coverWednesday, April 13, 2011

Lafayette state Rep. Joel Robideaux aims to become the first speaker of the House to hail from Acadiana in 50 years — and the first ever with no party affiliation.
By Nathan Stubbs  Photos by Robin May


Two weeks before the Legislature convened for its spring session last year, state Rep. Joel Robideaux received a letter in the mail from Noble Ellington, his legislative colleague from Winnsboro. At the time, Ellington was also Robideaux’s chief rival in a heated campaign for speaker pro tempore, the state House of Representative’s No. 2 leadership position. Both Robideaux and Ellington had their respective blocks of support among legislators — House members elect both speaker and speaker pro tem — and while historically the position is decided in closed door meetings well in advance of the session, this race increasingly seemed headed toward a potentially divisive showdown.

The handwritten note was short and to the point: “Friends, no matter what.”

“Noble and I have always gotten along very well,” Robideaux says. “I appreciated that he [sent the letter], and I picked up the phone right then and called him and told him so.”

While gracious on the one hand, Ellington — despite facing an uphill road against Robideaux, who had the support of House Speaker Jim Tucker — pushed the speaker pro tem issue all the way to a public vote of the House, something that had only happened once before in the Legislature’s history. Ellington issued a schoolyard challenge to his fellow lawmakers before the vote, urging them to buck Tucker.

“I double dog dare you to do what is the right thing,” he pleaded.

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Speaker Pro Tem Joel Robideaux of Lafayette, front and center,
will need not only the support of fellow members of the Acadiana
delegation but also the votes they can help rally throughout the
state in his quest to become speaker of the House in 2012.
From left with Robideaux are Reps. Mike Huval,
Simone Champagne and Taylor Barras; Sens. Fred Mills
and Jonathan Perry; Rep. Nancy Landry; Sen. Mike Michot;
and Reps. Sam Jones and Page Cortez.
The dare wasn’t enough to propel his campaign over the top, though it came close. A roll call vote of House members goes in alphabetical order of last names, and it wasn’t until Denham Springs Rep. Bodi White was called that Robideaux’s tally hit the magic majority number of 53 (of 105 House members). Afterward, Ellington told The Franklin Sun, “Anytime you come that close with the speaker, you can’t be terribly disappointed. [Robideaux] had a lot more cards to play with than I did.” (Ellington could not be reached for comment for this story).

Then came the payback. Acting independently of Robideaux, Tucker exacted quick revenge, pulling Ellington and some of his supporters off key House committees and even threatening to take away Ellington’s government-owned apartment. The speaker acknowledged a number of the committee changes were a result of some members breaking commitments they made during the pro tem race.

Robideaux has tried to rise above holding any political grudges. He credits Ellington with doing the same. “I think Noble set a good example for the body with the way he handled the whole situation,” Robideaux says. “And [the pro tem vote] probably was a good lesson for the body to let them know that, you know, we vote on things all the time, and we don’t agree with people, but once we vote we need to put it behind us and move on. And Noble’s been, I think, the best example of that because he’s there to do a job and that’s it.”

Having prevailed in such a close contest is invaluable experience for Robideaux, who now has his sights set on becoming the next speaker of the House. The new leadership class won’t take its posts until 2012, but with Tucker term limited out of office at the end of this year, prospective candidates are already lining up. From southwest Louisiana, both Robideaux, an independent, and Lake Charles Rep. Chuck Kleckley, a Republican, plan to seek the House’s top post. Also making the rounds and expressing intentions of running are Democrats Jim Fannin of Jonesboro and Jeff Arnold of Algiers. And while he hasn’t been openly campaigning, no one is counting out Noble Ellington, who recently switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

For legislators, the lure of the top post in the House is even stronger at a time when the state faces critical budgetary choices from health care management to education. The speaker of the House helps set the state’s agenda, leads key negotiations with the Senate and the governor’s office and also controls all House members’ committee assignments.

UL Monroe Political Science professor Joshua Stockley notes that since term limits recently began taking effect, races for legislative leadership positions are becomingly increasingly competitive. “Term limits have heightened and exacerbated the importance of leadership positions,” he says, noting that such positions and committee chairmanships are frequently touted in campaigns to move up in leadership or move on to higher office. “Leadership positions can carry a lot more sway than just being a rank and file member,” Stockley adds.

Of course, any aspiring speaker this year must first win re-election in newly reapportioned legislative districts. The fall elections will also bring several new faces into the Legislature, all of whom will have their say in who should be the next leader of the House.

