We haven’t done anything here at The Hayride about SB 1, the bill by Sen. Francis Thompson that would change the name of the state’s high school for gifted and talented students in Natchitoches. I apologize for that, as it turns out that bill made for the most contentious and emotionally-charged debate of any piece of legislation in this entire session at the Capitol and we should have followed it more closely.
Particularly given what that debate represented.
In case you haven’t paid attention to the SB 1 fight, the basic background to it goes like this – the Louisiana School For Math, Science and the Arts in Natchitoches was founded in the mid-1980’s thanks to a lot of hustle by a local state legislator named Jimmy D. Long. Long was one of the famous Longs, though he was a distant cousin to the main branch of the family which produced Huey, Earl and Russell Long.
Jimmy D. Long was first elected to the House of Representatives in Louisiana in 1967, and stayed in office for 32 years until he lost his seat to Taylor Townsend (isn’t it amazing how these names keep coming back again and again in Louisiana politics?) in 1999. He was known as the most powerful maker of education policy in the state legislature during his time in office, and the founding of the Louisiana School, which naturally would be located in his district, was his crowning achievement.
Jimmy D. Long died in a car accident last fall. He was 84. Among his survivors is his brother Gerald Long – who is a state senator in his third term. Gerald Long, unlike all the rest of the political Longs, is a Republican, and he’s been in the Senate since 2007 when he defeated Taylor Townsend (See what I’m talking about?) for that seat. Gerald Long has talked about running for governor, though at 72 years old he probably missed his shot when he didn’t take that plunge in 2015.
And because of Jimmy’s recent passage, Gerald decided to honor him by pushing a bill that would name the Louisiana School for his brother.
Now, the people at that school – meaning, its staff and its alumni – were not opposed to honoring Jimmy D. Long. Their suggestion was to name the new dormitory building under construction for him. That is no small thing, as the Louisiana School is populated with gifted and talented students from across the state who come to live in dormitory buildings at that school. It’s not inaccurate to say that building will be the hub of campus life at that school. And when the suggestion was made and decided upon late last year Gerald Long showed up to give an acceptance speech.
And then he had his friend in the Senate Francis Thompson (D-Delhi), who is in his third term in that body after occupying a seat in the House from 1976 to 2008, bring a bill to change the name of the entire school to honor Jimmy D. Long.
That was a surprise, and an unwelcome one, to a large swath of the school’s alumni. They didn’t want the school’s name and brand to change. And those alumni have a very strong connection to that school, because unlike “regular” high schools this one was their home in a real sense. They lived in the dormitory buildings there.
Thompson and Long buffaloed their colleagues in the Senate to pass that bill with a near-unanimous vote, and this week it landed on the House floor. We’re told that Thompson and Long have spent more time lobbying House members on a bill to rename a school amid a fiscal session than they have in the Senate – so much so that several of those House members have expressed to us they’re sick and tired of seeing both of their faces (that could be unfortunate, because the rumor is Thompson, term-limited in the Senate, is actually going to run for his old House seat in the 2019 elections and might even win).
Accordingly, a good deal of opposition to the bill sprung up in the House and things became very contentious. We’re told that the charm offensive advocating its passage turned darker, and started consisting of threats and arm-twisting. Lovan Thomas, the publisher of the Natchitoches Times and a Louisiana School board member for 35 years, was told that Gov. John Bel Edwards was not reappointing him for another term – implicitly because he testified in a Senate committee against SB 1 – and he went public this week about the pressure and resigned in protest.
For a while it seemed like the alumni, who became very involved in fighting the bill, might even beat it.
What ultimately happened was that SB 1 was gutted through an amendment which gave the school the power to present itself publicly in whatever manner it saw fit even if legally it would become the Jimmy D. Long Louisiana School For Math, Science and the Arts. That passed in the House by a bare 56-43 vote, even though the alumni softened their opposition to the bill as amended – 43 House members were so disgusted by the shamelessness of the lobbying campaign that they opposed it anyway.
What to take from this? First, we’re repulsed by almost anything Long, and this is a good example of why. There was a perfectly good agreement to recognize the work Jimmy Long had done in creating that school, but that wasn’t enough. It’s never enough with these people. They will have their way no matter who purports to tell them no. Little wonder so many of them have littered the political landscape as elected officials.
And the self-aggrandizement of the Long family never ends. How many statues are there to Huey Long? One leers at the state capitol building from across its grounds, while another stands at Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill.
An interesting story about the latter – former state senator Elbert Guillory was approached by a group suggesting that the Huey Long statue be replaced at Statuary Hall (which can be done by passage of a resolution in the Legislature; each state is allowed two statues commemorating its contribution to American history, and Long and E.D. White, the only Louisianan to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, are Louisiana’s two) with a likeness of Louis Armstrong. Guillory, who like Armstrong is black and also was preparing to run for Lt. Governor in 2015, was enthusiastic about the idea and promised to bring the resolution in the Senate.
But he didn’t, out of fear of repercussions from Gerald Long.
We’d love to see someone else take up that standard and bring the Statuary Hall resolution. Just as a shot across the bow to Long and Thompson, if nothing else.
A couple of weeks ago LABI president Stephen Waguespack wrote a terrific piece here at The Hayride on the subject of where the fingers ought to be pointed for Louisiana’s ongoing governmental woes and he noted that the Huey Long statue at the Capitol was a good place to start. It’s old Longite socialism, after all, which is the reason this state lags behind its peers in so many public-policy outcome metrics. Wags told me his original idea for that piece was to suggest that if people wanted to tear statues down, Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard were nowhere near as nuisance-worthy as Huey Long was.
But he thought better of it, because lending legitimacy to the idea of bowdlerizing historical monuments is a bad decision. So he reworked his column.
The fact is, Louisiana has not profited from the contributions of the Long family to its political history. There are those who tout the brick-and-mortar Huey Long left the state, but even those are tainted – some say the Capitol Long built is a marvelous example of Art Deco architecture, but he constructed it as the tallest building in Baton Rouge and even put it in state law that nothing taller could be built, thus signaling the primacy of the public sector in Louisiana. And that redistributive nanny government led by a dictatorial strongman in the governor’s mansion is a tradition which has given us horrendous corruption, discouraged capital formation, chased away economic development, dispatched our best and brightest citizens elsewhere and burdened us with cronyism, nepotism and blatant incompetence for nearly a century. This is what we’re demanded to honor.
I’m not saying Jimmy Long was as destructive as his cousins Huey or Earl, whose foibles would fill quite a long post in itself. What I am saying is that if the alumni at the Louisiana School didn’t want to name the place after him, that should have been the end of the question. We’ve had more than enough dictates from the Long family and their friends in Louisiana.