Louisiana Inauguration

Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, makes his way to the podium to be sworn into the leadership position at the state Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Brett Duke) ORG XMIT: LABD106

A day after a faction of Louisiana House Republicans united with Democrats to elect state Rep. Clay Schexnayder as House speaker, the majority leader of the House GOP delegation said he is concerned the new leader could be beholden to the state’s Democratic governor, who helped him win the position.

Majority Leader Blake Miguez, chair of the House Republicans, said the vote for House speaker – pitting Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, against Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany – was a “litmus test” for whether members were true conservatives. Miguez and 44 other Republicans sided with Mack, who won the official endorsement of the delegation last month but who lost the election Monday.

“Our Republican delegation lost that race,” Miguez said at an East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party luncheon. “The governor won. The House's independence was out the window at that point. This is where we sit today."

Miguez’s comments indicate the rift within the House Republican delegation that was exposed in Monday’s vote for speaker left lingering mistrust and frayed nerves among members of the party.

Though Republicans cleaned up in last fall’s elections and assumed a historic number of seats, 68, upon being sworn in Monday morning, the party splintered for the first big vote of the term. All 35 of the House Democrats, along with 23 Republicans and two representatives without party affiliation, delivered Schexnayder the victory for speaker, 60-45.

In recent weeks, staff members in Edwards’ administration and the governor himself called Democratic members urging them to stick together and vote as a bloc, spokeswoman Christina Stephens confirmed.

“The message he was pushing was the Democrats needed to vote together and that they needed to consider who was backing the other candidate,” Stephens said. Lane Grigsby, a well-known GOP donor who backed Edwards’ opponent Eddie Rispone in last year’s governor’s race, was backing Mack in the speaker’s race.

Also supporting Mack were Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, influential Republicans who frequently spar with Edwards. Landry and Kennedy helped elect many of the House Republicans through the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority PAC, and the two used the PAC during the speaker’s race to attack Republicans who wouldn’t fall in line behind Mack.

Instead, the members attacked by the PAC held firm with Schexnayder. Meanwhile, Democrats met in the basement of the State Capitol for several hours Sunday night to discuss the race, and came out of the meeting with a consensus that the vast majority would support Schexnayder in the next morning’s election. Two Democrats who came out publicly for Mack fell back in line with the party the next day.

Schexnayder, a Gonzales businessman who said tort reform is his top priority in the next term, railed against the “outside influences” involved in the election and said his election was a testament to the House’s independence.

"This is our moment to restore our faith of the people in this state," Schexnayder said. “We will show them that 105 people, men and women from different backgrounds from different parties and different parts of this state can be trusted to stand together against outside influences and stand for a prosperous Louisiana for our families and for generations to come."

But Miguez, as well as Republican state Reps. Valarie Hodges and Kathy Edmonston, suggested at the GOP lunch that despite Schexnayder’s conservative record, his supporters are hostile to conservative causes. Hodges said Schexnayder is “indebted” to Democrats.

“You know in elections, sometimes the people that get you there, you have to answer to them. And he got there with 35 Democratic votes, with pretty much all the moderates in the Republican House delegation,” Miguez said.

Republicans backing Mack knew they didn’t have the votes on Monday morning, hours before the House was set to vote for speaker, Miguez said. Members convened in an “emergency” delegation meeting, where Mack agreed to step down as a speaker candidate and back a third candidate if Schexnayder stepped down also, he said. But Schexnayder had nailed down more than the 53 votes needed to win and stayed in the race.

Business groups and Republican lawmakers have said tort reform – an effort to make it more difficult for plaintiffs to sue insurance companies – will be the No. 1 priority for the upcoming term. Schexnayder and Mack both said the topic would be their top priority if elected.

“If the governor comes calling and has concerns with the tort reform bill, what is Schexnayder going to do?” Miguez said. “Is he going to stand up and go with the people that didn't support him, the supermajority of the delegation, and go back to his conservative values before he was speaker of the House? Or will he go with the people that got him there?"

Governors long hand-picked legislative leaders in Louisiana. But four years ago, Republicans in the House broke with that precedent to select state Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, to the post, spurning Edwards’ pick. This time around, Edwards and Democrats did not put up one of their own as a candidate, instead lining up behind Schexnayder late in the race.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com