A decade ago, prior to meeting with railroad officials over a rash of deaths at rail crossings, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco pleaded with Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell to ratchet back his rhetoric in hopes the gathering would accomplish something.
“We’re not here to point fingers,” Blanco told her fellow Democrat at a March 2005 meeting with railroad executives to discuss fatalities involving trains and vehicles.
But Campbell would have none of it.
During his 26 years as a state senator, before being elected to the PSC in 2003, Campbell tried repeatedly, with occasional success, to require the six railroads operating in Louisiana to install gates at crossings and take other safety measures.
“I don’t believe all the fatalities are people’s fault. Some are your fault,” Campbell told the roomful of railroad executives attending what Blanco had promised would be a no-fault discussion about the problem.
On the PSC, Campbell pressed for cutting back vegetation to improve visibility at crossings. He also sought to give the PSC authority to hire inspectors to augment the work done by the Federal Railroad Administration – a move railroads opposed “because of Foster Campbell,” in the words of one lobbyist.
In the end, the railroads agreed to cut back vegetation, and the PSC received authority to hire inspectors but got no money to do so.
"I'm not one to worry about big business," Campbell said in a recent interview. "I'm worried about working people and how to make the state better for them."
Like his Republican opponent in Saturday's U.S. Senate race, State Treasurer John N. Kennedy, Campbell has made a career of throwing verbal brickbats at the powerful. Also like Kennedy, Campbell has sometimes come up short.
No issue is more linked to Campbell’s time in the state Senate than his push for an oil processing tax, which also was the centerpiece of his losing campaign for governor in 2007. His plan was to replace the severance tax – on oil and natural gas when taken from the ground – with a $5.5 billion levy on oil and natural gas brought in from outside the state to be processed in Louisiana refineries and plants.
Campbell argued the revenues could make income taxes unnecessary and provide money for roads and schools. The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, which represent large energy corporations, countered that it would increase the price of gasoline by more than a dollar and endanger 10,000 refinery jobs.
Campbell tried variations of the same plan countless times during his years in the Senate. Most were killed in committee. A few made it to the full Senate before dying.
When Campbell was elected to the PSC in 2003, his legislative reputation preceded him.
“I was apprehensive,” said Jimmy Field, a Baton Rouge Republican who served on the PSC from 1996 through 2012 and is known for his quiet-spoken decorum.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was told that I wouldn’t be able to work with him. But I didn’t find that to be the case,” Field said in a recent interview. “He's a stand up guy. He’s a populist. He stands up for the ratepayer, regardless of the politics.”
Field recalled that when he first met him, Campbell said that though he was a Democrat, he'd been able to work with GOP titans such as state Senate President John Hainkel and Dave Treen, the first Republican governor in Louisiana since Reconstruction.
Eight lobbyists, who represent companies with vested interests in how the PSC rules, gave their views about Campbell provided they not be identified, saying they saw no benefit in possibly antagonizing someone who will either be a U.S. senator or remain where he is, regulating their clients. Despite the cloak of anonymity, the lawyer-lobbyists had nothing negative to say about Campbell other than he was loud, sometimes profane, and dogged in pursuing his goals. Their comments echoed what Campbell’s colleagues said on the record about him.
Despite his contentiousness, Campbell has been effective at reducing the amount of money customers have to pay for electricity each month, his colleagues on the regulatory board say. The commissioners decide how much customers pay for electricity, natural gas, drinking water and telephone service.
Campbell’s frequent outbursts often make for an uncomfortable meeting among the buttoned-down lawyers, lobbyists and executives for whom politeness is part of their workaday world. But behind the scenes, Field said, Campbell was less combative.
“I mean, you always knew where he stood. He’d present his arguments. I’d present mine,” Field said. “He was willing to take a stand even against powerful political interests. That’s one of the things I admire about him.”
Talk would then move to points on which they agreed, then towards the more thorny issues.
“I don’t know if persuasive is the right word, but sometimes he would adapt some of my positions and sometimes I could see the points he was making,” Field said.
Campbell never worried about ruffling the powerful.
Picking a fight with the sheriffs, often a parish’s most powerful political figure, isn’t astute, Field said. But Campbell felt that the fees and rules tacked onto calls inmates made from the jailhouse were too expensive for their families. He found that the average cost of calls between inmates and their families in Louisiana was 30 cents a minute – roughly 15 times higher than calls on the outside.
Church leaders pressed for changes that would lower the costs to allow families a better chance at staying together and help rehabilitation efforts. But the additional costs, which pay for monitoring to ensure inmates don’t exploit the phones, also included commissions and overages sheriffs had come to rely on during tight budget times.
Over a three-year period, the PSC went back and forth on capping costs for prison calls and disallowing the contracted phone providers from including commissions in the rates they charged. The PSC agreed to ban some fees attached to the calls, then delayed the decision to give the phone companies an opportunity to justify the added charges.
Then, in November 2014, the regulatory Federal Communications Commission stepped in and began looking at banning the commissions the companies paid jailers on the phone calls across the country. Campbell said the FCC action vindicated his position even as the state regulatory panel delivered mixed results.
As a conservative Republican, former PSC Chairman Jay Blossman had some epic public arguments with Campbell, replete with finger pointing, bulging veins in their necks and fists slamming desktops.
“When the vote was over, we were cordial. We didn’t go out to dinner, but we were cordial,” said Blossman, who was on the PSC from 1997 through 2008 and is now a lawyer. “Was it contentious? Yeah. Were the debates heated? Yeah. Was he effective? Very.”
Now just another ratepayer, Blossman said he’s particularly pleased with the deal Campbell negotiated in exchange for the PSC allowing the $4.9 billion sale of shareholder-owned Cleco Power to private investors earlier this year.
Campbell broke the deadlock in March that held up the sale when the buyers, headed by Australia-based Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets, agreed to give Cleco’s 287,000 customers in Acadiana, Central Louisiana and on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain basically a month or two of free electricity.
“I was real happy about that,” Blossman said, whose home in Mandeville is served by Cleco.
Campbell agreed to switch sides, basically reversing the PSC’s no-sale decision, when the Macquarie buyers agreed to his demands to give each customer a credit of about $475, to contribute $7 million to Louisiana’s economic development efforts to be administered by state economic development agency, and to guarantee for a decade the head count, salaries and benefits for Cleco’s 1,205 employees, as well as health benefits for retirees.
Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, who co-chaired Donald Trump’s presidential bid in Louisiana and has endorsed Kennedy, said his colleague on the utility regulatory board is passionate about his causes and positions. He and Campbell have often bickered in public.
“He brings his message to the meetings. I bring mine,” Skrmetta said. “After the vote is taken, we move on. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”