Six former speakers of the Louisiana House of Representatives had some sound advice for Calcasieu Parish’s first speaker ever at last week’s McLeod Lecture Series. The general consensus was, “Leave the House better than you found it.”
New Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, soaked up the wisdom of the six men as he sat on the front row.
“It’s an exciting time for me and for Southwest Louisiana,” Kleckley said to open the series. He added that the six former speakers “have been great mentors for me.”
The six men were participants in the 9th annual event that honors the late William “Bill” McLeod, a local attorney who served as a district judge and a longtime member of the state House and Senate. The annual series is part of Banners, the McNeese State University cultural series.
Serving as speaker is a special privilege, they said, because the House is often referred to as “the people’s house.” Its 105 members make communication with individual voters much easier.
Each speaker leaves an imprint during his tenure. However, former speakers E.L. “Bubba” Henry and Hunt Downer have probably done more to reform House operations than any speakers in modern times.
Henry is originally from Jonesboro and is currently an attorney and lobbyist in Baton Rouge. He served as speaker from 1972 to 1980, the first two terms of former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. Henry was the best choice for speaker, Edwards said in 1972, because he had a proper balance between the Young Turk viewpoint and the traditional view of House operations.
The Young Turks were first-term representatives in 1970 who began to institute major reforms in the way the House conducted its business. Bob Jones of Lake Charles was the leader of the movement while serving in both the House and Senate. The lawmakers were eventually able to restore decorum and curtail the influence of lobbyists.
As speaker, Henry became the catalyst that achieved most of the goals of the Young Turks. Downer last week called him “the grandfather of reform.” Henry institutionalized the House that he said “gave us some sense of organization.”
Downer was speaker from 1996 to 2000 during the first term of former Gov. Mike Foster. He is a Houma attorney who also served as secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs and as legislative director for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
The House joined the electronic age during Downer’s four years. Members got individual laptops and TV monitors on their desks. The legislative process was televised from strategically located cameras.
“The plan was to bring government to the people,” he said. “When one legislator said, ‘I don’t want my people to know what I’m doing down here,’ I knew I was on the right track.”
Downer also began renovation of the House chamber and the first floor of the 34-story Capitol. He hoped the entire building could have been redone a floor at a time, but members of the Senate didn’t share Downer’s enthusiasm.
The other four former speakers on the McLeod program were Jimmy Dimos of Monroe, Charlie DeWitt of Alexandria, Joe Salter of Florien and Jim Tucker of the New Orleans area.
Dimos was speaker during Buddy Roemer’s term as governor from 1988 to 1992. DeWitt had the job during Foster’s second term (2000-04). Salter was speaker under Blanco from 2004 to 2008. Tucker just completed his speakership under Gov. Bobby Jindal (2008-2012).
Abortion was a big issue during his term, Dimos said, when Roemer’s veto of an anti-abortion bill was overridden by the Legislature. It marked only the second time in recent history that a governor’s veto was overridden.
DeWitt said passage of the Stelly Plan that swapped state sales taxes on food and utilities for higher income taxes was a good reform effort during his term as speaker. He said it shouldn’t have been repealed or something should have been enacted to take its place. It’s important for the speaker, he said, to get the money committees in the House and Senate to work together and for everyone to communicate well.
Salter said Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 were the biggest issues during his tenure. The official response to the storms was highly criticized and stole thunder from major accomplishments of Blanco’s administration.
“There was no way to prepare for disasters like that,” Salter said.
Tucker said he has great respect for Jindal, but they had their differences. He stressed the importance of the speaker remembering that the other 104 representatives are his constituents.
“The House has to do its thing,” he said. “The speaker is there for the House, not for the administration.”
I have had the good fortune over the years of covering many of the legislative sessions during which these former speakers served. Each brought a different perspective to last week’s McLeod series, and their experiences should serve Kleckley well. He, too, would then be able to say after his four years that the House is an even better place than he found it.
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].