George Bush with Mike Foster... 10/09/98

Former President George H.W. Bush, left, laughs during a conversation with Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, right, during ceremonies for the Louisiana State University War Memorial Dedication in 1998.

It was a good feeling when during the last governor’s race debate all the candidates picked Mike Foster as one of their favorite governors.

I am proud to have developed his workforce development legislation, which was recognized by one of the conservative candidates as the reason why he thought Gov. Foster was the best.

Mike and I served in the Legislature together, him in the Senate, me in the House. I’d occasionally get some of his mail. I’d walk over to the Senate to bring him the mail and tell him I wish he’d learn to spell his name correctly.

When people would ask if Mike Foster and I were related, I’d tell them no, but you can tell the difference because he has all the money and I have two “r’s” in my last name.

Of the many different jobs I’ve worked throughout my career, Mike Foster was the best boss because he left me to run the department and expected results. With 56 offices around Louisiana which meant 56 leases to execute or renew, Gov. Foster never called me to renew a lease or ask me to move an office to a friend or donor’s property, as is sometimes done in politics.

The Department of Labor awarded about $1 billion in grants during my tenure and Mike Foster didn’t call me one single time to award money or not grant a project, as is often done in political battles. Gov. Edwin Edwards told me when I was first elected that he rewarded his friends and punished his enemies. And then he kept his promises.

Foster would call when he heard about a layoff to find out what we were doing about it. The garment production industry was moving stitch and sew jobs to Central and South America. The United States was losing tens of thousands of these jobs, especially in southwest Louisiana.

Whenever help was needed with Louisiana’s congressional delegation for additional funding for layoffs or job training for labor shortages, Foster would call Bob Livingston, chairman of House Appropriations, or John Breaux on Senate Finance, immediately. He always got the right results. Everybody liked Mike!

Foster asked me to visit Texas for workforce ideas as chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee. With staff, we developed a 90-page, $400 million consolidation of Louisiana’s jobs training grants and programs in 1996.

In 1997, after the passage of the Louisiana Workforce Development legislation, Foster asked me to take over the Department of Labor and implement the new legislation. A unique opportunity and challenge at the same time — Mike Foster knew how to do that.

My legislative buddy, Kevin Reilly, was secretary of Commerce while I was secretary of Labor. Kevin told me that no matter where you are in Louisiana or outside of it, if the governor calls a cabinet meeting, make sure to be there. There were only ten of us, so your absence would be conspicuous.

One cabinet meeting while waiting for the governor, we noticed that the secretary of Transportation and Development was missing.

When Foster arrived, he said, “I bet y’all are wondering why Frank Denton’s not here today. Frank was not giving me the right answer," when Foster asked him to use I-49 extension funds to upgrade U.S. 90 to interstate standards to better evacuate people during floods or hurricanes along the west bank around New Orleans. "Frank said his lawyers wouldn’t allow it."

At which point, Reilly raised his hand and said, “Governor, whenever you call the Department of Commerce about an economic development project, I tell everyone to give me your call and I personally see that whatever you need is taken care of.”

Next, the secretary of Revenue, John Kennedy (now, U.S. senator), raised his hand and said, “Governor, whenever you call the Department of Revenue about some tax problem, I tell everyone to give me your call and I personally see that whatever you need is taken care of.”

Not being the slowest member of the cabinet, I raised my hand next and you can probably figure out what I said.

Frank was a talented guy running one of the toughest departments. The governor made his point with us and accepted Frank’s resignation.

I don’t remember having that issue again and while we had few cabinet meetings, there was always perfect attendance after that.

Email Garey Forster at Garey.Forster@gmail.com.

Our Views: Mike Foster left an enduring legacy of reform in Louisiana


Garey Forster is former chairman of the Labor and Industry Committee in the Louisiana House of Representatives and a former Louisiana Secretary of Labor. His column runs weekly. Email him at Garey.Forster@gmail.com.