Congratulations to Gov. John Bel Edwards, father of an independent Louisiana Legislature.
Maybe it’s not what he really wanted, but it’s what he’s got, particularly in the state Senate.
With Page Cortez of Lafayette appearing to have the votes to be elected president of the two-thirds Republican Senate, the party orientation of both chambers appears to be complete.
And that orientation is at least somewhat in opposition to Edwards, just reelected but still the only Democrat elected statewide and thus odd-man-out at the State Capitol.
This follows the election of Republican Taylor Barras of New Iberia four years ago as speaker of the House, over Edwards’ nominee Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans. There was no competition for president of the Senate that time, as John Alario had a clear path to his final term as leader.
The election of a speaker in the 105-member House is always a bit more of a real competition than in the clubbier “upper” chamber. Edwards may still have a modest behind-the-scenes role in discussions with the members of the Legislative Black Caucus and the dwindling number of white Democrats in that chamber.
But early betting is that it’s almost certain that a Republican with at least some anti-Edwards chops in the last four years will emerge to lead the House.
Of the many things that puzzle outsiders about Louisiana, it is the bipartisan nature of the Legislature that is a political curiosity. Most states have party caucuses organized like those in Congress, and whatever party has the majority selects the chamber leadership, including important committee chairmanships.
The majority also often challenges the governor’s views on the budget, the most important task for legislative bodies — if the majority deigns to notice the governor’s budget at all.
Truly astonishing for out-of-state politicos was the fact that the leader of the Louisiana Democratic Party, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans, chaired the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee in the Republican-majority chamber.
That’s not likely to happen again, in part because of the shift indicated by the term-limit retirement of Alario and the apparent win by Cortez. For another thing, the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee will oversee redistricting after the 2020 Census.
Drawing of political lines is a partisan issue in Louisiana, with precious little in the way of rules, unlike in more progressive states. In fact, the main rule is to take care of incumbents’ political interests; the national party wants to draw lines to keep the five GOP members of Congress as safe as possible. Result: The GOP is not going to permit a Democrat in Peterson’s chair in the coming four years.
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, we’ve got an independent Legislature. Can we keep it?
There is already some cynicism at the State Capitol about this turn of events, seen as aberrations: the 2015 election of a Democratic governor in a “red” state, Barras’ election over Edwards’ wishes. Will the Legislature be truly independent in the future when there's not a Democrat in the Governor's Mansion?
Four years is not such a long time. Most of the obvious potential candidates for governor in 2023 are Republicans, and it's difficult to come up with a plausible name with a D behind it right now for that race.
As Edwards points out, the Legislature is a body capable of bipartisan action; his accomplishments include criminal justice reforms produced by GOP and Democratic members working together.
Coalitions are fluid, with members of each chamber — but particularly the Senate — answering to constituents who want services and public bodies, like school boards and city councils, which seek relatively nonpartisan objectives such as state support of local projects.
Indeed, as Tyler Bridges reported in his story breaking the news of Cortez’s election, the new Senate president often voted with the majority on key matters during Edwards’ first term, such as the sales tax compromise that ended several years of partisan argument over the budget.
The environment for Edwards is different without dealmaker Alario atop the Senate rostrum, but is it catastrophically so? Perhaps not.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.