Some folks around the State Capitol still remember when former Sen. J.E. Jumonville Sr., a Ventress Democrat, ripped off one of his boots and threw it at the Senate clock in an effort to stop time and prolong debate. That was during the final leg of Gov. John McKeithen's reign in the early 1970s, when lawmakers were known to kick back a few adult beverages, burn the midnight oil and get rowdy.
On one such evening, during the waning hours of the 1971 regular session, a former staff attorney recalls the House sending over their meanest bullies to take on a group of senators who were messing with pet construction projects. "Big John" McKeithen, as he was affectionately called, stormed over wearing a custom-made jumpsuit and refereed the ruckus. It was one of many fights amongst lawmakers that had to be broken up during that period of forced reform.
For many who have been around Louisiana politics that long, it's viewed as an unfortunate chapter. It's also the last time in recent history the Legislature has possibly been as volatile as it is now. Granted, there haven't been any throw-downs during the hurricane-recovery sessions, but tempers have crested following Katrina and Rita, prompting lawmakers to walk out of debates as once-staid coalitions crumbled and public outcry thundered.
"I haven't seen it like this before -- not in recent history," says Jim Brown, who formerly served as a state senator and commissioner of insurance.
Brown's not the only one looking on with puzzled eyes. The mantra of "What next?" has been repeated by lobbyists who stalk the hallways of the Capitol, by veteran lawmakers during white-knuckle debates, and by political historians trying to keep it all in perspective.
Among the most contentious issues raised during this month's special session was the consolidation of levee boards in southeast Louisiana. The debates often ran several hours, with lawmakers waging intense turf battles over which parishes should be included and which ones should maintain separate levee boards. Even though Gov. Kathleen Blanco backed the proposal and called the session to enact it, many of the legislative committee chairs -- her handpicked leadership -- refused to follow her lead.
Sen. Tom Schedler, a Mandeville Republican, took to the floor just minutes after the Senate reached a compromise last Wednesday and warned his colleagues that tensions were reaching a "dangerous" level. For once, he declared, Louisiana should be thankful for term limits.
"I have personally never seen anything like this in my 10 years," Schedler says. "A lot of us can't wait to get out of here because this is a changing environment that is like quicksand. And it's truly unfortunate for the future."
The same emotions boiled over into anger on the House side when a bill to set up satellite voting centers for displaced New Orleanians was initially voted down. Rep. Cedric Richmond, an eastern New Orleans Democrat and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, blamed the bill's initial failure on racism and the lack of a clear vision on the part of lawmakers. He made a motion to end the session four days early, and 24 of his fellow House members voted with him.
"This House is more divided than I've ever seen," Richmond says. "That makes it difficult for us to get our business done."
The tirade ended that evening with several members of the Legislative Black Caucus, joined by a few white lawmakers, walking off the House floor during debate.
Days later, after tempers cooled, House members passed a bill to create satellite voting centers.
Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the state's most powerful lobbies, says geographic and racial disputes in the aftermath of the storms could be expected. People outside of the disaster zone aren't willing to embrace change, while those impacted are desperate for it. The end result aggravates an already stressed-out political atmosphere.
"Some of what is happening was predictable," Juneau says. "Some of it is purely bizarre. Much has to do with the fact that power abhors a vacuum and the Capitol is definitely in a power vacuum right now."
Indeed, Republican lawmakers are taking their usual potshots at the Democratic governor, and the traditional north-south divide has become more evident. During one committee meeting, Sen. Robert Adley, a Democrat from Benton, slammed a bill creating a special undersecretary for hurricane protection, noting it does very little for his constituents in north Louisiana, aside from soaking up their tax dollars.
"There is another part of this state that is having to share in these costs," Adley says. "There are a lot of people viewing all this a whole lot differently."
If the issues raised during the most recent two-week special session were enough to send the Legislature into a tizzy, Dr. Pearson Cross, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, says he wonders how the policymaking environment will evolve in coming months. There are a bevy of other issues that promise to be touchier than any of those addressed thus far -- property rights, for example -- and the topics could be brought up as early as the regular session this spring, which begins March 27.
"I don't see any break in the political climate until the 2007 election cycle," says Cross. "The state is in an uproar."
Leadership, or lack of it, may be at the core of the tension, Brown says. The governor testified in person on just a few select issues during this month's special session, and her staff was not overly aggressive in hammering home the agenda of smaller government, consolidated levee boards and greater election rights for evacuees.
"(Former Govs.) Edwin Edwards, Dave Treen, Mike Foster and others worked that telephone hard during sessions and had meetings with everyone involved before anything took place," Brown says. "There were breakfasts and lunches and efforts to call certain constituencies back in the districts to lean on people. ... Current conditions are going to continue like this for the next two years if the governor doesn't draw a line in the dirt."
The lack of supportive lobbying activity from various others interests also played against the governor in recent sessions, Brown says, because those forces can bring pressure on the Legislature to vote for or against hot-button topics. In the most recent session, many of the bigger players sat on the sidelines and watched.
According to Cross, it's all bad news for the first woman governor of Louisiana: "It's quite clear to me that the governor's prestige, and certainly any re-election hopes, hang quite literally in the balance in terms of her accomplishments from the special sessions and the upcoming regular session."
Juneau says what is most telling at this juncture is the lack of desire to reform old practices in government. If parochialism can prevent reforms from being enacted in a time of great crisis, then one has to question whether reform is possible at all, he says. In the end, it may be up to voters to bring in dramatic change.
"Right now, Louisiana is at war with itself and with Washington," Juneau says. "That is not the recipe for a successful recovery from severe devastation. It is reminiscent of the acrimony that existed after the Great Flood of 1927, acrimony that led a few months later to the beginning of the Long dynasty in Louisiana politics. Power abhorred a vacuum then, also."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.