A few hours before the LSU football team faces Clemson in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the national championship Monday night, some of Louisiana’s most powerful elected officials will be sworn into office, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who won a turbulent reelection campaign that drew the attention of political figures from across the country.
The ceremony, slated for the State Capitol steps, assuming the weather holds, will feature a 19-cannon salute, a flyover of F-15s by the Louisiana Air National Guard and the reading of a Maya Angelou poem. Much of the political intrigue, however, will be found inside the House chamber, where members are expected to elect a Republican speaker, cementing the GOP’s control over the state Legislature even as Edwards remains the only Democratic statewide elected official.
Once the new lawmakers get their official lapel pins earlier that morning, Republicans will assume a historic number of seats in the Louisiana Legislature, after bolstering their standing during last fall’s elections to a supermajority in the state Senate and two seats shy of a two-thirds majority in the House.
That success has come with growing pains, laid bare in a monthslong, tumultuous competition for House speaker that has exposed sharp divisions within the lower chamber’s GOP delegation. The disagreement threatens to weaken Republicans’ 68-vote majority if resentments linger after the leadership is decided.
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State Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, won enough support from his Republican colleagues in a closed-door, secret-ballot vote last month to become the official GOP-endorsed candidate for speaker.
Republican donor Lane Grigsby, a prolific funder of Republican causes, is backing Mack and has blasted the “rebel” group of Republicans who refuse to get behind him. Party leadership and influential officials, including Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, hoped the rest of the delegation would fall in line behind Mack following the vote of the delegation.
Instead, state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, has stayed in the race, retaining enough support from his Republican colleagues to deny Mack a 53-vote majority from his own party.
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In recent days, Kennedy and Landry, through a super political action committee called the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, which helped elect a slate of more-conservative Republicans to the Legislature with help from big donors like Grigsby, have blasted some GOP members in attack ads online and on TV for not lining up behind Mack.
The spots chastise Republican Reps. Stuart Bishop and Stephen Dwight for not lining up behind Mack, and even make a reference to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat much hated among some Republicans. A spokesman for the super PAC did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Four years ago, Bishop nominated little-known Republican Rep. Taylor Barras for speaker, and Barras’ win represented a historic shift in the state House. Whereas governors for decades had hand-picked the speaker, Republicans had asserted their independence from Democratic Gov. Edwards. Bishop said called that vote an “absolute victory for us.”
“Now we’re going to let outside forces tell us who the next speaker is going to be?” Bishop said. “How’d we lose our way in four years? I refuse to be a part of it and will fight it to the very end.”
Kennedy and Landry aren’t the only ones running ads in the race. Richard Lipsey, a prominent Republican firearms dealer in Baton Rouge and ally of Edwards, is backing Facebook ads that hit back against the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority's missives.
The ads, done by Republican consultant John Mathis, show Mack on a billboard advertising his law practice with a photo of him wearing a crown. The ads blast the “kings of the Louisiana swamp” and call Mack a “trial lawyer,” a characterization he has rejected.
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“I’d like to see a fair shake given to every candidate and not somebody trying to play kingmaker and buy the position,” Lipsey said. “It’s not about Sherman Mack. It’s about the process.”
State Rep. Blake Miguez, a member of the right wing of the House who recently won election as the House GOP delegation chairman, said he is hoping the Republicans backing Schexnayder will switch sides before Monday’s vote.
Miguez said most members of the delegation meeting in December wanted to vote to endorse a candidate to get the race over with and coalesce behind one of the candidates. Although he supported Mack before the vote, Miguez said he would have backed Schexnayder if he had won.
“It’s always a challenge to unify the party. We are very near a supermajority,” Miguez said. “This is the normal growing pains of having this many votes. (Sixty-eight) is a lot of members.”
Miguez said “there’s always some resentment” leftover after any race, but he believes the party can unify after the speaker’s race is over.
Many Republican leaders had hoped that of the 68 GOP members in the House, 53 of them could decide the speaker’s race without input from Democrats. Landry and Kennedy told members that’s what they hoped for in a letter last month. Grigsby said recently that if it weren’t for the representatives backing Schexnayder, “there would be no need for anyone to ask the black caucus or the Democratic caucus” who they support in the speaker’s race.
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But the split in the Republican delegation has given Democrats leverage in closed-door negotiations, which often involve trading chairmanships and committee assignments for votes. Both Schexnayder and Mack have met with Democrats and Edwards.
Late on Saturday, two Democrats, Reps. Cedric Glover, of Shreveport, and Patrick Jefferson, of Homer, came out in support of Mack, the first Democrats to do so publicly. Jefferson is seeking the House's No. 2 job, speaker pro tem, he said on social media.
Democrats said they would meet over the weekend or Monday to try to come up with a consensus on whom they would support. But state Rep. Sam Jenkins, vice chairman of the Democratic caucus, said the group would not take a vote when it meets.
State Rep. Randal Gaines, chairman of the House Black Caucus, said he is hoping to bolster Democrats’ leadership standing in the House during the negotiations.
“We’re looking for increased leadership roles,” Gaines said. “We’re asking for five house chairs, which is proportionate to the Democratic makeup in the House.”
Both the House and Senate will meet at 10 a.m. Monday in their respective chambers, where they will swear in members and elect the House speaker and Senate president.
While the House has held a fierce, closed-door campaign for its leader, the Senate in November chose its leader, Lafayette Republican Page Cortez, and senators expect him to easily win the position Monday.
After the votes for leadership in both chambers, an inauguration is set for the statewide elected officials at 11:30 a.m. on the steps of the State Capitol, though the ceremony could be moved inside to the House chamber if the weather is bad.
Landry, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, Treasurer John Schroder, Agricultural Commissioner Mike Strain, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon and Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, all Republicans, will also be sworn in during the ceremony. Edwards will deliver a speech after being sworn in by Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson.