Nobody would ever call either Steve Scalise or Cedric Richmond a political moderate. Not now, with the two Louisiana congressmen holding major leadership posts, Scalise as House Majority Whip and Richmond as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. And not back in the day, when they came up together through the Louisiana Legislature.
Yet when the pair talked about what Scalise called their "great bond" at Thursday morning's National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., few questioned whether the unusual buddy act was sincere.
Their relationship has been on display before, in high-profile situations such as when Scalise faced heat for having spoken to a David Duke-affiliated group years earlier and Richmond vouched for his character, and when Scalise was shot last summer and Richmond rushed to the hospital and worked the phones to keep friends back home in the loop. It's also been apparent to those who focus on less ideological matters in Washington and who've watched the Jefferson Parish Republican and the New Orleans Democrat tag team on local priorities.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, has thrived in Congress's highly partisan environment. He climbed the ladder quickly, rising fr…
Nor was this the first time their alliance has served as a vivid reminder to others in DC that there are people of good will on both sides of the deep partisan divide. They may each be eager combatants, but as Richmond said at the breakfast, "we don’t disagree on where we want to end up. Most times we disagree on how to get there."
But these days, it's not just politicians in Congress who could learn a thing or two by listening. As state government slowly but surely drifts toward Washington-style partisanship, Scalise and Richmond's successors in the Louisiana Legislature should be paying attention too.
Central to the story of this particular friendship is that it took root in Baton Rouge, in a legislative body in which party mattered, but not the way it does in Washington. Unlike Congress, the Louisiana Legislature is not organized according to party, with the winning side holding all leadership positions and setting the formal agenda. What that's meant, in practical terms, is that coalitions are more fluid and partnerships are easier to build on an issue-by-issue basis rather than along party lines.
That formal structure still exists, but the vibe has been shifting in recent years.
Republicans now hold a majority in both houses, and when Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards took office and endorsed Democratic state Rep. Walt Leger III for speaker, House Republicans took the unprecedented step of rejecting his choice and electing one of their own, state Rep. Taylor Barras. Barras then stacked the key money committees with conservatives, and that's led to a two-year standoff over how to dig out of the fiscal crisis that Edwards inherited from former Gov. Bobby Jindal and the previous Legislature. So even though the Republican-led Senate is friendlier to Edwards and a key player in the House, Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson, is a Democrat, the overall atmosphere is much more partisan than in the past.
An ironic footnote here is that one of the influential figures in the long-running fiscal standoff is state Rep. Cameron Henry, who was once Scalise's aide and remains a close ally. Henry lost his bid for speaker to the more conciliatory Barras, but he got the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee as a consolation prize, and from there he's been a leading voice of resistance to Edwards' attempts to raise revenue in order to avert the coming fiscal cliff. Seems as if Henry took Scalise's love of a good showdown to heart, but not his take on when to stop fighting.
So as the Legislature gears up for the coming debate over how to pay for government and how much government it should pay for, maybe lawmakers should take a moment to reflect on the meaning of their predecessors' unexpected but enduring friendship.
Washington may be too far down the path of poisonous partisanship to turn back. Back in Baton Rouge, it's not too late.