coverJanuary 4, 2012

Leadershift

As a new year dawns on our political landscape, local influence over the Legislature seems precarious at best,
especially compared to Lafayette’s headier days.
By Jeremy Alford   •   Photos by Robin May

It wouldn’t be fair to call Lafayette Parish cursed when it comes to the title of House speaker, but it hasn’t exactly been pumping out gavel-wielders during the long and storied history of the Louisiana Legislature. World class chefs, sure. Accordion players, absolutely. But no speakers of the House, at least in recent times.

The position hadn’t even existed for a full 20 years when, in 1831, a slave-owning plantation tycoon by the name of Alexandre Mouton seized it with a confident grip. He was able to leverage his personal wealth and his popularity inside the rails. He was Lafayette’s first favorite son to serve as speaker. And the last.

Mouton was also the parish’s first native to be elected governor. He took the top post in 1843, during an unprecedented fiscal shitstorm. Mouton inherited a statewide depression and subsequently made tough decisions. He implemented unpopular budget cuts while fighting off proposed tax increases from the Legislature. He even sold off state assets to generate dollars.

It wasn’t until Kathleen Blanco came along that Lafayette saw another resident elected governor. She took office in 2004 and, like Mouton, almost instantly met her political tempest, only this time fueled by man and nature. Hurricane Katrina deeply marked her term, along with that of Jerry Luke LeBlanc’s.

LeBlanc was a fellow Lafayette resident whom Blanco plucked from the House of Representatives to serve as commissioner of administration. Prior to that, LeBlanc was chairman of the budget-drafting Appropriations Committee, an enviable post in the Legislature. This was generally around the same time former Rep. Wilfred Pierre of Lafayette oversaw the House Natural Resources Committee and former Rep. Sydney Mae Durand chaired House Health and Welfare.

LeBlanc is gone now, having transformed his legislative clout into a administrative job at UL. You can still bump into him and Pierre around Lafayette. Blanco, Louisiana’s first woman governor, opted against a second term. She still earns ink from the mainstream press, and rightfully so.

Durand’s memory is still strong in the wake of her October passing. Mouton, meanwhile, died 126 years ago. However, a piece of his legacy survives in Lafayette’s St. John Catholic Cemetery — and in the descendants who followed his path into public service.

Over the past year or so, locally and elsewhere, hopes were high that state Rep. Joel Robideaux would join these ranks of climbers from Lafayette. He was LeBlanc’s replacement in the House and immediately made a name for himself by having no party affiliation.

The independent status allowed Robideaux to move easily between political genres and cobble together a diverse backing in 2010 to beat a seasoned pro, outgoing state Rep. Noble Ellington, for speaker pro tem.

Now just a heartbeat away from the speaker’s chair, Robideaux made it known he wanted The Promotion. He switched to the party of Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose endorsement would be needed to secure the big gavel. Of course, Jindal went with another Republican: Rep. Charles Kleckley of Lake Charles.

Robideaux stuck it out, arguing lawmakers should be able to make their own choice, free of pressure from the Fourth Floor. After initially vowing to push a roll call vote, he only recently acquiesced to Jindal’s pick.

There’s still a bit of hurt and outrage in Robideaux’s voice, but he’s moving on. It also appears that the Republican label is going along for the ride.

“The hardest part about that is I’ve been an independent since I registered to vote. I have the same mindset,” he said in an interview Dec. 16, the day following the annual legislative Christmas party. “But in the actual political process, the parties are beginning to play a larger role in what happens. So, if I’m in this for my community, for making things happen for Lafayette, the decision still makes sense.” 

Robideaux’s story is important because his was Lafayette’s final bid for real, tangible power during the 2012-2016 term of the Louisiana Legislature.

He could end up in another posh job; if he had his druthers, it would be atop the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee or an Appropriations assignment.

“I wouldn’t rule out anything,” says Robideaux, a certified public accountant. “I’ve had good meetings with Rep. Kleckley and the Fourth Floor. I asked them to keep an open mind and to try to utilize my strengths in service of the House.”

Traditionally, being the runner up for House speaker brings with it a bit of negotiating power, but Robideaux insists no die has been cast. “I never had anything in mind. I haven’t demanded anything,” he says.
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From the perspective of Lafayette, there was an urgency to Robideaux’s bid for speaker.

