Gov. John Bel Edwards had a rough first few days on the job.
What he said failed to win him an important victory. What he didn’t say created controversy, providing glimpses into an already weak governorship.
While Edwards preached bipartisanship and unity as reasons for Republican voters helping to electing him, he quickly backtracked by supporting Democrat state Rep. Walt Leger for the House speaker’s position. This unprecedented demand for a member of a minority faction to rule over the solidly Republican House was a way to grease the skids for a liberal agenda contrary to the wishes of the electorate that had given the GOP overwhelming control of both legislative chambers.
In the days preceding the speaker election, Democrats steadily beat drums for Leger, arguing that Louisiana’s challenges required dispensing with party labels. They argued that to support agendas based upon partisan views — which their numbers couldn’t win — would advance “Washington-style politics.”
In casting their speakership ballots, several Republican representatives sold out their constituents and the good of the state for whatever plum positions Leger could offer to fulfill their ambitious cravings, but not enough of them did so to deny last-minute GOP candidate state Rep. Taylor Barras the win. Only Democratic state Rep. Neil Abramson broke ranks and voted for Barras.
Afterwards, the Democrats’ lexicon abruptly mutated. While they had cheered on the thought of any Republican crossing over to vote for a Democratic speaker as showing desirable “unity,” that a Democrat such as New Orleans’ Abramson might do the same in voting for a Republican leader became “inexplicable” to New Orleans-area Democrats. After the vote, New Orleans Democrats debated on ways how to punish Abramson. It’s precisely the behavior often decried about Congress, an institution widely lamented for placing too much emphasis on partisan and ideological purity and not enough on working together.
This reiterates how Louisiana Democrats define “unity.” This good thing exists when Republicans kowtow to Democrats’ agenda, but anyone acting against that agenda brings in undesirable “Washington-style politics” that supposedly harm the public good. They may bloviate against “Washington-style politics” if that seems advantageous, but when its serves their interests, they cynically embrace it.
While Edwards’ reliance on this rhetoric may have failed him in that battle, he further compromised his stature in another setting. In connection with the recent visit to Baton Rouge of President Barack Obama, Edwards bragged publicly that, as a result of a chat with Obama, he had helped advocate for federal money to widen Interstate 10 at a crucial bottleneck.
But it appears that the guy who emphasized honesty in his campaign fibbed about this episode. Weeks ago, Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves already had developed legislation that put this request front and center for Congress’ consideration. Also, Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden contradicted the governor’s account, claiming he was the one who had pointed out that stretch of road and explained the issue to the president — an assertion corroborated by Obama himself in a speech later that day.
That the Republican House defied Edwards on the speaker issue and that one of the state’s most prominent elected Democrats, its standard-bearer for lieutenant governor last fall, exposed the governor as a liar shows how little political capital Edwards possesses just a week into his term.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.