Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards (left) favors Democrat Walt Leger III (right) as House Speaker, but the GOP promises a fight.
State Rep. Sam Jones, a colorful Democrat from Franklin and close friend of Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards, recently described Edwards' successful campaign as akin to threading a thousand needles. Going forward, Jones may choose a different metaphor to describe the new governor's political arc: navigating a minefield.
Like all modern governors before him, Edwards has weighed in on the all-important (and politically delicate) matter of selecting the next House Speaker. Traditionally, House members defer to the governor when it comes to electing their leader, notwithstanding the constitutional notion of separation of powers.
In Louisiana, thanks to the line item veto and the dominant role that governors play in prioritizing the state's annual list of construction projects (officially known as the Capital Outlay Bill), "balance of power" ultimately matters far more than separation of powers. Here, the balance tilts decidedly in favor of the executive branch. No one knows that better than legislators.
That's why, within minutes of the House Republican Caucus voting unanimously (though not all caucus members were present) to tell the governor-elect that they intended to choose one of their own as House Speaker, some 20 GOP leges called state Rep. Walt Leger III, the New Orleans Democrat whom Edwards anointed as his choice for Speaker, to offer their support. As one Republican lawmaker sardonically noted, "We always stick together — until we don't."
Some of the defections were public, such as Jefferson Parish Reps. Joe Lopinto and Bryan Adams, who both endorsed Edwards in the runoff over fellow Jeffersonian David Vitter. Others were quiet, though certainly known to Leger, who as Speaker would appoint committee chairs.
History strongly suggests Edwards, who served two terms in the House, will get his way. No less a legislative authority than Senate President John Alario recently recalled what happened to him when Buddy Roemer was elected governor in 1987. At the time, Alario was the incumbent House Speaker, and he had 58 affidavits of support from his colleagues — five more than a majority. Nonetheless, when the votes were counted he fell short.
Nowadays, Leger reminds his GOP colleagues that when Republican Bobby Jindal was elected in 2007, Democrats controlled the House but acceded to Jindal's selection of Republican state Rep. Jim Tucker as Speaker. Leger supported Tucker.
Despite reports that Leger has the votes, GOP Caucus leaders vow to fight on. Jefferson state Rep. Cameron Henry, who was said to be Vitter's choice for Speaker, has emerged as the caucus' alternative to Leger. Henry is promising a showdown on Inauguration Day, Jan. 11, 2016, when House and Senate members choose their leaders. Alario so far has no opposition as the Senate's presiding officer. Privately, many GOP House members say they'd rather not start their terms with a nasty, partisan fight when lawmakers already face agonizing votes on the budget, taxes, higher education, Medicaid and more.
For now, Edwards continues to thread needles — but there are plenty of minefields ahead for the new governor as well as his former colleagues.