An unmistakable leadership void is being created by outgoing Sen. Mike Michot, a Lafayette Republican who’s bowing out as chairman of the Finance Committee, the upper chamber equivalent of Appropriations. Rep. Page Cortez, another R from L, is taking Michot’s place, but forfeits a spot in the House pecking order.

Democratic Rep. Rickey Hardy lost out on advancing his political career through a second term, but it came at the hands of voters. Fellow Democrat Rep. Bobby Badon of Carencro took himself out of a second term this fall after a DWI arrest, of which he was later acquitted, made statewide news — complete with video.

Starting next month, that makes for a House delegation of four freshmen. Out of six. Cortez is essentially a newbie in the Senate. Granted, he’s joined by Sen. Jonathan Perry, a Republican from Kaplan, but he just took his oath in March after a very brief stint in the House. Lafayette’s other senator, Democrat Elbert Guillory of Opelousas, arrived in the upper chamber taking the same special-election route. That was roughly 19 months ago.

Robideaux, elected in 2004 and term-limited after 2015, is now the dean of the Lafayette delegation.

“Any time you lose someone like Michot, there’s going to be something missing,” Robideaux says. “We’ve been losing seniority for a while. We had an amazing run with Jerry Luke and Kathleen. But a region can’t have a monopoly on leadership. To use a sports analogy, I wouldn’t say we’re in a rebuilding year. We’re not starting from scratch.”

Rep. Jack Montoucet, a Scott Democrat who represents the Duson area in Lafayette Parish, is beginning his second term and has carved out a policy niche for himself on the House Natural Resources Committee. He has become a voice for the alligator industry and the Atchafalaya Basin on the panel. There’s a good chance Montoucet could build on that standing. It would be a good thing for Lafayette, especially since the committee has a hand in oil and gas policy as well.
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Rep. Nancy Landry, a Republican from Lafayette who was elected alongside Montoucet in 2007, could have broader appeal in the House. She has been able to leverage her institutional knowledge of family law on the Civil Law and Procedure Committee. A common legislative theme involves legal protections for families and children. She has been prolific over the past four years, drafting new procedures for state employees who work with children and creating new legal delays for certain child custody orders.

As a member of House and Governmental Affairs, she was a key player in the recent redistricting process. She has become a vocal critic — one who garners attention — of piecemeal efforts to redraw judicial districts. In response, she has called for studies of Louisiana’s judicial districts, responding to largely Democratic concerns about minority seats for women and African-Americans.

Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Landry has been just as aggressive about keeping the Lafayette delegation on the same page. She organized a meeting of the representatives and senators in December. To give you some kind of sense of her commitment to the delegation, Landry says she was prepared to buck Jindal’s choice of speaker if it had come to a vote — this from a lawmaker who’s usually lockstep with the governor.

“I was going to vote for Joel,” Landry says. “We’ve always worked well together. All of us work well together. And it’s best for Lafayette that we do. I think we all want to learn each other’s strengths and how to best incorporate them. We want influence in different kinds of areas, on different committees.”

On the horizon, Landry says parish voters can expect the Lafayette delegation to meet with frequency, probably weekly when the Legislature is in session.

“I can also tell you that all of us are looking forward to working with Rep. Kleckley,” she adds. “We’re excited about moving ahead.”

Robideaux, for his part, leaned on the knife himself by giving up his run for speaker. In theory, that would have forced a vote on the floor this month. That would have made lawmakers declare alliances.

“I don’t know if I would say that I was getting push back, but I could tell that people were getting nervous about committee assignments and wondering what would happen if they stuck with me to the end,” he says. “A long talk with my wife is what eventually pushed me to make the decision to drop out. She’s my sounding board. She said I could either stand on principle or do what’s best for the entire community.”

This is the political environment that four Lafayette freshmen are currently entering. They are Reps.-elect Stuart Bishop, a Republican and Democrats Terry Landry, Vincent Pierre and Stephen Ortego.

Of the four, Pierre has the lone distinction of knocking over an incumbent — that being Hardy. He says he feels confident that the interests of north Lafayette and African-Americans from around the parish will be well-represented. He and Landry are the only African-American lawmakers in the delegation.

“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people by how well we’re going to work together,” Pierre says. “We’ve got what I think is a good cross-section of people to cover the needs of the entire district. We already have shared goals going into the session.”

