Louisiana Inauguration

Newly elected House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, is sworn into the leadership position at the state Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, Jan. 13, 2020.

It was Saturday afternoon, less than 48 hours before the Louisiana House would vote for speaker, and the two top candidates for the job were sitting across from each other in a conference room at the Beer Industry League building on the outskirts of Baton Rouge’s Spanish Town neighborhood.

Reps. Sherman Mack and Clay Schexnayder were there to see if they could reach a détente and sew up a split in the House Republican delegation. State Reps. John Stefanski and Phillip Devillier, Republicans representing the Acadiana region, had convened the summit of the candidates and a small group of their closest allies to come to the negotiating table to see what it would take to unite the two factions ahead of the vote Monday morning.

Schexnayder and Mack went back and forth. Could one support the other for speaker if he became pro tem, the House’s No. 2 position? What if the speaker gave up some control of picking committee assignments to the other?

Eventually, Stefanski, a Schexnayder supporter, offered another way: What if each candidate wrote down three names of lawmakers they could support for speaker, assuming both Schexnayder and Mack dropped out?

Schexnayder grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down three names he would consider supporting: Reps. Greg Miller, Stuart Bishop and Mike Huval.

Mack balked. He was the official House GOP-endorsed candidate, he said. He wouldn’t drop out of the race. He would go to the Democrats and find the remaining votes he needed to win.

That decision would come back to haunt Mack, an Albany attorney who came tantalizingly close to landing the 53 votes needed to become speaker, before seeing it fall apart and losing the race to Schexnayder, 60-45. On Monday morning, just before the vote, Mack finally agreed to drop out and back a third candidate, but by then Schexnayder had the votes lined up to win. 

After months of campaigning, the remarkable victory came together for Schexnayder over a period of 72 intense hours ending Monday morning, according to interviews with 11 House members who were directly involved in the closed-door negotiations and described what happened on condition of anonymity. Over that period, both sides held a slew of gatherings and proposed numerous deals for Democrats and Republicans as they vied for the necessary 53 votes to win.

Ultimately, Schexnayder built a coalition of all 35 House Democrats, 23 Republicans and two representatives without party affiliation, to assume the speakership.

His victory represented a stunning blow to some of Louisiana’s most powerful Republicans — elected and party officials, strategists and donors — who had pushed hard to consolidate GOP support for Mack. It exposed cracks in the GOP’s armor, which had appeared stronger than ever after last fall’s elections gave the Republicans a historic 68-seat advantage, two shy of a supermajority. In the days after the vote, lingering resentments among Mack supporters became evident.

While Mack was officially endorsed by House Republicans, Schexnayder and his band of Republican supporters had chafed at some of the forces backing him, including Attorney General Jeff Landry and GOP donor Lane Grigsby. In his speech upon winning the speaker’s gavel, Schexnayder railed against “outside influences” and “Washington-style politics and rhetoric.”

“This is a symptom of success,” said Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. “When you get to be a majority party — or almost a supermajority party — you’re likely to be riven by factions. There is likely to be dissension about who leads and in which direction.”

Democrats react

Shortly after the two sides failed to reach an accord at the meeting at the Beer League offices, on Saturday evening, two Democrats — Reps. Patrick Jefferson and Cedric Glover — announced on Twitter they would support Mack in exchange for Jefferson becoming pro tem, following a week of discussions with Mack. The announcement quickly made the rounds among House Republicans. Democratic leaders feared their members could splinter into various factions.

But Sunday held another crucial meeting. That night, the House Democratic caucus was set to convene in the basement of the State Capitol, where members would discuss who they would support the next morning. A few hours before, Schexnayder and Rep. Tanner Magee, who later became pro tem, met at the Hampton Inn downtown with Reps. Sam Jenkins and Randal Gaines, two Democratic leaders, to go over a proposed alliance and to discuss the vote tick.

The Democrats had held a conference call on Thursday, and it was clear members were leaning toward Schexnayder. 

