Is Jim Bernhard Worrying About His Political Future?

A quick interview with the outgoing Shaw Group CEO and prospective Democrat political savior by the Baton Rouge Business Report today yielded a couple of tidbits we saw coming a while ago.

First, Bernhard is now worrying that the rank-and-file folks working in Shaw’s lavish headquarters on Essen Lane in Baton Rouge are headed for extinction thanks to his decision to sell out to Texas-based CBI – a deal which closes Wednesday…

“Folks at Shaw are very concerned, which is normal,” Bernhard says, adding that CB&I has done little to assuage worries about employees’ job security. “Communications with the new company could have been better. Hopefully, that will improve as they move forward.” The sale of Shaw to CB&I, a Netherlands-based corporation with U.S. headquarters in The Woodlands, Texas, is slated to close Wednesday. Bernhard says he hopes many local employees will be given the opportunity to remain with the new company, which will use the CB&I name. “I hope a lot of them remain on the team,” he says. Bernhard and several other top executives cashed out their stock in the company late last year, and many from the executive suite have already relocated to Texas.

Nobody should fault Bernhard for deciding to sell his company. Shaw is selling for $3 billion to CBI, and none among us would pass up that kind of payout.

But the rumors have been rampant ever since the news of the impending sale hit last fall that Bernhard was about to launch a political career. He’s a serial check-writer to Democrat politicians, and he’s a former chairman of the state Democrat Party. And given the current state of that party the field is wide open for a Jim Bernhard to emerge as its redeemer – instead of writing checks to the Cedric Richmonds and Don Cazayouxs of the world, Bernhard can write himself a check.

Governor Bernhard, Senator Bernhard, Congressman Bernhard – you get the picture.

Except – and this is something one wonders about – that if Bernhard is really interested in throwing himself into electoral politics, having folks streaming out of that building on Essen Lane with cardboard boxes in hand is hardly the atmosphere from which to make it work.

Shaw was one of only three Fortune 500 companies based in Louisiana. It’s one thing for it to go away; it’s something else if a huge chunk of the jobs which went with it were to go away as well. People won’t like that, and they won’t like Bernhard for his role in it.

Again, his stake in Shaw was Bernhard’s to do with what he wanted. But if he’s interested in running for office, it’s not going to look good to profit off hundreds of productive folks losing their jobs or having to move out of state right before he starts running for something.

That he’s now concerned about that possibility doesn’t have to be a result of political aspirations. Bernhard all but certainly has legitimate concerns about his people – or at least, his people until Wednesday. But when you sell your company to a firm which wants to roll it into their current operations, redundancies and efficiencies – otherwise known as people getting fired – are absolutely inevitable. Bernhard knew it when he agreed to the deal and he knows it now. So why is he publicly concerned about this?

Maybe this is why…

As Bernhard looks to the future, he says he is committed to Louisiana and to making a positive difference in the Baton Rouge community. Though Bernhard confirmed last week that he’s in the running for the position of U.S. Energy Secretary, he was noncommittal today about his interest in the Cabinet post. “My priority is Louisiana,” he says. “I’m Baton Rouge committed. I suspect that will continue.”

In other words, he’s not getting the Energy Secretary job. Right now it looks like Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has the inside track for the job, with MIT physicist Ernest Moniz as another possibility.

Bernhard moving up to Washington for a Cabinet position would make the carnage on Essen somewhat immaterial. In a couple of years he could come back to Louisiana after fighting the good fight for the state’s oil and gas industry up in DC, and that would overcome the bad publicity surrounding the evaporation of Shaw’s Baton Rouge job base. But if he’s not the Energy Secretary, those job losses are on his head and they’re his problem if he wants to run for office here.

So that’s why he’d be concerned. He could be worried his 2015 gubernatorial run, for example, might be stillborn. And Republican political consultants looking for strategies to fend off a Bernhard-led Democrat comeback in the state will have an easy one dumped in their laps – namely, that Jim Bernhard The Democrat Who Wants To Raise Your Taxes Made Big Money Off Putting Good Louisiana Folks Out Of A Job.

That’s a headache he wouldn’t want to start his first campaign with. All of a sudden, Bernhard is bound to be extremely sympathetic about those coming pink slips from CBI.



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