Editor’s Note: What follows is Sen. David Vitter’s speech given yesterday at the Baton Rouge Press Club, the question-and-answer session which followed produced a controversial misquoting of his position on Medicaid expansion…
Good afternoon. It’s great to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Speaking at the Press Club seems to be a different experience for me than for some of my peers. Some friends came to listen to my colleague Mary Landrieu when she was before you recently. They reported back that it was a lot like a church revival with many “amens” and thunderous applause lines. At one point when Mary was hitting her crescendo, I think half of the Advocate’s editorial board fainted from excitement.
But rest assured, like with most press report, I took it all with a grain of salt. And if any Press Club members faint before our Q & A, I’ll be the one who’s most excited.
On a serious note, I reflect sadly that there’s an empty chair here today, and I want to join all of you in remembering and paying our respects to the late John Maginnis. He was one of a kind, and certainly will be missed in Louisiana political and media circles. He is irreplaceable, no offense to Jeremy Alford.
It was five months ago that I announced that I would run to become the next Governor of Louisiana. So I thought now would be a great time to give an update on what I promised would be my careful preparation for the job.
When I announced my intentions back in January, I chose my words very deliberately. I said exactly what I was thinking and I meant exactly what I said. So I thought I would update you today on the key themes that I laid out then.
I said that my decision to run for Governor would in no way limit the critical work I’m doing in the U.S. Senate. And it hasn’t. In fact, my work this year has been among the most productive during my tenure in the Senate.
- Highway Bill
- Chemical Safety and Regulation Reform
- Veterans Issues – Clinics
- Flood Insurance
- No Washington Exemption from Obamacare
So why did I decide to leave this important work to run for Governor? Well, it’s pretty simple. Wendy and I concluded that I can have a much bigger impact as our next governor, addressing the unique challenges and opportunities we face as a state.
First, by definition, a chief executive can make a huge positive impact – just like a company CEO can make the necessary decisions to build and grow a business.
Second, I think we’re at a really special moment in Louisiana, with challenges and opportunities that are particularly exciting. We’re well on the way to making common sense, conservative reform the rule in Louisiana versus the occasional four-year exception. And we’re beginning a real renaissance in American energy activity, a new era in which Louisiana can be an economic leader.
Third and finally, even working in the minority party in the Senate, I feel as though I’ve accomplished a lot there. To go well beyond that would require Washington to cure its dysfunction more than me to do anything very new or different. I want to build on our positive, concrete wins in the U.S. Senate. I want to help lead and build a model of conservative reform governance that WORKS for all of our citizens here in Louisiana.
I have to say, all of those thoughts have only been affirmed a hundred fold since January. Wendy and I have been really humbled and overwhelmed by the encouragement and support we’ve received all around the state. And because of that support, we’ve blown past all of our initial goals in the campaign well ahead of schedule–in fundraising, grass roots organizing, and polling.
Now in January, I said that I would prepare for the Governor’s job by doing what I’ve always done–listening to the people of Louisiana, knowing that I sure don’t have all the answers.
I’ve continued to hold my official town hall meetings in ever parish of the state. We’re now up to 358. I also do telephone town halls when I’m in Washington voting–153 and counting.
And with the Governor’s job in mind, I’ve also been doing lots of outreach and meetings on state issues. I began this with roundtable discussions on state issues in Monroe, Ruston, and Lafayette the very week I announced, and I’ve continued that, listening carefully, in dozens of settings and in every region of the state. Of course, these will only ramp up over time.
While these engagement sessions come in many shapes and sizes and are usually very informal and conversational, I’ll be hosting five somewhat more structured Leadership Forums For Our Future around the state between now and September. The topics, dates, and locations are summarized in the handout at your table.
These will be roundtable discussions among Louisiana leaders. I’ll kick off each discussion with brief remarks and hold a press availability after each session. The higher ed and infrastructure sessions will also include a discussion of the closely related issue of state budget, spending, and tax reform.