When Jefferson and Glover arrived at the caucus meeting, they were peppered with questions from members about their decision to cut a deal with Mack. Some urged them to reconsider. After they were done discussing the arrangement, Jefferson and Glover were asked to step outside while the rest of the caucus conferred over the looming vote.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who won reelection last fall as Louisiana’s only Democratic statewide official, had been calling Democrats to urge them to stick together and vote as a bloc against Mack, whose supporters included some of Edwards’ most prominent political enemies. Grigsby, in particular, had backed his friend Eddie Rispone in his bid for Edwards’ position last fall, a bitter race that saw at least $73 million spent, the most expensive in Louisiana history. Landry and Edwards had warred publicly throughout Edwards' first term. 

Ironically, Schexnayder also supported Rispone in the governor’s race, and even ran digital ads slamming the governor. He voted with the influential Louisiana Association of Business & Industry 100% of the time during the last legislative session, indicating a voting record that was frequently at odds with Edwards’ agenda.

But Democrats in the meeting focused less on the candidates than on who was backing each. Schexnayder’s supporters included many of the lawmakers who previously backed Bishop and state Rep. Stephen Dwight when they were in the running for speaker. That spanned a faction of Republicans that have been willing to work across the aisle, and with the governor, for the past four years.

On Mack’s side were Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, who together led a super PAC, the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, that attacked a slew of Democrats in election campaigns. Landry and Kennedy went as far as writing a letter to Republicans in December, urging them to cut Democrats out of the process of deciding House speaker. Several Democrats said they trusted Schexnayder’s allies would be easier to work with over the next four years.

At the end of the caucus meeting, Jenkins, the acting caucus chairman, asked if anyone in the room could not support Schexnayder. No one raised their hand. Schexnayder had the votes. They ended the meeting with a prayer and went home.

Mack wing presses

The final hours before the vote were far from calm. Late Sunday night, Rep. Blake Miguez, chair of the House GOP delegation, sent out a text to Republican lawmakers.

“Members, we’re at a critical time,” Miguez said in the text, which was obtained by The Advocate. “We’ve been told by several Democrats that Rep. Schexnayder has agreed to give 5 chairmanships to Democrats including Ways and Means, House and Governmental Affairs, Transportation, Labor and Judiciary as well as 7 Vice Chairmanships.

“Those are extremely critical committees - especially House and Governmental. As you know we’ll be redrawing the district lines (including congressional) that will shape Louisiana for the future. We cannot afford to give this type of decision making to the minority party. Rep. Mack would never do this.”

Miguez added in the message that Edwards was “actively working” against Mack. He called an “emergency delegation meeting” the next morning at 8 a.m., two hours before the House would gavel into session and vote.

When Schexnayder arrived at the delegation meeting the next morning, he insisted to his fellow Republicans that the claims were not true, easing some worries about his alliance with Democrats. 

Then, it was Mack’s turn to make an offer. Short of the votes he needed, Mack said he would drop out of the race and back a third candidate if Schexnayder did the same.

While Schexnayder had been open to the same arrangement just days before, he was no longer interested. He was confident his Republican supporters were holding firm. 

On the House floor, Mack’s supporters knew they would lose, but they trudged ahead with a vote anyway. Rep. Julie Emerson nominated Mack for speaker, quoting Abraham Lincoln in saying “a House divided against itself cannot stand” and urging Republicans to "unite behind one leader." 

Bishop, one of Schexnayder's closest allies in the race, took the podium next to nominate him. Over the preceding weeks, Landry and Kennedy's Super PAC had torched Bishop with attack ads over his refusal to fall in line behind Mack. 

"I hope that we stand strong as a body, as an institution, as the House of Representatives and we will not return independence to outside influences," Bishop said. 

Schexnayder wins

Most members of the House had tickets to the college football championship game Monday night. After the inauguration ceremonies were done, and Schexnayder won the speaker's vote, they set off for New Orleans to watch LSU beat Clemson for its first title since the 2007 season. 

But in the days that followed, bitterness among Mack supporters bubbled to the surface.

Miguez, who is part of a conservative faction in the House and was elected House GOP chair in December, told a room full of Republicans at an East Baton Rouge Parish GOP meeting that he was concerned about Schexnayder's pact with Democrats. He said Republicans lost the race, and "the governor won." 