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“It’s important to let [other legislators] know that it’s something you plan on doing,” Robideaux says, “even though we don’t yet know who will actually be the members [in next year’s Legislature]. We may all get elected out of office. So on the one hand, it’s a little premature, but on the other hand, you can’t wait. You’ve got to start letting folks know and start trying to build support during the last part of the term.” (So far, no candidate has announced intentions to run against Robideaux for his District 45 seat this fall.)

From his experience with the speaker pro tem race, Robideaux clearly knows the advantage of building an early head of steam and growing coalition in advance of next year’s session. As much as any other campaign for political office, it’s about managing expectations and perceptions (knowing how it can backfire, Robideaux eschews any notion that he may be the frontrunner going into the speaker’s race). It’s also about making a personal connection with the voters between the brass rails of the House floor — something Robideaux admits he could have done a better job with in the speaker pro tem race.

“The lesson that I learned from that race,” Robideaux says, “is that it’s a campaign just like any other campaign. And I didn’t necessarily do a good job of that as compared to Rep. Ellington. He really did a good job campaigning the body, and it made me realize that you have to reach out to folks just like when you’re running for office back home.

“You’ve got to treat it the same way, ask for their support, let them know that you’re interested in this and that you want their vote because if you don’t ask them, they’re not going to be inclined to vote for you.”

Lafayette attorney Clay Allen has been struck by Robideaux’s fiercely independent streak. One of the cofounders of Blueprint Louisiana, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to pro business and political ethics reform in Louisiana, Allen first thought of Robideaux, a state representative whose philosophy seemed perfectly aligned with Blueprint’s mission, as a lock to join the organization and sign its pledge. Robideaux respectfully declined. More recently, Allen has offered support for Robideaux in his bid to become speaker, and in doing so, tried to convince the no-party legislator that it would be a much easier row to hoe if he would join the Republican Party, which now holds a majority in the state House. Again, Robideaux resisted.

“Given his current leadership position as speaker pro tem,” Allen says, “if he would switch to the Republican Party, his election as the next speaker of the House would be a slam dunk. But Joel is truly an independent, and I have to admire a politician that sticks to his principles.”

Robideaux sees his independence as an asset — especially in a historically nonpartisan legislature like Louisiana’s. It’s one of the reasons Robideaux was among the many legislators welcoming Gov. Bobby Jindal’s call for bipartisanship in his speech last month opening lawmakers’ special session on redistricting.

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Robideaux and fellow legislators break for lunch during the redistricting special session.
St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier, bottom left, joins legislators Taylor Barras,
Nancy Landry, Sam Jones, Fred Mills and Page Cortez.
“Obviously, I was thrilled with his speech,” Robideaux says. “I thought it said a lot of what I believe and what the body believes. You know there’s elements of the body that are hyper-partisan, but it’s a small element on both sides. I think the majority of the folks that serve are there for the right reasons and the party issues are secondary, and that causes the parties some discomfort at times,” he continues. “But there’s a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans that vote the way they vote because they feel it’s the right thing to do regardless of whether the party’s putting pressure on them to do one thing or another.”

Robideaux rising to speaker of the House would be historic on several levels. The Legislature has never had an independent — that is, someone with no party affiliation — in one of its top posts. Robideaux also would become the first speaker to hail from Lafayette and the first from Acadiana since Bob Angelle of Breaux Bridge delivered his final stroke of the gavel in 1960.

As both a Blueprint Louisiana board member and the current chairman of the board for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Allen has observed Robideaux in the Legislature and is confident about his abilities to help them lead the state. Allen’s also one of several local political activists who recognizes the importance of Robideaux’s campaign in order for Acadiana to maintain its clout in Baton Rouge. Sen. Mike Michot, chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, is prevented by term limits from running for re-election and will be out of the Legislature next year.

“Since we lose Sen. Michot this year due to term limits, the people of Acadiana must pin their hopes on Rep. Robideaux for a leadership position in the state Legislature,” Allen says.

Initially, Robideaux was seen as the heir apparent to Michot’s District 23 Senate seat. Michot and Robideaux are longtime friends who have, for the most part, allied themselves politically. In 2007, they formed a political action committee called Leadership for Louisiana, which promotes state initiatives and, in some cases, makes campaign contributions to like-minded candidates.

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“You have to reach out to folks, just like when you’re running for office back home,” says Robideaux,
visiting here with Republican state Rep. Anthony Ligi Jr. of Metairie, left, and Rep. Chuck Kleckley,
a Lake Charles Republican also angling for the speaker’s post.
While Robideaux says he seriously considered running for Michot’s Senate seat, he ultimately decided that he could better serve the area from a more senior position in the House. He also cites a desire to continue what is now a 12-year streak of Acadiana having someone in legislative leadership, from Jerry Luke LeBlanc as chair of House Appropriations and then commissioner of administration for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco to Michot as chair of Senate Finance. “We’ve had a 12-year run of Acadiana having someone in one of the top two spots in the chambers,” Robideaux says, “and I think the best chance for Acadiana to have someone [remain] in one of those spots, is for me to stay in the House. I just think it’s the right move for our area.”

