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Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Livingston, presents SB16 for concurring in the conference committee report during the last day of the regular legislative session Thursday June 8, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La. The measure passed 67-34.

Sherman Mack, an Albany attorney, won the endorsement of the Louisiana House Republican delegation Friday in his bid for House speaker, with 39 members casting ballots for him behind closed doors in Baton Rouge.

The vote is the latest development in a race for speaker that has thus far only involved Republicans, as some influential party leaders push for the party to coalesce behind one candidate and pick the speaker without input from Democrats.

Mack’s 39 votes represent only a portion of the 53 he will need in January to win the position, and several Republicans cautioned Friday’s vote does not necessarily mean the race is over.

“I’m trying to recall any time the delegation has stuck together on big controversial stuff,” said Central Rep. Barry Ivey, a candidate for speaker who did not put himself up for a vote of the delegation after objecting to the partisan nature of the process.

Mack had the support of much of the freshman class of Republican members who will be sworn in next month, lawmakers said. In a press release sent Friday afternoon, House GOP chair Lance Harris--who was in the running for speaker himself--said he will work with Mack to “continue to unify the party.”

Over the past four years, Mack has served as chairman of the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee, though he did not vote for the criminal justice reform package championed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and a majority of the GOP-led Legislature. Mack has in recent weeks said the GOP, which boasts a 68-member majority in the House, should be picking the speaker, an idea that has rankled Democrats who have complained about being left out of the process.

“As a 68-member strong Republican house, shame on us if we do not dictate the conservative policy agendas we set forth as conservatives,” Mack told a gathering of the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party recently.

In the state Senate, Republican Sen. Page Cortez, of Lafayette, secured commitments from enough of his colleagues to win the position of Senate president, assuming all those votes stay in his column until mid-January, when lawmakers will come to Baton Rouge to be inaugurated and select their leaders. Current Senate President John Alario, a Republican allied with Edwards, is term-limited.

Mack, the preferred candidate of influential GOP donor Lane Grigsby, had emerged as one of two front-runners for the top post in the House, along with state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, of Gonzales. The two both offered up the exact same policy priority, tort reform, a long-held Republican priority that has recently evoked heated battles in the Legislature and in elections.

Pro-business groups and trial attorneys, who are on opposite sides of the issue, poured millions into the governor’s race and legislative elections this year. Business groups were generally successful in electing favorable lawmakers, while Edwards, a Democrat with big support from attorneys, won the governor’s race over Mack’s preferred candidate, Eddie Rispone.

Republicans came to Baton Rouge for a delegation meeting that was supposed to start at 9:30 a.m., but haggling over the endorsement vote delayed the start time. Mack and Schexnayder were among the candidates that gave presentations before a question-and-answer session, and Mack won 39 votes, which were cast by ballot. That was the exact number he needed to win the endorsement, as it required a two-thirds vote of those present. Schexnayder won 17 votes, while Chalmette Republican Rep. Ray Garofalo won one vote.

“I would hope all the Republicans would get behind Sherman Mack now that he has been selected as the Republican delegation nominee,” said state Rep. Jack McFarland, of Jonesboro and one-time speaker candidate who got behind Mack in recent weeks. “That’s the purpose of having that vote.”

In 2016, Republican state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, failed to get enough support when running against Edwards' choice of Rep. Walt Leger III, of New Orleans, so Republicans backed a compromise candidate, Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia. For decades, Louisiana governors hand-picked legislative leaders, but Republicans in the House bucked that trend after Edwards won election as a rare Deep South Democratic governor. 

Democrats have complained that Republicans have thus far only spoken with each other about the race. State Rep. Sam Jenkins, a Shreveport Democrat and vice chair of the House Democratic caucus, said Republicans had not engaged with the party at all so far. Edwards has also largely been sidelined this time after his pick for speaker four years ago was rejected by the Republican-led House.

“The election of the speaker is a process that involves all 105 members of the Legislature,” Jenkins said. “Nothing has happened today to change that requirement.”

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com