As the Legislature gears up for a grueling special session, all eyes have been on the big power shift in the House, where the Republican majority broke with tradition and elected one of its own as speaker rather than going along with the Democratic governor’s favored candidate.
Just as interesting as why that happened in the House is a related question: How come the same thing didn’t happen in the Senate?
Ask longtime members and they’ll point to the makeup of the body, which includes many former House members who’ve served together for decades and came up working across party lines. The biggest difference, though, is probably the presence of a man who knows as much about the Legislature’s traditions as anyone, Senate President John Alario of Westwego.
On the same day the House made history by bypassing Democrat Walt Leger, of New Orleans, and making lower-profile New Iberia Republican Taylor Barras speaker, Alario, 72 and starting his 45th year in the Legislature, was re-elected Senate president without a hint of dissent.
In a Legislature increasingly driven by partisanship and eager to flex its independence, Alario is a throwback, a Democrat who switched to Republican more out of practicality than any deep philosophical calling. He remains an adherent of Louisiana’s old-school, governor-centric system, no matter who happens to be inhabiting the Capitol’s fourth floor. Who would he be to criticize, he asked last week, when he landed two terms as house speaker under Edwin Edwards and his first stint as Senate President under Bobby Jindal by playing by the established rules?
Alario apparently didn’t cut a deal with new Gov. John Bel Edwards, but that’s because he didn’t need to. While the House found itself embroiled in a dramatic fight, not one other senator uttered a peep about challenging Alario, and pretty much everyone agreed that the same scenario would have played out had David Vitter won instead.
That doesn’t mean Alario won’t also have Edwards’ back. That he has worked so well with politicians of such different styles and agendas speaks to his belief that gubernatorial elections have consequences.
“I thought, since John Bel won the election, he should at least get his proposals out of committee. What happens on the floor is another matter,” Alario said.
The mystery is why the Senate still chooses to go along.
State Sen. Danny Martiny, of Metairie, a longtime colleague, said it was a matter of trust.
“He’s the governor’s guy,” Martiny said, but “he’s not just the governor’s guy. He’s very protective of the Senate and the Senate’s reputation. He also has the reputation as the guy who’s going to come up with a solution.”
Alario makes a point of trying to take care of his members, to the extent he can. He said he tried to spread the wealth and distribute key assignments based on the Senate’s overall partisan, racial, gender and geographical divides. The Alario approach is evident in carefully doled out committee assignments.
The budget crisis will push all other matters to the side, at least during the first part of Edwards’ term. So Alario gave the governor friendly chairs of the two major money committees, Democrats J.P. Morrell of New Orleans at Revenue & Fiscal Affairs and Eric LaFleur of Ville Platte at Finance.
He named Republican Neil Riser of Columbia chairman of Labor, and Riser quickly made it known that he’ll oppose Edwards’ expected attempt to raise the state minimum wage. But Alario also gave the committee a Democratic majority, so Edwards’ bills should get a favorable hearing anyway.
Another Republican, Conrad Appel of Metairie, would have liked to have kept the Education Committee chairmanship he held during Jindal’s second term. But Appel’s energetic backing of the so-called “reform” agenda and Common Core education standards —- and the governor and his most loyal backers’ sentiments on the other side — made that impractical. Instead, Alario gave the chairmanship to Blade Morrish, a Jennings Republican who’s never been a major player in education policy but who Alario described as smart and open to compromise.
Appel didn’t walk away empty-handed, though. He’s still on the committee, where he’ll be able to advocate for his positions, and he also nabbed a seat on Finance. He emerged from the process having “no complaints.”
Nor, he said, do most of his colleagues, regardless of their politics.
“People respect the guy. They know who he is, and they like the way he operates,” Appel said. “John is a master deal maker. He’s able to put groups together and get something done. We like that.”
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.