Ask anyone outside the New Orleans area if they know state Sen. John Alario, and the odds are you will get a blank stare. Not so with members of the Louisiana Legislature where the newly minted Republican from Westwego now becomes a major center of attention.
Alario desperately wants to become the next president of the state Senate and is considered the frontrunner at this point. Alario even gave up his longtime ties to the Democratic Party to enhance his chances of getting support for the Senate job from Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and the new GOP majority in the upper chamber. Unlike most politicians, he admitted that was his main motive.
No one has been in the Legislature longer than Alario. He was first elected to the House in 1972 and served nine terms. He was speaker of the House for two terms under former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards (1984-88; 1992-96).
Term limits forced Alario to switch to the Senate in the 2007 statewide elections. He was re-elected this year without opposition.
Alario wants to become only the second legislator in Louisiana history to serve as both president of the Senate and speaker of the House. The late Sen. John J. Hainkel Jr. was the first.
Most legislative races were decided Saturday, so lawmakers will be getting more serious about selecting the next Senate president and House speaker. A lot of politicking has been going on behind the scenes, and decisions in both those contests could be made even before statewide officials and legislators take office in January.
This corner of the state will be more interested in those leadership positions this year since state Rep. Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, is one of the leading candidates for speaker of the House. His main competition appears to be Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, who is now speaker pro-tem, the No. 2 job in the House. Baton Rouge and New Orleans also have legislators who want to be speaker.
If selected, Kleckley would become the first speaker ever from Calcasieu Parish. Cameron Parish has had two speakers (George W. Carter, 1871) and (Samuel P. Henry, 1888-92 and 1896-1900) and Jeff Davis had one (John Fournet, 1928-32).
Both the president and speaker earn more money than their colleagues, but that isn’t a primary consideration. It’s the power those offices yield. The two leaders are elected by their members, and they get to pick chairmen and members of legislative committees, where the groundwork is done on all legislation.
Things will be a little different this year, however. Gov. Jindal has made it clear he’s going to be involved in the thick of those leadership selections. And he wants a strong voice in those committee assignments.
The governor suffered some major defeats at the spring legislative session, and he appears ready to go to any lengths to keep it from happening again. Jindal gave $2,500 political contributions to legislators who were unopposed and those who had challengers. Legislators will argue that won’t affect their decisions, but it certainly can’t hurt when they might be on the fence on some issues.
Jindal also wants major reforms in public education. In an unprecedented action, he endorsed members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and gave his favorites $5,000 political contributions. BESE makes policy for public schools, and some of its members have been roadblocks to the governor’s programs.
Why would Jindal even think of supporting a controversial lawmaker like Alario, who has directed millions of state dollars to his favorite projects in Jefferson Parish?
One of those projects is the new Jefferson Performing Arts Center, which was supposed to cost just over $26 million and is now at $52.4 million and counting. The state legislative auditor has criticized the project for poor planning, virtually no oversight and political maneuvering. The scandal is nothing new to Jefferson Parish politics.
Unfortunately, Jindal is looking for quick results, and Alario has proved through the years he can get things done. He has had a hand in saving some Jindal programs over the last four years. Others interested in being Senate president might be able to deliver as well, but they are unproven at this point.
Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, is one of those who has been mentioned as a possible Senate president, and he would be a good fit for the job because he works well with others. Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, has been a loyal Jindal supporter, but he, too, doesn’t have Alario’s extensive record.
Alario is a congenial fellow who rarely gets ruffled. I just don’t care for his brand of politics. And even some senators who will probably end up voting for Alario would tell you the same thing.
I hope I’m wrong about Alario being Jindal’s final choice. However, I can’t remember another time in recent Louisiana political history when a governor has been so determined to control the legislative process, whatever the cost.
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].