I certainly don’t want to pre-judge these sessions, and I have a lot more homework to do in general. But several big themes have already emerged in my mind as I’ve thought about the above topics, issues which are interrelated in many ways:
In K-12 education, I think we need to focus additional efforts at both ends of the age and grade spectrum.
We must get our children off to a fundamentally stronger, sounder start in the early grades and in basic skills starting with reading. Right now, only 34% of America’s third graders read at or above grade level. That’s a disgrace. The bigger disgrace? In Louisiana the figure is 23%.
We need a focused, committed effort to change that–to have absolutely as many Louisiana third graders as possible reading at grade level. This will put them on a fundamentally higher trajectory throughout their school careers.
It’s difficult to introduce major education reform and spring it on kids, say, in the eighth grade. Having kids truly proficient at basic skills like reading from the beginning will make an enormous difference. It’s essential in order for reforms affecting higher grade levels to succeed.
And in high school, we need to prepare kids for any possible, productive career path they want, whether it involves college or skills training. For far too long, we’ve devalued jobs and careers that don’t involve a college degree. That’s wrong. And it’s wrong-headed when we have great, high paying jobs going unfilled because of the lack of a skilled workforce.
In the Lake Charles area, where the Wall Street Journal says we’re building a “Qatar on the Bayou,” brand new welders with a technical certificate will be making over $60,000 a year. Within only a few years under their belt they will approach or exceed $100,000. And we don’t have enough trained young people to fill those jobs? That’s crazy and we must correct that, by highlighting these tracks and opportunities in high school, and by expanding follow-on training opportunities that work like Baton Rouge Community College’s oversubscribed welding program and Associated Builder and Contractors’ expanding Larose campus.
In the area of higher education, we need to stabilize the system. We’ve experienced six years of cuts, uncertainty, and instability. Stabilizing the system could probably best be done by focusing on fundamental budget, spending, and tax reform early on in the next administration.
The state budget has been held together in the last few years with sewing yarn and scotch tape. We need to change that with reforms that promote honesty and transparency, economic growth and, through it, budget stability.
That budget, spending, and tax reform could also incorporate measures that provide much more robust support for our highway program and other vital infrastructure development. This is a crucial backbone of our economy that has been neglected – allowed to deteriorate over several years, leading to our current $12-13 billion Louisiana infrastructure backlog. Infrastructure has been a real priority of mine in the Senate as the lead Republican on the infrastructure committee, working on WRRDA, the highway bill, and more.
Finally, I’m excited that we have the best business environment for growing good jobs in Louisiana in my lifetime. And it’s beginning to pay big dividends. But we need to focus on two challenges.
First, we must remain aggressively vigilant and committed to truly rooting out corruption and cronyism. Fortune Magazine just rated Louisiana the second most corrupt state in the nation. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t made important progress–in fact, statistics like corruption convictions actually worsen when you attack the problem aggressively. But it does mean that it’s a generation’s work, not a year’s.
And we need to attack a very dark cloud remaining in our business climate–the litigation environment in Louisiana, marked by the regular threat of frivolous and harassing lawsuits. The Institute for Legal Reform currently ranks Louisiana 49th in the nation in this category and considers Orleans Parish one of the most unfair and threatening legal jurisdictions in the country. We need to fix this, just as our thriving neighbors in Texas have done.
In closing, let me repeat two solemn pledges that I made upon announcing my candidacy for Governor back in January.
First, if elected Governor, this will be my last political job–elected or appointed–period.
And second, after listening and learning through the engagements around the state that I’ve discussed, I will lead.
I’m not running for governor as a stepping stone, or to boast a nice title and cut ribbons. I’m not even running to gain a cameo appearance on Duck Dynasty–as jealous as I am of that.
No, I’m running for governor to take on the important issues and make the hard decisions. And my only criteria in doing so will be to do what’s best for all Louisianians, from our best and brightest to our most vulnerable.
Thank you again for inviting me here today, and I’ll be happy to take questions.