As he ramps up his campaign for speaker of the House, Robideaux also is working to build up his Leadership for Louisiana PAC in advance of this fall’s elections. A Leadership for Louisiana fundraiser at the Acadiana Center for the Arts April 15 shows a broad array of support for the organization and serves as a good barometer of potential backing for Robideaux’s campaign for speaker (he plans to announce his intentions in a speech at the event). The host committee includes all six of Louisiana’s statewide elected officials: Gov. Bobby Jindal,  Treasurer John Kennedy, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and Commissioner of Agriculture & Forestry Mike Strain, as well as several Acadiana lawmakers and more than 20 business sponsors.

The event is doubling as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the formation of the original Acadiana delegation in the Legislature.

Since his election, Robideaux has worked to unify the Acadiana delegation — and counts its members as his core support in any leadership race. In the Legislature, the official Acadiana delegation is made up of 43 legislative members from 22 parishes (among the delegation’s 43 House members, only nine voted against Robideaux for speaker pro tem).
Because term limits brought in a slew of new legislators in 2007 and Robideaux had joined the House after a special election three years earlier, he is the senior member of the Lafayette delegation. That makes him a natural leader for Acadiana area representatives, but seniority isn’t his only strength. His leadership was never more evident than in 2008 when he rallied a contingent of Acadiana House members against a proposed pay raise for legislators (an increase supported by many legislative colleagues, including Michot). The group staked out its opposition early in the debate and even went so far as to pledge that if the pay raise passed, its members would donate their pay increases to local charities.

That genuine independent streak, which also makes him palatable to Democrats, could be what propels Robideaux to victory.

“He certainly has my support,” says Democratic Lafayette state Rep. Rickey Hardy, who plans to help Robideaux in lobbying the Legislature’s Black Caucus, whose members will likely be among the key swing votes. “Joel being the speaker of the House would certainly be great for the Acadiana delegation,” Hardy says.

“[Joel] is a perfect candidate [for speaker],” says St. Martinville Sen. Fred Mills, who until recently served alongside Robideaux in the House. “He tries to work the issues where there’s consensus building, and he’s also a guy that has his door wide open for all the members.

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State Rep. Rickey Hardy, a staunch supporter of Joel Robideaux’s campaign for House speaker,
has promised to help rally support from the Legislative Black Caucus. Talking with Hardy
(right) and Robideaux are Republican state Reps. Steve Carter of Baton Rouge, left,
and Page Cortez of Lafayette.
“The opposition that voted against him,” Mills continues, “the people that voted against Joel got the same service from him as speaker pro tem as the people that voted for him, and I think that’s a big indication of the type of man he is. I think he reached out to all groups to help unify the body even from that vote, knowing that it could’ve been a divisive thing. And I think that’s probably what he got from it, and I think that’s what’ll springboard him into his next election for speaker.”

Being open and fair are also qualities being touted by the other speaker candidates, including Lake Charles’ Kleckley. A former Calcasieu Parish police juror who owns several convenience stores, Kleckley will be going into his third term in the House and makes a strong case for the level of influence and opportunity that the next speaker can wield.
“With term limits, I think that has brought about opportunities to move Louisiana to the next level,” Kleckley says. “And I think that’s one thing that makes this position of speaker even more exciting ­— that the opportunities out there are limitless.”

Without getting into specifics on issues, Kleckley cites the current count of 74 freshman legislators as a reason the next Legislature could have a big impact. “They want to have an impact. They’re energized. They’re independent thinking. My bottom line is that with this many newcomers, I think we really have some good opportunities to do some really good things, and I think the speaker’s position would be a great opportunity to make some of these things happen.”

So far Kleckley is the only Republican to have announced intentions to seek the post. If he remains the lone GOP contender, that could translate into a big advantage.

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State Rep. Nancy Landry and Speaker Pro Tem Joel Robideaux discuss the
implications of redistricting on Lafayette and Acadiana.
For his part, Robideaux is touting his ability to work across party lines as an independent. A certified public accountant, he has one of the Legislature’s most conservative voting records and has been courted by the Republican Party since first getting elected in 2004.

“For me, I just enjoy being an independent,” Robideaux says. “Certainly there are headaches associated with it at times. There’s always pressure to join the parties, and I can understand why the parties want that. You know, the parties are in place to help control the issues; they want the power to control what’s being done. And I don’t begrudge them that, I understand that. I just don’t like being told what to do.”

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