Stephanie Grace: Why Monday shows John Bel Edwards won't have his way with Legislature without a fight

Can the honeymoon end before the wedding even takes place?

That’s the question that hung over Gov. John Bel Edwards’ gubernatorial inauguration Monday.

Edwards’ big event, held on the State Capitol steps under a crisp blue sky, went off without a hitch, and the new Democratic governor wore an ear-to-ear smile. But even before he took the oath of office, Edwards found his call for cross-party unity dashed as the majority GOP state House rejected his pick for speaker and instead chose Republican Taylor Barras, of New Iberia, for the powerful post.

Edwards’ attempt to install state Rep. Walt Leger, a New Orleans Democrat, might seem audacious in other states, but in Louisiana, governors have almost always been able to choose legislative leaders. This year, though, many Republicans in the House, backed by aggressive lobbying from supportive outside affiliates, had different ideas. The group’s initial pick, state Rep. Cameron Henry, of Metairie, is considered one of the chamber’s most conservative members and couldn’t secure enough votes to take Leger down. But Barras, a lower profile legislator who switched from Democrat to Republican five years ago, emerged over the weekend and won a second ballot that broke down largely along party lines. (Over in the Senate, meanwhile, another Democrat-turned-Republican, John Alario, was re-elected president without opposition).

If there was any doubt that partisan pushback drove the House vote, it was quickly dispelled. The state GOP issued a triumphant statement thanking conservative activists for calls and emails pushing lawmakers to pick one of their own. And House Republicans themselves made it clear that the move was nothing personal against Leger when they lined up behind him for re-election as Speaker pro tem.

That’s a nice gesture for Leger, who is liked and respected by his peers, and it amounted to something of an olive branch offered to Edwards. But it’s small consolation for losing the right to name committee chairs and decide which legislation is heard. The pro tem has little independent power. And it’s a sure sign that the governor and the House are heading toward some fierce battles over ideologically divisive issues.

In a way, this may have been inevitable, given Louisiana’s shift to the right in recent years. Edwards is something of a throwback to the days when Democratic candidates with conservative social views but populist economic policies routinely won state office. He didn’t hide those positions during his campaign, but in a race that evolved into a referendum on Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s caustic personality and scandal-plagued past, it was never obvious how large a role issues played.

If any of this bothered Edwards, who is now the only Democrat to hold a statewide office, he didn’t let it show Monday. He called for cooperation across partisan lines and urged his fellow politicians and regular citizens to “put unity before party and citizenship before self.” But he also promised to tackle issues that are bound to inflame just the sort of partisanship he hopes to avoid, including reducing as-yet unspecified business tax breaks to close a massive budget shortfall, as well as raising the minimum wage and adopting legislation to close what he said was the nation’s largest gender pay gap.

Minimum wage and gender equity legislation, of course, were centerpieces of Edwards’ campaign, and he has every reason to claim a mandate to adopt them. In a post-election interview, he also argued that these measures have wide support, even among voters who tend to favor Republicans.

“It’s just that your Republican officials typically shy away from them because their biggest source of donations comes from business interests who oppose them,” Edwards said back in December. “At some point, the legislators aren’t impervious to public opinion.”

Yes, many lawmakers have opposed such attempts in the past, Edwards acknowledged, “but they didn’t have a governor pushing for them. That makes a big difference.”

It absolutely does, just as gubernatorial support has historically been enough to dictate legislative leadership. But if there’s one lesson from Monday’s speaker vote, it’s that despite his 12-point victory, Edwards isn’t going to have his way with the Legislature without a fight.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.

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