Word from last week’s DC Mardi Gras spectacle had it that Shawn Wilson, the Louisiana Secretary of Transportation and Development, is “100 percent” running for governor. But U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, who two weeks ago seemed on the verge of jumping into the race, might be less likely to do so after developments in Washington would seem to occupy his time for the foreseeable future.
The big question here seems to be, what’s Wilson waiting on? The field is already beginning to get crowded, though other than a non-announcement announcement video by Democrat Party chair Katie Bernhardt which appears to have fallen somewhat flat we haven’t seen much movement on the Democrat side of the race.
What we’ve seen does appear to come from Wilson. Julia O’Donoghue of the Democrat mouthpiece website Louisiana Illuminator had a piece earlier this week discussing Wilson and GOP congressman Garret Graves as two potential late entries, and of the two it came off like Wilson was a lot more interested in running.
Meanwhile, Wilson said it was a “loaded question” when asked Friday night by a reporter if he was running for governor. Best known as a member of Gov. John Bel Edwards cabinet, Wilson said his decision won’t be influenced by what other candidates, Democrat or Republican, get into the race.
Wilson also said wasn’t paying much attention to the internal drama happening within Louisiana’s Democratic State Central Committee. Democratic Party Chair Katie Bernhardt prompted a round of criticism from other state central committee members after floating herself as a gubernatorial candidate.
Wilson, who is not a member of the Democratic State Central Committee himself, said the party’s turmoil won’t affect whether he runs for governor.
“That’s not going to define my decision,” he said. “I don’t think our drama is any different from [the Louisiana Republican Party] drama.”
Graves said in the piece that he was still in play as a potential candidate, and denied that an appointment by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to the chairmanship of the Elected Leadership Committee and a spot on the House Republican Steering Committee would do anything to affect his potential gubernatorial aspirations.
“No! No,” Graves was quoted in O’Donoghue’s piece, when asked if the new assignments would take him out of the race. “That wasn’t my release. That was theirs.”
The thing is, word had it Graves was going to be an announced candidate two weeks ago. But that didn’t happen. And then McCarthy essentially knighted him with that key role.
“He can’t turn that down,” Billy Tauzin, the former Louisiana congressman and current Washington lobbyist Graves used to be a staffer for, was quoted in a NOLA.com article about the assignment. “I really think this cinches it for Garret. I don’t know how he refuses this job.”
The Elected Leadership Committee is something which hasn’t been around for 10 years; McCarthy is bringing it back. According to Punchbowl News, which had the first story on this a week ago, he’s bringing it back for the purpose of having Graves help redo the appropriations process to eliminate stupid earmarks and to come up with other ways to shake up the federal government…
The chair of the Elected Leadership Committee is an ad hoc position that’s only filled at the discretion of the speaker or GOP leader. The last leadership chair was former Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, who held the role when John Boehner was speaker.
Graves was one of McCarthy’s most useful – and loyal – allies during the California Republican’s fight for the speakership. Graves was among the group of lawmakers who crafted the deal with conservatives that delivered McCarthy the gavel.
It’s not at all surprising that McCarthy is making this move. He considers Graves a loyal foot soldier and one of the smartest policy minds in the conference.
McCarthy hopes Graves will run what they call “tiger teams” – groups of lawmakers who work together to try to solve legislative issues. Graves built up a well of goodwill with conservatives during the speaker vote.
One of Graves’ first tasks will be to put further restrictions on earmarks in the budgeting process, according to leadership sources. The House GOP rules allow for earmarks, but also let committee chairs put forward stricter guidelines should they wish. Graves will be tasked with tightening up the process. Then Graves will work on the budget, appropriations and debt limit.
McCarthy has told Republicans they should think of Graves as an “assistant coach.”
Those are some heady responsibilities. They put Graves fairly close to the center of the process to redesign how the federal government works, and it’s fairly encouraging that McCarthy was serious enough about actually doing that to put somebody with a good reputation for understanding policy and process in charge of it.
It would almost seem criminal to accept that position and then come back to Louisiana and run for governor rather than throwing all of his energy into the new assignment.
It makes sense that Graves would keep his options open. After all, there’s 2026, when Bill Cassidy’s Senate seat will likely come open either because Cassidy honors his pledge to only serve two terms or because he’s a political ruptured duck most of the state’s voters can’t wait to be rid of.
And if you’re Garret Graves you’ve got to be thinking that over the next four years you can leverage this new role into making yourself a star among policy wonks, and by that point you’re well primed to run for that Senate seat.
And you’re even more well primed for it if you’ve already, let’s say, made a deal with Jeff Landry whereby he won’t run and in fact will endorse you.
It would make sense to leverage your interest in this year’s governor’s race into such a deal with Landry. Which obviously wouldn’t be done in public and none of us would be privy to any of it.
But in Wilson’s case, none of this is operative. Everybody knows it’s a major uphill battle for a Democrat to win a statewide race, even though he’s going to have the backing of Edwards, who did manage to win in 2015 and 2019. If he gets into the race officially, it might or might chase out the white Democrats – state senator Gary Smith, Bernhardt and Baton Rouge district attorney Hillar Moore – who are talking about running. He’ll almost certainly chase out any other black Democrats, though. He’s already got Gary Chambers’ support, and with Chambers and Edwards backing him you’d think he’d have a spot in the runoff locked up.
And almost assuredly he’d be dead meat in the runoff against Jeff Landry or whatever other Republican gets in there with him.
But bearing the standard in 2023, even if it results in getting clobbered, can lead to all kinds of other things for Wilson. Who knows? Maybe he can run for mayor of Baton Rouge in 2024, or maybe the Biden administration will reward his efforts with a job in Washington. Whatever.
After all, he’s got nothing to lose. He isn’t going to remain as the head of DOTD when Edwards’ term ends and a Republican takes over in the governor’s mansion.