Regulars at Louisiana’s State Capitol often think of it as the house that Huey built, a legacy of the Depression-era governor who masterminded its construction.
Huey Long didn’t build the Capitol, of course; taxpayers did. But in Louisiana, where elected officials tend to treat public institutions as personal fiefdoms, such distinctions tend to get lost on the leaders who frequent the Capitol’s corridors.
That reality was sadly evident when the House Education Committee voted this week to rename the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, despite the presence of an overflow crowd of citizens who had come to object.
Located in Natchitoches, LSMSA is a state-run boarding school for gifted teens from around Louisiana. Since the school opened in 1983, students and staff have worked hard to build its national reputation. It was recently recognized by The Washington Post as one of the best high schools in America.
State Sen. Francis Thompson, a Delhi Democrat, is sponsoring a bill to rename the school after the late Jimmy D. Long Sr., a lawmaker who had a pivotal role in creating LSMSA. The school’s supporters acknowledge Long’s contribution and want to name a new dormitory after him, but they rightly point out that renaming the school after Long would confuse its national brand and also shortchange others who helped found it. They’ve made that point in hundreds of emails and phone calls to lawmakers, and the depth of their opposition to Thompson’s bill was obvious last Wednesday, when so many citizens showed up to register their reservations that an overflow room was opened for visitors.
The crowd included lots of average folks who had taken time from work and family to testify, as well as LSMSA students, newly liberated for summer vacation, who had nevertheless chosen to spend a day at the Capitol arguing their case.
Those students got a sobering lesson in legislative politics.
Much of the 15-member committee didn’t show up, prompting speculation that panelists were dodging a controversial vote.
Thompson, on hand to defend his bill, seemed irritated that citizens — mere citizens — had arrived to speak their minds. He cynically suggested that the crowd had been orchestrated, as if there’s something sinister in a free people gathering to petition their own government for what they believe to be right and good.
Thompson, who’s been in the Legislature since 1974, said he hadn’t felt it necessary to assemble a crowd to testify for his bill, and as things turned out, he was right. After the testimony, with almost no comment, the committee voted 5-2 to send it to the full House for consideration, leaving the clear message that the wishes of a fellow lawmaker trumped the public will.
It was a sad thing for youngsters to see — and an unwelcome postscript to the life of Jimmy D. Long, whose record of public service is beyond dispute.