Next year’s lieutenant governor’s contest looks to have become a lot more interesting as the presumed cage match between legislative leaders might end with both their political careers fizzled.
Behind the scenes for some time both Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and GOP Senate Pres. Page Cortez have signaled they wish to continue their full-time but term-limited political careers by winning the state’s number two job. They haven’t made an announcement as they seem to wait on the current occupant, Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, to decide whether to run for governor.
However, given that Nungesser recently told a gathering he would seek the top spot, it’s all-but-assured his current post will come open. And shortly after he made that statement, a state political heavyweight from the past expressed great interest in it who stands a great chance to send both Cortez and Schexnayder into retirement earlier than they would like.
GOP former Rep. John Fleming has said he will enter the race if Nungesser desists. Fleming served four terms representing northwest Louisiana with a reputation as a staunch conservative, and after a self-imposed term limit ran for Senate in 2016, failing to make the runoff. He then served in a series of positions within the GOP Pres. Donald Trump Administration.
Fleming would prove to be a strong candidate for several reasons. Keep in mind that the lieutenant governorship is the least useful job in state government, with no real defined duties except waiting around for a vacancy in the governorship. Although optionally able to appoint a secretary for Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, the last couple of officeholders assumed the job for themselves, so in that sense running for this office means demonstrating you’re all of the chief museum overseer, park ranger, and tourist director of the state.
None of that has anything to do with the great ideological questions and policy preferences of the day, yet since the turn of the century the job has attracted a slew of ambitious politicians contending for it with eyes primarily on the governorship, ever since Democrat former Gov. Kathleen Blanco ascended from it. Before that happened, it had little history of promoting its occupants, and the pair of her successors who tried (one appointed) also failed, but the perception of the post as a potential launch pad persists.
That looks to be the gambit of the Legislature’s leaders, who were for the most part backbenchers (Cortez did serve as a committee chairman his second Senate term) until they maneuvered themselves into their chambers’ lead roles and since, like man-eating lions who as a species don’t naturally hunt human beings but after dining on a few acquire a taste for human flesh, have grown used to wielding political power in office and want to keep doing it. Not only have both kept up fundraising for their own campaigns but they also both established political action committees to use as instruments to curry favor among other politicians by donating to their campaigns. Combining their campaign and PAC accounts, by the most recent reports each has in the neighborhood of a half million dollars to deploy.
Kitties of this size tend to discourage competition. While others have expressed interest in the job, none have nearly the amounts the leaders can use. And no quality Democrat has shown interest to date, which creates pressure on Cortez and Schexnayder in their final year at the helm of their chambers to pursue at best tepid conservative policy, at worst take some fliers on Democrats’ policy preferences, in the hopes of attracting that segment of the electorate.
But if Fleming gets in, everything changes. Again, even as the job has little in the way of ideological content which constrains candidates in their campaigning to differentiate themselves on that basis, Fleming’s past record – and particularly his association with Trump who remains broadly popular in the state – needs little amplification to alert the electorate’s conservative majority that he’s with them. And Schexnayder and Cortez actually suffer in comparison, because as chamber leaders they inevitably made decisions that disappointed conservatives that can be used against them; by way of example, only last week Cortez undoubtedly told Senate representatives on the State Bond Commission to vote against deferring a New Orleans request when the GOP majority on the panel wanted with the delay of that to send a message to city leaders that they had to abandon their official declaration that the city won’t enforce singly state abortion law.
Fleming can draw this contrast because he can finance his campaign by himself. While he still owes a half-million dollars towards his Senate bid in loans not repaid, in his medical and business professions he had been very successful, with an estimate of his net worth the year before he ran for the Senate at a minimum of over $11 million but more likely in the area of $30 million. The chamber leaders’ fundraising totals won’t worry him at all.
Plus, in a contest largely devoid of issues Fleming can point to his background – physician, businessman, congressman, Trump executive branch and White House official – that exemplifies a broad range of experience in and out of government and at the latter’s highest level. The best Cortez and Schexnayder can point to is legislative careers (19 and 11 years, respectively, part-time except for the last three) and business careers (Cortez in the furniture business, Schexnayder with an auto repair shop) that pale in comparison.
Finally, Fleming has no real ambition to use the job as a stepping stone, which he easily can convey to voters who should value someone wanting the job for the job’s sake. He would be 72 when elected, and an open governor’s office likely wouldn’t occur until he was 80.
Voters looking for a quality unwavering conservative candidate with a background that should suit him well in promoting the state without his always keeping one eye on his next desired job will find Fleming very attractive for lieutenant governor, and that would spell trouble for the ambitions of Cortez and Schexnayder.