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said she believed Schexnayder was "beholden" to Democrats.

Mack himself, in an interview, said, "The race is over. At this point we have to try to come together and move forward to do the best we can do for the state.”

Meanwhile, Schexnayder and his allies have sought to beat back the idea that his association with Democrats means he won't pursue conservative priorities, including tort reform, which business groups and Republicans have coalesced around as a top concern in the coming term. Magee, on a Baton Rouge conservative radio show, said Mack was doing the "same thing" as Schexnayder when it came to negotiating with Democrats. 

Schexnayder, on the same show later in the week, brushed off the divisions in the Republican Party. While he said he's willing to work with Democrats, he reiterated that he is a Republican and won't change how he votes. 

"I'm not going to be on the governor's Christmas list by no means," Schexnayder said. 

Voting for Rep. Sherman Mack to be House Speaker (45): Reps. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma; Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville; Reggie Bagala, R-Lockport; Rhonda Gaye Butler, R-Ville Platte; Raymond J. Crews, R-Bossier City; Daryl Deshotel, R-Hessmer; Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice; Mary DuBuisson, R-Slidell; Michael Echols, R-Monroe; Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales; Julie Emerson, R-Carencro; Gabe Firment, R-Pollock; Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux; Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge; Larry Frieman, R-Abita Springs; Foy Gadberry, R-West Monroe; Jonathan Goudeau, No Party-Lafayette; Lance Harris, R-Alexandria; Rep. Charles Alexander Henry, R-Jefferson; Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs; Paul Hollis, R-Covington; Dodie Horton, R-Houghton; John Illg, R-Metairie; Mike Johnson, R-Pineville; Timothy Kerner, R-Lafitte; Sherman Mack, R-Albany; Danny McCormick, R-Oil City; Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro; Scott McKnight, R-Baton Rouge; Blake Miguez, R-Erath; Nick Muscarello, R-Houma; Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville; Chuck Owen, R-Leesville; Bob Owen, R-Slidell; Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport; Neil Riser, R-Columbia; Troy Romero, R-Iowa; Rodney Schamerhorn, R-Florien; Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport; Phillip Tarver, R-Lake Charles; Polly Thomas, R-Metairie; Debbie Villio, R-Kenner; Bill Wheat, R-Ponchatoula; and Mark Wright, R-Covington.

Voting for Rep. Clay Schexnayder to be House Speaker (60): Reps. Robby Carter, D-Amite; Roy Daryl Adams, No Party-Jackson; Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall; Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia; Bishop, R-Lafayette; Ryan Joseph Bourriaque, R-Abbeville; Ken Brass, D-Vacherie; Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine; Marcus A. Bryant, D-St. Martinville; Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge; R. Dewith Carrier, R-Oberlin; Gary Carter, D-New Orleans; Wilford Carter, D-Lake Charles; Mack Cormier, D-Belle Chasse; Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette; Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches; Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge; Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans; Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles; Les Farnum, R-Sulphur; Aimee Adatto Freeman, D-New Orleans; Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace; Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette; Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport; Kyle Green, D-Marrero; Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie; Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans; Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge; Barry Ivey, R-Central; Ted James, D-Baton Rouge; Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer; Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport; Travis Johnson, D-Ferriday; Frederick D. Jones, D-Monroe; Edmond Jordan, D-Brusly; Jeremy LaCombe, D-Livonia; Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans; Ed Larvadain, D-Alexandria; Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey; Tanner Magee, R-Houma; Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; Joe Marino, No Party-Gretna; Wayne McMahen, R-Minden; Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas; Gregory Miller, R-Norco; Buddy Mincey, R-Denham Springs; Pat Moore, D-Monroe; Candace N. Newell, D-New Orleans; Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport; Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette; Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez; Larry Selders, D-Baton Rouge; Vinney St. Blanc, R-Franklin; Joseph Stagni, R-Kenner; John Stefanski, R-Crowley; Francis Thompson, D-Delhi; Chris Turner, R-Ruston; Malinda White, D-Bogalusa; Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans; and Zee Zeringue, R-Houma.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com