Jay Dardenne got his first taste of Louisiana politics as the student member of the LSU Board of Supervisors.
He couldn’t vote, but he sat between two of Louisiana’s most influential movers and shakers: Camille Gravel, one of Gov. Edwin Edwards’ key advisers, and Jerry McKernan, a legendary trial lawyer.
“It was a learning experience to watch those two very accomplished lawyers and two very good political leaders operate and how they handled issues ... their interaction with board members and others,” Dardenne said.
The issues were not insignificant, ranging from separation of the LSU law school into a separate entity to the allocation of LSU student football tickets. Dardenne recalls testifying for the first time before a legislative committee — for a bill giving voting rights to student board members. It passed.
Ever since his years at LSU, Dardenne’s political career has been based in Baton Rouge. And although he’s been a Republican the whole time, he often has been on the outs with his own party — a situation he chalks up to his independent streak.
On the Oct. 24 ballot with Dardenne, who is now the state’s lieutenant governor, are two fellow Republicans — U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle — and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, making up the four best-funded and most well-known candidates.
Like Bobby Jindal, the governor he hopes to replace, Dardenne graduated from Baton Rouge High School. He was elected president of the LSU Student Government Association, then finished law school at LSU before hanging out a shingle and practicing law.
For the next decade, Dardenne was involved in a variety of community groups, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, becoming one of the emcees for the annual Jerry Lewis MDA telethon. After stints on the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council and in the state Senate representing the neighborhoods southeast of LSU, Dardenne was elected secretary of state in 2006 and lieutenant governor in 2010.
Under his watch, Louisiana had its third consecutive year of record-breaking tourism in 2014 — 28.7 million visitors, generating $836 million in state tax revenue. He’s fought to protect dedicated funding for marketing the state from raids by the Jindal administration, citing tourism’s impact on the Louisiana economy and its budget.
He’s often asked to give his presentation — more of a one-man act — about Louisiana’s culture, history, demography, music and politics, with a title that reflects his sense of humor: “Why Louisiana Ain’t Mississippi.”
In 2008, he received a “Dishonorable Mention” in the “Vile Puns” division of the national Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest — the Pulitzer Prize for bad prose, with contestants vying to write the worst opening lines to imaginary novels. Dardenne’s entry: “Dim-witted and flushed, Sgt. Head was frustrated by his constipated attempts to arrest the so-called ‘Bathroom Burglar’ until, while wiping his brow, he realized that each victim had been robbed in a men’s room, thereby focusing his attention on the janitor, whose cleaning habits clearly established a commodus operandi.”
During his 15 years in the state Senate, from 1992 through 2006, it was Dardenne’s limerick-like recounting of legislative highlights, delivered from the floor of the Senate minutes after “sine die,” the official end of the session, that marked the true adjournment.
His unsuccessful bid to win a seat in the state Senate in 1987 marked the start of a contentious relationship with the GOP elite. When the lifelong Republican — as a child he walked door-to-door with his mother distributing push cards for Barry Goldwater — jumped into the race, th e Republican Party already had endorsed a candidate, creating resentment among party ranks.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party recently endorsed every GOP candidate in the governor’s race but Dardenne, and the conservative wing of the GOP doesn’t like his more moderate views.
“I’m viewed as too independent,” said the 61-year-old Dardenne, who calls himself a Reagan Republican. “I haven’t always toed the party line.”
Dardenne has taken heat in statewide election campaigns over his vote to send the Stelly Plan to voters, who in 2002 approved the tax swap. The Stelly Plan, which became hugely unpopular among segments of the Republican Party, cut sales taxes on some items to help lower-income families and changed income-tax brackets so that wealthier taxpayers would pay slightly more. By 2008, the Legislature had rolled back much of the change.
In his runs for statewide office, Dardenne has been opposed by a former party chairman, the current chairman and the son of a former chairman.
Vitter, the presumptive front-runner in the gubernatorial contest, strongly backed Billy Nungesser in the 2011 lieutenant governor’s race, calling the former Plaquemines Parish president “the true conservative” in the election.
Yet some prominent Republicans still defend Dardenne’s positions — or at least his right to chart his own course in the party.
