He’s in the back corner of the House chamber, where the lobbying elite sit cramped in two rows of chairs against the rear wall (coach seating is on the other end) and the north side’s long line of windows give way to the lake behind the state Capitol. It’s a stretch of marbled ground reserved especially for the administration. He’s pacing back and forth, fidgeting with two different BlackBerry devices and participating in what appears to be simultaneous conversations with lawyers, lawmakers and colleagues from the Fourth Floor. His eyes are red, he hasn’t shaved and his thinning, gray hair is damp with sweat.
This is Scott Angelle in attack mode. When he speaks, he smiles, as if the battle itself is more thrilling than the end result. Lawmakers from the Baton Rouge area are playing swashbucklers on the floor, trying to raid $300 million in surplus cash Gov. Bobby Jindal set aside for coastal needs. They want the loot for road projects around the state, but it’s Angelle’s charge, as Jindal’s new legislative liaison, to block the move. Even though the administration had known the contentious amendment was coming for at least 48 hours, most of the work had to be on foot and in the flesh.
Angelle has the entire House floor organized into grids, with a captain selected from each row of deks. Captains work their particular row for Angelle during debate by tallying votes, ferreting out objections and reporting back to him. A few of his floor leaders fit the Cajun archetype that Angelle himself embodies, like Reps. Robert Billiot of Waggaman and Fred Mills of Parks. They’re also Democrats, as is Angelle. Along with Angelle’s other troops, they explain to the opposition that the money is needed for a federal match and it isn’t pork that can be moved around.
Word trickles back to Angelle that the offensive is working. “It’s shut down,” Angelle says.
About a week later, Angelle agrees to an interview in his office at the Department of Natural Resources, where he serves as secretary — appointed first by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, and reappointed last year by Jindal’s Republican administration. He still has the gig and is still receiving a salary; it’s the job of legislative liaison that he’s doing for free, although it normally comes with annual compensation. It’s 6:30 a.m., his staff at DNR is already hopping and Angelle is looking as ravaged as he did on the House floor a week earlier. “The number of hours can really get to you. It’s like running a marathon,” says Angelle. “And I’m still driving home to Breaux Bridge. That’s an hour there and an hour back.”
The decision by Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s chief of staff, to bring Angelle into the fold was both surprising and appropriate. For starters, it’s a tough job and conspiracy theorists initially wondered if Angelle was being thrown under the train, a hypothesis that practically everyone interviewed for this story now rejects. But the position certainly isn’t a stepping stone. Most legislative liaisons are fired, or rather sacrificed, while others leave out of frustration. That was the case with Tommy Williams, a respected longtime lobbyist who held the legislative liaison position under Jindal before Angelle. Williams says the position is enough to drive any sane man crazy, but admits that Angelle’s bottomless pit of energy and enthusiasm is a perfect fit.
|Left to Right: Scott Angelle with Sen. Mike Michot; Rep. Page Cortez; Rep. Patrick C. Williams
|Photo by Robin May
There’s only a small club of folks who understands the challenge Angelle is facing. “You are literally interfacing with 144 members of the House and Senate on a daily basis and you’re trying to work for the administration and work with lawmakers. It’s simply a volume issue. And I don’t care who you are, at some point it becomes overwhelming,” Williams says.
He adds that Angelle has the benefit of coming in during Jindal’s second year. “All of the freshman have got the hang of things now and have three consecutive sessions under their belts,” Williams says. “The administration has the benefit of more than a year’s experience. The transition period is over.”
Still, Angelle seems born for the job: With a state legislator as a father, he grew up around Baton Rouge’s political process. Later in life, he was elected St. Martin Parish president, which gives Angelle added credibility among lawmakers. Not only does Angelle understand the game of remaining electable, but he also comes from local government, which is where many lawmakers got their start. “He’s been through the same things we have,” says Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville. “That goes a long way.”
Angelle likewise knows how to work the floor, having led a few initiatives for Blanco, such as the so-called legacy law, which brought environmentalists and oil companies to the same table. And in the wake of hurricanes Gustav and Ike last year, Jindal tapped Angelle to head up a program that eventually distributed nearly 400 generators to power-essential service providers, including pharmacies, gas stations and grocery stores. Rather than having a staffer take on the task, Jindal said at the time he needed a rainmaker, someone who could get phone calls returned.
Angelle’s party affiliation shouldn’t be taken for granted, either. Democrats now have a safe place to turn in Jindal’s administration. Moreover, the hire helps Jindal keep his campaign promises of a bipartisan staff. But Angelle’s most prominent bargaining chip may be his position as DNR secretary, where he can approve or speed up certain projects. Even before he became legislative liaison, lawmakers would stop Angelle in the hallways and ask for assistance. “That was a really smart move by the administration,” says Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans. “He can reach out to people in ways they can’t.”
