Jim Tucker’s Nancy Pelosi Act

While it’s certainly true that Washington politics has become more Byzantine than the Louisiana version of late, which is a good thing depending on your perspective, the fallout from the Speaker Pro Tem election in the state House of Representatives has made manifest the fact that power plays and bare-knuckle recriminations are still part of the Louisiana equation.

To set the stage for those who might not be familiar with what is happening, the beginning of the current legislative session saw a hotly-contested election for the job of Speaker Pro Tem in the House, which became open after New Orleans Democrat Karen Carter Peterson ran successfully for the state Senate and Baton Rouge Democrat Avon Honey passed away last month. The contestants were Noble Ellington (D-Winnsboro) and Joel Robideaux (I-Lafayette); Ellington, an old-time North Louisiana conservative Democrat (remember when we actually used to have those?) was the first guy on the scene, and the long-time legislator lobbied hard for support from legislators on both sides of the aisle. But Robideaux, who isn’t a Republican but more or less functions like one, was the choice of House Speaker Jim Tucker and Gov. Bobby Jindal – and Tucker whipped up enough votes for a small majority to get his man elected.

On Monday, Robideaux beat Ellington in a 53-48 squeaker. Two Republicans – John Schroder of Covington and John LaBruzzo from Metairie – voted for Ellington. And this is where our story gets interesting and confusing.

The word from Tucker’s camp is that Schroder and LaBruzzo went back on their word in voting for Ellington, and because they busted their commitments to him and didn’t go Robideaux’s way they’re now suffering the consequences. In yanking Schroder and LaBruzzo off the House Appropriations Committee, which happened yesterday, and replacing them with Democrats Rosalind Jones of Monroe and James Armes of Leesville (both of whom went for Robideaux), Tucker has done something which makes almost zero sense on paper. Namely, he’s changed the makeup of Appropriations from 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats to 11 Republicans and 12 Democrats.

Now, to give Tucker a little credit one would imagine Jones and Armes would have been given the rules from the beginning – namely, that regardless of the letter next to their names they’re to vote as dictated on the Appropriations Committee and probably on the floor as well unless they want to get fired like Schroder or LaBruzzo did. Even so, Schroder and LaBruzzo are actual fiscal conservatives. And when the state has to close a billion-dollar budget shortfall (with another $2 billion in cuts yet to come next year), you would seem to need as many fiscal hawks in key places as you can find. Hard to imagine Armes and Jones would work as hard as LaBruzzo and Schroder – Schroder in particular, who is an aggressive reformer with a growing reputation for taking heat on Civil Service restructuring – on finding places to cut spending.

It gets weirder. Ellington swears neither Schroder nor LaBruzzo had said they were voting for Robideaux, and as such neither switched. The two Republicans are keeping quiet, but the word out of their camps is they deny ever breaking a commitment to Tucker on their votes. As you might imagine, they’re both red-hot about the slap.

Tucker also apparently has yanked Ellington and Charmaine Stiaes, D-New Orleans, who voted with Ellington, off the House Governmental Affairs committee, which is a plum assignment. And he also has threatened to cancel Ellington’s lease of an apartment at the Pentagon Barracks, which he’s had for 14 years. The Advocate had Ellington’s reaction:

“I’m sick about my colleagues. I’m not sick about me,” said Ellington, who has been a state senator or representative since 1988.

“I don’t think anybody in America — maybe in Iraq or Iran — but not in America should anybody be punished for voting for the candidate of their choice.”

Ellington said he was irked by a sentence in Tucker’s letter concerning the Pentagon apartment that said: “Your continued occupancy will be evaluated each month.”

“Here is a redneck from north Louisiana and my vote has to be suitable to a New Orleans person? Give me a break. If I have to move, I’ll just have to move,” said Ellington.

At this point the temptation probably exists to surmise that all this is driven by the Governor’s office and Tucker is simply carrying out marching orders. Tucker is, after all, Jindal’s floor leader in the House, and getting Robideaux elected was his mission on Monday.

But Jindal’s chief of staff Timmy Teepell told the Advocate that the governor called Tucker last night and asked him not to engage in recriminations – because, as Teepell said, the governor wants the House unified and likely also because they can figure out that Schroder and LaBruzzo are allies in the legislature it doesn’t particularly pay to humiliate.

Jindal’s people can also count. Robideaux needed 53 votes to win, and he got that 53 votes without Schroder and LaBruzzo. While it might have been nice to get 55 votes for your man for Speaker Pro Tem, he’s just as elected at 53 votes. For the same reason that Charlie Melancon was allowed to vote no on the final Obamacare reconciliation bill in Washington after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had crossed the 216-vote threshhold, you’d think that Schroder and LaBruzzo would have been spared major recriminations for votes Tucker didn’t need.

And yet it happened anyway.

So does Teepell’s story add up? The Jindal administration does indeed have a reputation for pulling pins out of grenades, handing them to folks like Tucker and then running for the hills, and if in fact this situation involves Tucker playing the heavy on the part of the governor while the press is distracted with disinformation it wouldn’t be a colossal shock. LaBruzzo has a reputation for making some mistakes, after all; for example he’s gotten himself into hot water for missing meetings at Appropriations just like Stiaes has at Governmental Affairs, so there could be a legitimate reason why he could have been on the chopping block from the start.

While spotty meeting attendance probably wouldn’t have set Jindal off, in Schroder’s case one might wonder whether his push for more aggressive reforms of Civil Service might be too hot for the governor to handle. Schroder has been outspoken in pushing for an elimination in regular merit raises for Civil Service employees, which has made him a controversial figure in some circles. This is admittedly pure speculation, but it could be that the permanent reforms he’s looking for are a little strong in a year when Jindal has already managed to freeze state salaries.

The calculus would work like this – there are no raises this year, and the state employees are already furious about not getting raises. Right now, Jindal looks like the responsible conservative governor doing the best he can to make tough fiscal decisions amid a brutal economic situation. But if Schroder is on Appropriations and he’s pushing to make permanent some sort of ban on Civil Service merit raises, it could be a little dangerous for the governor. After all, Schroder’s a Republican and an ally of Jindal’s; whether the governor decides to support his initiatives or not, the more press he gets just by working on it the more Jindal might find that the “unraised” aren’t just grouchy but a ready-made constituency of 61,000 classified state employees who will vote for ANYBODY but the governor next year.

I don’t know that this is what’s happening, but it seems a reasonable possibility. Maybe Tucker, whose reputation so far as the Speaker has been that of a very genial, nice guy who manages to make things work pretty smoothly even in difficult circumstances, is now Middle Age Crazy and figures busting a few heads would make him feel better.

But without some sort of deeper explanation for this, which several Capitol insiders we talked to today admitted eludes them, it doesn’t quite make sense. Tucker hasn’t just asserted himself by hammering some people; he’s done so in a gratuitous fashion with some victims who are in a position to help drive a common agenda he and the governor share. It’s one thing to break arms as a legislative leader the way Pelosi does in Congress, but at least Pelosi does so in pursuing a legislative agenda. In this case, the agenda – and the rationale – is unclear.

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