Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of columns on the 2015 gubernatorial contenders. Read about John Bel Edwards here. Next up: David Vitter.
Sometimes it seems as if the word “moderate” is part of Jay Dardenne’s title, so often is it used to characterize both the Republican lieutenant governor’s politics and his niche in this year’s gubernatorial field. It’s not necessarily his term of choice, but he wears it well.
“It’s a word I’m saddled with, whether I like it or not,” Dardenne said in a recent interview, and “it’s descriptive of the way I’ve always viewed things in public life. If you search for answers and solutions to problems and you’re not driven necessarily by a strict ‘I’m not going to do this’ or ‘I’m absolutely going to do this’… I have a very practical, pragmatic approach to solving problems and accomplishing things.”
If Dardenne’s built a moderate’s record, from his early days on the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council to his stint in the state Senate to his terms as secretary of state and lieutenant governor, he’s also facing a moderate’s dilemma as the governor’s race takes shape.
With one announced Democrat and three Republicans, including the well-known, well-funded and considerably more ideological U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the race, Dardenne’s immediate challenge is to pull enough primary voters from the edges to the center to grab one of two runoff spots. (The other Republican is Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle).
In recent weeks, his pitch has become explicit. Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards may appeal to partisans stalwarts, but “everyone knows” a Democrat can’t beat Vitter in a runoff — or so Dardenne wrote in a recent fundraising plea. “Essentially, a vote for Edwards in October is a vote for David Vitter … Our campaign is in the best position to stop Sen. Vitter from being governor.”
And Vitter may be talking a bipartisan game on the campaign trail, Dardenne said, but “he’s been about as partisan a United States Senator as you’re going to find … Louisiana does not need or want the type of politics we see playing out in Washington.” Dardenne also bashed Vitter recently for missing a major budget vote in D.C. in order to campaign back in Louisiana.
“One of the things people need to keep in mind is effectiveness,” Dardenne said.
Measured by legislation passed, Dardenne was clearly productive in the state Senate.
Vitter may be closely associated with pushing term limits as a state representative, but Senate leaders said Dardenne was just as dogged in carrying the popular measure to victory in the upper chamber. Dardenne said the joint effort grew out of shared opinion rather than close partnership; noting that many lawmakers wound up supporting term limits even though they’d hoped the idea would quietly die, Dardenne jokingly labeled the idea a “Vitter pill.”
He also sponsored the creation of motion picture tax credits and the community and technical college system and pushed several victims rights and financial reform measures.
As a floor leader for Gov. Mike Foster, Dardenne carried the controversial Stelly Plan, which eliminated state sales taxes on food and other necessities and increased state income taxes, which was partially repealed under Govs. Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal. In hindsight, Dardenne said adopting Stelly was a good move that stabilized the budget and improved the state’s bond rating.
Allowing lawmakers to repeal the income tax increases helped get the measure passed, he said, so he always knew it might not last. Still, he’d hoped the Legislature and subsequent governors wouldn’t dial back the income tax increases unless the state was on sure financial footing. The fact that they didn’t wait, he said, “re-created instability and also dug the initial hole that we’re in right now.” His preference, he said, would have been to roll back rates and eliminate exemptions and exclusions.
That’s not all he’d do differently from Jindal, a man with whom Dardenne’s had little contact during his time as lieutenant governor — a period that he said also recommends him for the top job because he’s learned to do “more with less.”
He’s the only candidate who remains committed to keeping the Common Core education standards. While Jindal has refused to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion even as the health care system struggles to stay afloat, Dardenne said one of his first priorities will be to gather experts, figure out how to protect Louisiana on the back end and “look at a way to take advantage of these funds.”
Dardenne does approve of some Jindal policies, including his support for charter schools and private school vouchers and his privatization of the Charity system — although he criticized how both were structured. And here’s where Dardenne starts to sound like every other candidate, no matter the ideology.
“Everything was timed for Bobby’s aggrandizement nationally,” he said.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.