Overall, Angelle appears to have earned the respect of lawmakers, which is in direct conflict with the administration’s grab-and-go approach to credibility. Angelle likens his philosophy in dealing with lawmakers to having two masters. He answers to Jindal, but also works for the Legislature. “At the end of the day, it’s about counting those votes,” Angelle says, “but during the process, on our way to getting there, there’s no reason not to search for ways to get along and work together. That’s why I love the legislative branch, that interaction. My passion for public service has always overflowed. That’s why I know I’m going to die a broke man.”
| Scott Angelle
| Photo by Robin May
The improved relations between the Jindal administration and the Legislature couldn’t have come at a better time. Many legislators showed up this session wanting to put the screws to Jindal — and a few still do — for vetoing their pay raise last year, forcing new disclosure requirements upon them and generally treating them like second-class citizens by slamming them in speeches and not reining in his staff. But Angelle has been a breath of fresh air in an otherwise rotten environment and people are beginning to notice. “Scott Angelle is the administration’s link to political reality right now,” says one veteran lobbyist.
If there has been an embarrassing moment for Angelle and his team, which operate out of a conference room with tall walls known as both the “War Room” and “Room 4.5” (it’s on the governor’s Fourth Floor, but stretches into the floor above as well), it was the passage of an amendment that Jindal has been opposing since the beginning of the year. Rep. Avon Honey, D-Baton Rouge, slipped the amendment in allowing the state to accept $98 million in unemployment assistance from the federal stimulus package. Jindal is opposed to taking the cash because he says Louisiana would have to rewrite its unemployment laws and would eventually be saddled with coming up with the funding when the stimulus ends in coming years.
The vote was embarrassing for the entire House, and even Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, admits it wasn’t the chamber’s “finest hour.” Basically, even lawmakers opposed to the concept voted in favor of Honey’s amendment because it was late at night and vaguely worded. But Angelle says there was nothing his team could do about the vote. “We knew the bill was coming up, and we were prepared,” he says. “Sometimes the people inside the rail don’t know what the people outside the rail do. But there has to be an element of trust in the process. It was unfair, and it happened. But it won’t happen again.”
Aside from Angelle, among the other reasons for the go along-get along environment at the Capitol is the revised role Teepell is playing in this year’s regular session. Granted, Teepell remains the administration’s brain trust, but he’s no longer the sole link between the legislative process and the governor. Jindal, for his part, is making regular appearances during the session, which was a rarity last year, and meeting privately with key lawmakers. “We all still have our differences in the Legislature, but I think a lot of us will tell you right now that the governor’s personal touch is going a long way,” says Tucker.
Jindal supporters like Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Bourg, say they’ve been seeing Jindal in small groups on a regular basis in recent weeks. But unlike the few meetings held last year, the gatherings were not confined to feel-good chit-chat. “We’re finally hearing the governor talk about substantive issues,” Dupre says. “He used to avoid controversial topics when meeting with us, but he’s more willing to get to the nitty-gritty now. My only concern is I don’t think the governor is reaching out enough to traditional opponents. He’s not trying to sway them.”
Administration officials contend Jindal has held forth with many Democrats and members of the Legislative Black Caucus, but few from those legislative sectors are willing to pat the governor on the back just yet. “It used to be that if you had a bill the administration didn’t like, you never heard word one about it,” says Morrell. “But now they’re sending word. Still, it feels like if you’re against the governor on just one thing, they just write you off.”
As for Teepell, legislators say they’re seeing and hearing less of him these days. And when they do see him, it’s almost as if he’s a new man. Teepell has finally ditched his trademark faded jeans and cowboy boots and has recently been sporting a suit and even a tie (the latest rumors from legislative quilting circles suggest the Senate toyed around with a resolution requiring the makeover).
But it’s Teepell’s new attitude that is drawing the most praise, which is surprising considering how critical lawmakers were of Jindal’s chief and his pushy ways just a few months ago. “It does seem like Timmy has become a better listener,” says Harrison. “He’s listening to opposing voices more and is more open-minded. I’ve experienced that firsthand this session.”
There’s also one more explanation for why the relationship between Jindal and the Legislature smells sweeter than ever. While many lawmakers entered the session vowing to cut their shackles, the cold reality is that Jindal is the governor of a state where the governor is constitutionally the king (read: the governor is always victorious). Jindal is staying eerily quiet on the Legislature’s appropriation bills, which makes lawmakers nervous. As long as he controls the money, Jindal can control the vast number of lawmakers. “Lawmakers are learning their place,” says a statewide elected official. “The governor’s going to win.”
Nonetheless, there are still few weeks remaining in the regular session that adjourns June 25, and massive cuts to the state budget have yet to hit home. To call the session volatile at this point would be an understatement. In fact, as this story goes to print, Jindal has indeed improved relations (although still not to the point of previous governors), and lawmakers are certainly playing nice (if not playing dead), but that could all change by the time you reach the end of this sentence — or before lawmakers return home — which is a formula that’s keeping Angelle on his toes. “There’s a lot of golf left in this game,” Angelle says of the session. “One bad bill could turn this entire thing upside down.