Stephanie Grace: Potomac Fever not catching at State Capitol

Now that Republicans in the state House have rejected Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ choice for speaker, should we start referring to the capital as Washington on the Mississippi?

Probably not. But neither is it the same Baton Rouge political watchers have always known, one that operated by a set of unwritten rules that bear little resemblance to those that govern the nation’s far more divided capital.

By choosing under-radar GOP state Rep. Taylor Barras, of New Iberi,a over Democrat Walt Leger, of New Orleans, as House speaker, most Republicans — and, much to his colleagues’ annoyance, one fellow New Orleans Democrat — bucked years of tradition that gave Louisiana’s governors extraordinary power over what is theoretically a co-equal branch of government.

But by first rejecting the bid of another Republican lawmaker, state Rep. Cameron Henry, of Metairie, the House majority made as much of a statement as it did when it elected Barras.

Henry finished the first ballot with just 28 votes, despite the presence of 61 Republicans in the 105-member body. Leger finished first with 49 votes, and Barras, a late compromise entry, drew 26. With Leger bloodied but a personal victory clearly out of reach, Henry pulled out of a head-to-head second ballot. That allowed Barras, a former Democrat considered more stylistically and philosophically moderate, to prevail 56-49.

Henry has chalked up his loss to concerns that he’s too far on the conservative end of the spectrum, but the bigger impediment was his perceived approach toward partisanship.

To use the Washington analogy, the fear was that he’d fill the role of Mitch McConnell and focus on making Edwards a one-term governor, just as the U.S. Senate majority leader admitted he’d set out to make Barack Obama a one-term president.

“We just thought (a Henry speakership) would set up a contentious House. The citizens of the state had said they didn’t want that Washington-style, scorched-earth partisan style here in Baton Rouge,” one Republican lawmaker told The Advocate’s Mark Ballard.

What those citizens will get instead should be one of the most intriguing storylines of the upcoming legislative season.

Before being subjected to a hard sell by GOP forces both inside and outside the Legislature, many more Republican members — including a number of newly-elected lawmakers who’d agreed to vote as a bloc but didn’t want to be seen as obstructing the new, overwhelmingly-elected governor — had at least considered giving their support to Leger.

But they also bought into the argument that the Legislature should be run by a member of its majority party. And they agreed that it should finally start asserting its independence, after years of fruitless complaints over its subservience to various governors by members of both parties. Among the complainers of the past was a former representative by the name of John Bel Edwards.

The House immediately followed up on the crushing defeat for Edwards by unanimously re-electing Leger to the position of speaker pro tem, which is a nice title but carries far fewer powers than the actual speakership. And everyone involved is talking up bipartisan cooperation.

The first real test will come when Barras doles out committee chairmanships and assignments, a process Edwards had hoped to dictate alongside Leger.

So keep an eye on whether he spreads the wealth or concentrates control in GOP hands.

The second will come during the February special session, when Edwards presents his ideas for closing massive budget shortfalls for the remainder of this fiscal year, and next.

With power, of course, comes responsibility for the choices that will emerge. And those choices are bound to be unpopular, whether lawmakers wind up relying more on spending cutbacks or higher taxes. Edwards has said as much, admitting that even he won’t like some of the options he’ll present but arguing that at least they’ll be better than not facing systemic problems.

And that’s the downside of all this for the newly-assertive House majority, and the silver lining for the new governor. They really do all have to work together now because it’ll be harder for anyone to point fingers when everyone’s fingerprints are on the final product.

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

More Stories