State GOP Now In Driver’s Seat

Republicans in the Louisiana Legislature have come a long way over the last four years, and now the GOP is setting its sights on total domination of the state’s lawmaking body.

Democrats enjoyed a 24-15 margin in the state Senate, and the House’s 105 members were almost split down the middle when new and re-elected members took office in 2008. Party switches and interim elections have now given the GOP a 22-17 edge in the Senate, and Republicans enjoy a 56-46 lead in the House. There are three independents.

Republicans also occupy all of the state’s seven statewide offices. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is the latest to join the GOP ranks.

Democrats are becoming so scarce in Louisiana political circles these days Republicans are having to run against other Republicans. And in two of those races the fireworks have already started.

Term limits helped speed up party changes because veterans had to leave office. And in some cases, political survival is at play. Perhaps the best example of the latter is state Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego. He made no bones about the fact he was switching parties in hopes of becoming the next president of the state Senate.

Even former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, whom Alario served as speaker of the House for two terms, said he knows down deep Alario is still a Democrat at heart.

Vitter did it

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, a former member of the state House, is the author of legislative term limits. A number of legislators forced out of office still haven’t forgiven him for putting them on the spot back in 1995.

Voters liked the idea, approving by 76 percent a constitutional amendment limiting legislators to three four-year terms. The first lawmakers to be affected were forced out in 2008, but they could still run for the other chamber.

Vitter said in 1995 his main goal was to get new blood in the Legislature, not more political experience. However, things didn’t quite turn out the way he planned.

In the legislative elections of 2007, the state Senate ended up with 14 former state representatives. Alario was the dean of that group, having served nine terms (36 years) in the House. Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, was right behind with 32 years’ service in the House.

Two senators who had served in the House ran for the House again when they were term-limited in 2007. Rep. Noble Ellington, R-Winnsboro, won and has since become a Republican. Former Sen. James David Cain, R-Dry Creek, lost a close election to Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill, D-Dry Creek.

Ellington has decided not to seek reelection, but Cain is trying to wrest his old Senate seat from Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville.

Many supporters of term limits believe 12 years should be the maximum time anyone serves in the Legislature, but that isn’t likely to happen. We will see a repeat of what happened in 2007 during this fall’s elections when legislators try to switch houses again.

Vitter and Gov. Bobby Jindal are behind dual efforts to increase GOP control in the House and Senate.

The Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority was organized in 2005 by Vitter and by GOP business leaders with deep pockets to help fund Republican campaigns. The major emphasis on party control should come as no surprise since that is how Congress operates.

Jindal didn’t fare well at the last legislative session, and that is obviously part of his reason for trying to raise $2 million for a “victory fund” to help elect conservative Republicans to both the House and Senate.

Six state senators and 11 House members are term-limited this year, and that is where most of the money Vitter and Jindal are helping raise will be spent. Democrats trying to hold on to their seats in both houses have to be feeling some of the heat by now.

Campaigns active

Meanwhile, two statewide races are already under way even though qualifying for office doesn’t take place until Sept. 6-8. Both involve Republicans vs. Republicans.

Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, is challenging Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne of Baton Rouge, who won office during a special election last year after Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor of New Orleans.

Nungesser made national headlines during the BP oil spill crisis. He calls Dardenne a Republican in name only, but Dardenne reminds Nungesser he endorsed the lieutenant governor in 2010.

Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, is term-limited and he jumped into the race for secretary of state last week. He wants the job now held by Tom Schedler of Mandeville, a former state senator. Schedler was Dardenne’s first assistant and became secretary when Dardenne was elected lieutenant governor.

Schedler told The Advocate of Baton Rouge, “I’m going to bring it to him. I don’t want him to think it’s a candybased election. He was the pay raise author, and obviously I am going to tag him for it.”

He was talking about a legislative pay raise pushed by Tucker that Jindal vetoed in 2008. Tucker’s base pay as speaker was $32,000. The secretary of state makes $115,000 a year.

Tucker calls the pay raise issue simply a “red herring,” a misleading, distracting and irrelevant issue. Maybe so, but you can bet Schedler will keep the pay raise on the front burner.

Republicans have the numbers and the upper hand in Louisiana now, so they are having to go after one another. I can remember when there used to be jokes about Republicans holding their state meetings in a phone booth.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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