“He might not be as conservative as some of the conservative wing wants. He is more to the center right than the far right of the party,” said Roger Villere, the current chairman of the state party and a former electoral opponent of Dardenne. “It’s a big party, and it’s made up of a lot of people.”
Former state Rep. Chuck McMains, who served briefly as Republican Party chairman, said Dardenne isn’t the problem. “It’s been a problem with the leadership of the party being out of step with the way the party is going in Louisiana,” he said.
Dardenne is using that background in his campaign, stressing his bipartisan approach and his record of bringing people together to solve problems.
Shortly after he won a seat on the Metro Council in 1988, heavy rain caused widespread flooding throughout his district. He decided to come up with a plan to prevent future disasters, holding weeks of breakfast meetings with developers, real estate interests and homeowners. The result was the city-parish Flood Damage Protection ordinance, which required new houses to be built above a certain elevation and the creation of retention ponds in certain areas.
He also authored an ordinance that banned smoking in public buildings.
Dardenne said he learned two things from his council experience that he relies on to this day: The best problem-solving is at the local level, and not everyone is going to agree.
“There’s no substitute for everyone having a seat at the table to solve problems. That’s forgotten in government because it’s so partisan,” Dardenne said. “That council service was very valuable.”
Dardenne had a crash course in the state budget soon after he won his Senate seat in 1991. Edwin Edwards was in his last term as governor, and Dardenne entered the upper chamber as an outsider.
McMains, now a lobbyist and then a GOP state representative, said Edwards sought to increase taxes by $1.1 billion. Dardenne and McMains, with help from the Legislature’s fiscal advisers, developed an alternate budget.
“Jay took the lead,” McMains recalled, “and we came up with enough cuts and other adjustments to where we got within $100 million of balancing the budget.”
Not many of their suggestions were accepted, but the alternative stopped the Legislature’s momentum toward simply passing the tax measures.
Dardenne’s Senate years proved tumultuous, with votes on the New Orleans land-based casino — he voted against it — and on the Legislature convening as a constitutional convention to revamp the tax structure — he opposed that, too — among other high-profile issues.
“We were bomb throwers, and some of our bombs landed during those four years,” McMains said.
Edwards’ floor leader, state Sen. Don Kelly, was on the receiving end of Dardenne’s attacks.
“He was a bright guy, and he did well for the loyal opposition,” said Kelly, a Natchitoches lawyer. “I always thought Jay was a gentleman and he fought like a gentleman. I always thought that he was in good faith in his fights. I couldn’t always say that about everyone.”
Influence and independence
When Republican Mike Foster won the Governor’s Mansion in 1996, Dardenne gained influence. He eventually became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees state government spending and revenue, working with Foster to balance the budget in good times and bad.
While he handled much of Foster’s legislation, Dardenne also broke with the governor at times.
He opposed an ethics law that would have backed Foster’s contention that he did nothing wrong by failing to disclose his purchase of campaign mailing lists from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Foster ended up paying a $20,000 fine for the omission. At the time, Dardenne said: “I was not going to forsake my independence for the sake of political expediency.”
As a state senator, he helped lead the effort to pass bills to create the community and technical college system, to grant tax credits to companies making movies in Louisiana, and to restrict elected officials from doing business with the state.
His legislation to better protect women from violence and to constitutionally protect victims’ rights led to a lifetime achievement award from the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one of the honors he most cherishes.
“While many of our state’s legislators were supportive of crime victims, only a few regularly and aggressively filed bills on their behalf,” said Cathy Childers, a former director of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers who regularly attended legislative sessions during the 1990s.
Dardenne and his wife, Cathy, recently celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary.
Cathy is a certified public accountant by profession, but about 10 years ago she became administrator at St. Aloysius Catholic Church. She is Catholic, and her husband is Jewish. They raised their sons Catholic. Dardenne attends Mass fairly regularly and the synagogue on High Holidays.
“Faith is a very private thing,” he said.
Jay and Cathy met in junior high school — both of their fathers worked for Exxon — and now have two grown sons.
“He washes dishes, not the pots. He straightens up the house,” she said of her husband. “Family has always come first. First and foremost, a husband and a father and an equal partner at home.”