SADOW: We’ll Find Out If Louisiana Politics Has Changed This Week

It’s not often that we have a shot at a natural experiment in the study of politics, but Louisiana will cue up one with a replay of a bill to protect fairness in women’s sports.

SB 44, essentially word for word the same as last year’s SB 156, passed the Senate this week, sending it to the House of Representatives. Both offered by Republican state Sen. Beth Mizell, SB 44 would mandate that biological males at the scholastic or collegiate level couldn’t compete in sporting events designated for biological females. In other words, unless a male had completed the entire process to change physically his sex into female, that person couldn’t compete in sports where only females were allowed.

Last year, SB 156 passed both chambers with a smattering of non-Republican support only to suffer a veto at the hands of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards. Then at a historic first-ever veto session, in the House enough Democrats and non-party members defected from their previous vote to sustain the veto.

Since then, the case has become even more compelling for the bill’s enactment. Almost 20 other states have proceeded along these lines, standing up to special interests such as the National Collegiate Athletics Association which hinted at an embargo of championships held in states with such a law that now number a half-dozen.

Last month, Oklahoma proceeded in passing such a law, daring the NCAA from preventing, for example, the top-ranked and defending national champion University of Oklahoma Sooners softball squad from hosting regional and super-regional (if advancing from the regional) tournaments, as well as the Big 12 Conference in which they are a member from hosting its tournament at USA Softball’s Hall of Fame complex in Oklahoma City, which also is where the NCAA will host the Women’s College World Series in that sport late this spring. And right after the bill became law, OU hosted the men’s gymnastics NCAA championships.

The confirmation of this threat as a paper tiger complements shattering of the myth perpetrated by opponents that biological males competing in female events and denying prizes to women wasn’t something that could happen in Louisiana. Most prominently in the year since, Ivy League swimmer Lia Thomas, undergoing sex transformation to female, was allowed to compete in championships. By record at best a mediocre swimmer among men, Thomas rose to the top when swimming in women’s events, including a national championship in one of these.

This denied achievement to biological women before they even left the blocks. Piling on the psychological damage to females, Thomas’ incomplete transformation and use of women’s locker rooms at practice and events caused trauma to some women. That it happened elsewhere means it could in Louisiana; what if, for example, the NCAA held a championship event in the state that contained similar controversy along the lines of this year’s swimming championships?

Despite all this, the Senate vote on SB 44 ran almost identically to that on SB 156. Four Democrats – state Sens. Regina Barrow, Katrina Jackson, Gary Smith, and Greg Tarver – voted in favor to join unanimous support by Republicans present. This was exactly the same four in favor of SB 156, and exactly the same four who then voted to sustain its veto, unsuccessfully as the GOP with a supermajority plus one held the line.

It’s a certainty that the House, with its supermajority minus two of Republicans, will pass the bill as well and send it to Edwards. That’s when the experiment will begin, with whether he would dare a second veto. Since his first, besides the dynamics related to the issue, much else has changed as well.

Earlier this month, in the second-ever veto session called, Edwards suffered a stinging political defeat when the first successful override ever in such a session occurred. While that issue, congressional reapportionment, hit home to legislators because it linked to reapportionment of their own districts and encouraged particularly non-party representatives to abandon Edwards, this issue also could turn out quite salient to non-Republicans as time has advanced to just a year away from their reelection campaigns that keeps the issue fresher in the minds of voters.

With that in mind, Edwards might capitulate, having seen enough non-party representatives resist his blandishments on the other issue to realize he doesn’t have a decent chance to keep them corralled on this one when a vote for sustaining can be used and effectively against them in 2023. If so, it would be the first direct evidence of how the successful override clipped the wings of Edwards, and perhaps of all future governors.

However, let’s say Edwards stubbornly keeps his modernist faith and vetoes SB 44. Then the next interesting question is to see how much more defiant legislators have become. In the Senate, possible fewer Democrats would vote to sustain an override, knowing now the odds have swung in favor of a successful House override and with the issue ready to be deployed against their reelection chances, and so they wouldn’t want to make themselves vulnerable over an issue they will lose anyway. This means especially the two non-term-limited Democrats, Barrow and Jackson, might buck Edwards.

In the House vote surely to come in the near future on SB 44, interest swings to last year’s non-Republican supporters. Several Democrats voted in favor of SB 156, but only state Rep. Francis Thompson repeated that with a vote to override, and he was offset by Republican state Rep. Joe Stagni who backed up his vote against with a vote to sustain. Independent state Rep. Roy Daryl Adams changed his vote, while no party state Rep. Joe Marino voted against and managed to be absent for the override attempt. Democrat state Rep. Malinda White voted for but managed to skip the override as well, about the time she announced she would leave the party to become an independent.

As a result of reapportionment – and almost certainly in part as retribution for this flipflop – Adams now has a tough reelection campaign ahead. Since her move, White has charted her own course independently of Edwards. Among Republicans, Stagni is the most likely to face a strong intraparty challenger as he has voted least loyally with the party, and an encore on this only would cement that resolve and threaten his reelection. Even Marino would feel heat if he repeated his pattern of voting on this issue. Thus, don’t be surprised if at least three of these vote for an override – and if word gets out prior to a potential override vote this is the way the wind blows, even other Democrats could jump ship on Edwards to boost their reelection chances.

If that were to happen, as opposed to the basically cost-free defection by Democrats in the Senate since their votes don’t affect the final outcome, as these votes cast in the House would make or break the bill were such defections to happen from last year to this it would signal strongly a profound shift in dynamics. Most illuminatingly, it would reveal that voter accountability has elevated in the minds of legislators while gubernatorial power has diminished and would confirm that the successful override this month wasn’t a one-off fluke generated by the peculiarities of reapportionment.

So, let’s watch the experiment proceed to entertain and inform both political scientists and the public.

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