BR.lastday.060719 HS 1295.JPG

Members of the House of Representatives give House Speaker Taylor Barras a standing ovation before adjourning as legislative session ends sine die, Thursday, June 6, 2019, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

The handful of Republicans who remain in the running for House speaker are set to make pitches to their colleagues behind the closed doors of a GOP delegation meeting in Baton Rouge Friday, and two of them – state Reps. Clay Schexnayder and Sherman Mack – have emerged as front-runners for the job.

If either Schexnayder, an auto shop owner from Gonzales, or Mack, a lawyer from Albany, wins the job, both say their top priority will be to pursue tort reform, a long-held GOP priority that has sparked heated skirmishes in Louisiana’s divided state government of late.

“We need to bring legislation to get that passed,” Schexnayder said of tort reform. “That’s something I'm definitely determined to get passed (next) year.”

Schexnayder initially put his name in the running for speaker as an alternate candidate, in case the top choices couldn’t win a majority of votes. In 2016, Republican state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie  failed to get enough support when running against Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Democratic choice of Rep. Walt Leger III, of New Orleans, so Republicans backed a compromise candidate, Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.

After enough of his GOP colleagues coaxed him into becoming a contender, Schexnayder decided to fully enter the race, and he said he feels comfortable about the amount of support he has heading into the delegation meeting. He said infrastructure and tax reform – including possibly a roll back of the state sales tax – are his other priorities, though he does not support a gasoline tax, an idea previously backed by Edwards.

Mack has the backing of GOP megadonor Lane Grigsby, and was considered the odds-on favorite for speaker if businessman Eddie Rispone had won the governor’s race last month. Still, Mack has retained a leading position in the jockeying for speaker, buttressed by a deeply conservative voting record since being elected in 2011.

“I am hopeful that when we come out of that meeting that someone will have received a majority of the delegation vote and that will be the Republican delegation candidate for speaker,” Mack said at a recent East Baton Rouge Parish Republican party meeting.

His policy priorities are similar to Schexnayder’s. Mack said he has a plan for tort reform and supports potentially lowering taxes amid the state’s budget surpluses.

“The topic you're going to hear most about in this next legislative session is tort reform,” he said. “I'm confident we will get tort reform out of the House, out of the Senate, and get some bill to the governor's desk for him to sign.”

While some Republican leaders, like Mack, hope the delegation will swiftly consolidate around a candidate after Friday’s meeting, the race could well last through the holidays. House GOP Chair Lance Harris – also a candidate for speaker – said he believes the delegation will ultimately coalesce behind one candidate, but that it may not happen Friday.

“We’re early in the process,” Harris said. “All Republicans are running for that seat. There’s no Democrats running for speaker.”

The other candidates – who include Harris, R- Alexandria, and Reps. Barry Ivey, R-Central, and Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, – hope the forum at the Republican gathering will give them an opportunity to gain a foothold, especially among the dozens of newly-elected lawmakers.

Democrats, meanwhile, are bristling at the idea that Republicans would pick a speaker without any input from them. State Rep. Sam Jenkins, vice chair of the House Democratic caucus, said the party has had no “meaningful discussions” with the candidates for speaker.

“You’re freezing out a large number of representatives and their constituents who should have an opportunity to talk with the speaker candidates,” Jenkins said.

Meanwhile, Edwards is staying out of the race, at least publicly, this time after seeing his preferred pick rejected by the GOP-led House four years ago.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, two of the state’s leading Republicans who have waged a purity battle for the party through a Super PAC focused on electing conservatives to the Legislature, have urged the GOP to make its pick for speaker alone, without Democratic input. The two wrote a letter to Republicans asking them to attend the Friday delegation meeting and get behind one GOP candidate.

State Rep. Chad Brown, a Democrat from Plaquemine, called the letter “unfortunate,” and said Democrats should have a voice in the process.

“My constituents just want to see something to get done over the next four years,” Brown said. “In my district, transportation, traffic congestion is a huge issue. I don’t think we should set us up over the next four years to have Washington gridlock.”

Ivey also blasted the idea that Republicans wouldn’t work with Democrats to pick a speaker “undemocratic,” and suggested it was aimed at hurting the chances of candidates who might otherwise gain support from some Democrats. Ivey said he believes he and Schexnayder could land some support from across the aisle, while Mack and Harris likely would not.

“I think it goes against democracy to alienate a group of people from a process,” Ivey said, adding that Schexnayder and Mack are the current front-runners. “We’ll see if this Friday’s opportunity will provide a means for us other candidates, who haven’t been traveling all over the state, the ability to get some traction.”

Ivey said his top priorities as speaker would be to restore decorum to the House and his top policy priorities are reducing local and state government dependence and tax reform.

Garofalo, a Chalmette developer, sent an email to members on Monday laying out his vision for a House that includes filling the speaker pro-tem position with a member from the majority party and having all committee chairs be Republicans.

“We’ve been on defense for the past four years and I’m tired of it!” Garofalo said in the email. “As Speaker I will be more than happy to work with anyone, including the Administration – but only as far as agreeing to those policies that work towards true conservative principles.”

Capitol bureau editor Mark Ballard contributed to this report. 

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com