Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards lost his first skirmish with the Republican-dominated Louisiana Legislature when his personal choice for speaker of the Louisiana House was defeated in a rare contested election.
A last-minute candidate, New Iberia Rep. Taylor Barras, a former Democrat who turned Republican in 2011, sneaked through the two partisan candidates who had battled for the top legislative job since the election.
Republicans control the leadership in both chambers — Senate President John Alario was re-elected unanimously — of the Louisiana Legislature.
Sixty-one of the 105 representatives in the House are Republican. Edwards had backed fellow Democrat Walt Leger III, of New Orleans, as speaker of the House. Traditionally, at least in Louisiana, membership backs the governor’s choice.
When asked for a comment, Edwards’ spokesman, Richard Carbo said in a prepared statement: “This is an independent Legislature, and Gov. Edwards looks forward to working with them ... The governor looks forward to meeting with Mr. Barras and going forward together putting the people of Louisiana, not a party, first.”
Barras said in a prepared statement: “As we face many challenges ahead, we must come together to make necessary changes and meet the needs and expectations of the citizens of Louisiana.
“It is my hope that we can work together in a spirit of collaboration in this upcoming session. We owe the people of this great state our best and great outcomes are only achieved by those who put people before politics.”
Outgoing House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, called it a historic election that the Louisiana House hasn’t seen in many years. The last contested speaker’s race was in 1984, when John Hainkel, a New Orleans Republican, unsuccessfully challenged Alario, who was then a Democrat backed by Gov. Edwin W. Edwards.
Campaigns for legislative leadership posts often are heated but rarely attract attention outside the State Capitol building because when the votes are finally cast, the membership goes along with the choices of the governor. Most state legislatures around the country choose their own leaders.
The Louisiana House speaker selects the leadership of key committees, usually with input from the governor, decides when bills will be heard and has power over all sorts of perks, including parking spaces and housing for the representatives. The GOP leadership promised that the House, rather than the governor, would select committee leaders. The House convenes again Tuesday and Wednesday.
Barras, market president for IberiaBank, was one of the many early GOP candidates for the speakership. His candidacy was reinvigorated during caucus meetings Sunday night and he nailed down the votes necessary in the hours prior to the 71st Louisiana Legislature being sworn into office Monday morning. He won on the second ballot with 56 votes. Leger had 49 votes.
For the past couple of months, Leger had faced a strong challenge from Rep. Cameron Henry, of Metairie, the candidate for many Republicans who wanted to see one of their own lead the House.
In the first ballot, Henry received 28 votes and found himself in a runoff with Leger, who had received 49, four votes shy of victory. Henry withdrew his candidacy, leaving Barras, who had 26 votes, in the runoff.
“We realized that there was a section of votes that were difficult for me to go get and this enabled members to comfortably vote for a Republican,” Henry said. “It simply had to do with the fact that some members felt that I almost was a little too conservative for the body.”
Newly elected Republican Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, of New Orleans, was the subject of a threat to gather signatures for a recall petition filed by some of her GOP constituents over worries that she would back Leger, which she did in the first ballot. In the second vote, Hilferty voted for Barras. Her support along with Henry’s votes and the backing of Democratic Rep. Neil Abramson, of New Orleans, provided the Republican’s margin of victory.
Abramson was the only one of the House’s 42 Democrats to back Barras. Seven Republicans went with Leger in the final tally and the two representatives without party affiliation split their vote between the two candidates.
Leger was then selected by acclamation to the second spot in the House leadership — speaker pro tem — after two GOP candidates withdrew when Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, nominated the Democrat.
Republican Rep. Chris Broadwater, a Hammond lawyer and friend of Edwards, said the vote for Barras was not a repudiation of Leger or Edwards, but a statement that the Legislature wanted to select its own leadership.
“We said all along we had the votes to elect a Republican,” House Majority Leader Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said. “We made history today because now we have an independent Legislature.”
When asked why the GOP-dominated House didn’t exert its independence under a Republican governor, Harris responded, “Whenever the opportunity presents itself.” He said Monday’s vote would set a precedent for future legislatures.
It was a divisive race in which Republican-leaning groups attempted to pressure GOP representatives not to vote for a Democratic speaker. The Louisiana Family Forum emailed its members and various PACS bought advertising in the districts of GOP members suspected of wavering toward Leger.
After Barras won, the Rev. Gene Mills, president of the Family Forum, a Baton Rouge-based group that enjoyed considerable influence under Gov. Bobby Jindal, emailed members that “Today is a great day for Louisiana!”
Over in the state Senate, Republican Alario, of Westwego, won a second term as leader, as expected, on a 39-0 vote.
A veteran of the Legislature since 1972 — he won the last contested House Speaker race 32 years ago — Alario told the chamber this year marks “the most difficult financial time” the state has faced.
Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, who made one of the two nominating speeches, said Alario has a penchant for turning former “full of fire” critics into lieutenants.
“He is fair. He is compassionate. He never raises his voice,” Martiny said. “He knows how to deal with everybody.”
Sen. Gerald Long, R-Natchitoches, was elected Senate president pro tem.
Long succeeds former state Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, who was forced out by term limits and is running for mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish.
Among those on hand for the 75-minute organizational session was U.S. Senate Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, former state Sen. Foster Campbell, now a member of the Public Service Commission, and former state Senate President Donald Hines, of Bunkie.
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