governor are on comfortable enough terms.
In most normal states, the legislative leaders are elected by the chambers they lead, not at the behest of the governor. And in those states, the governor and legislative leaders typically find a way to work together to pass budgets and other needed legislation.
That the age-old process of the governor’s anointment has been suddenly discarded is a remarkable event. It’s not likely, though, that Edwards and Barras have forgotten how to work together because of their sudden elevations.
Still, it’s a dramatic difference in the way the House does business, and it is likely to set a precedent for four years from now, when Barras and Alario will be term-limited out of their offices.