Jeremy Alford can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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Chuck Kleckley and Joel Robideaux 

MEET CHUCK KLECKLEY
The man who bested Robideaux, among others, and your future speaker of the House

Before Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed him for speaker in October, a move that upended the plans of other ambitious representatives like Lafayette’s Joel Robideaux, Chuck Kleckley had but one claim to fame. It was his chairmanship of the House Insurance Committee.
In this position, he has been a prolific policymaker, authoring more than 30 insurance bills over the past four years that eventually became law.
Kleckley is also a member of the National Conference of Insurance Legislators. He’s chairman of the group’s Property-Casualty Insurance Committee and has traveled to different parts of the country this year to help develop model legislation regarding certificates of insurance and balance billing, among other issues.
Kleckley knows his way around the insurance industry. And the industry, for its part, seems to be a big fan of Kleckley, according to his campaign finance reports on file with the Ethics Administration.
During 2010 and through Nov. 1 of this year, Kleckley has raised $75,600 through his political action committee. Of that amount, $58,850 — more than 77 percent — came directly from insurance companies, agents, underwriters, law firms with related practices and industry trade groups.
In an earlier interview, before Robideaux withdrew his opposing bid for speaker, Kleckley said the money has no role whatsoever in his vision for the House. If lawmakers follow Jindal’s lead and elect him speaker in January, Kleckley said the insurance industry would be on the same footing as all others.
“I take contributions from all kinds of industries and, in this case, it’s just another example of people supporting my agenda,” Kleckley said. “Plus, I can tell you that the work we did on the insurance committee over the past four years was on behalf of the citizens of Louisiana. Not the industry.”
As insurance chairman, Kleckley has filed just about every imaginable type of legislation over the years, including bills that would increase rates on behalf of the industry. But on the other hand, there are signs that Kleckley takes his own stands. For example, from 2008 to 2011, he voted with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry only 74 percent of the time.
He has also bucked the insurance industry on more than one occasion. In 2008, he passed a law forcing health insurers to provide at least $50,000 worth of coverage for prosthetics. A year later, he moved another bill through the process restricting how insurance companies can use named-storm deductibles.
“I’ve never been shy about pushing legislation that’s more important to consumers than the industry,” he says.
The insurance angle alone only offers a superficial understanding of Kleckley’s politics. There’s more to him. For instance, his financial disclosure forms paint the picture of a self-made businessman with no clear ties to the insurance industry.
His income is derived solely from convenience stores — Four Corners Market in Lake Charles and Cajun Kwik Mart in Iowa — and real estate holdings. Collectively, they yield at least $300,000 annually for Kleckley, based on the broad value ranges used in the state’s disclosure forms.
Along with his wife, Kleckley also owns 25 percent of ACME Aviation in Sulphur, an aircraft club. In his spare time, Kleckley donates money and resources to the Profit and Loss Association, a charity that promotes Christian principles in business. While he lives in Lake Charles, Kleckley’s disclosure forms show he likewise maintains a secondary home in Baton Rouge.
— Jeremy Alford

Quick Hits on the Freshman Crop

The Acadiana Delegation is welcoming six new lawmakers into the fold next year. While it might be difficult to learn everything there is about the whole bunch at this very moment, it’s always easy enough to skim from the top to let you know what these future power players are about — at least on the surface. So, here it is, a set of brief introductions to your rookie lawmakers.
 
• Sen. Bret Allain, R-Jeanerette: While serving on the state Mineral Board, he helped transform the leasing process from one shaded by unfair access and favoritism to one that is now competitive and transparent.
• Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette: While pursuing his university studies, he worked as an aide to then-state Sen. Craig Romero, R-New Iberia. 
• Rep. Bob Hensgens, R-Gueydan: He can take credit for balancing the budget without raising taxes while he was mayor of Gueydan.
• Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette: As a young man in Iberia Parish, he made extra money picking peppers and working in the sugar cane fields. As a grown man, he was appointed superintendent of state police by former Gov. Mike Foster.
• Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro: He is the co-founder of Ecolafayette, a design-build firm specializing in energy efficient homes. He also knows a few jokes in French.
• Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette: He has concerns about career or technical diplomas and believes they severely limit career opportunities.
— Jeremy Alford


LAFAYETTE STATUS REPORT

While the ideological division used to be just a tad closer, Republicans now outnumber Democrats in Lafayette Parish’s legislative delegation by a count of five-to-four. (We’re not counting Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, in this list because he only represents the Duson area of Lafayette Parish.) The most substantial shift came courtesy of Rep. Joel Robideaux. And in a way, it knocks a bit of political street cred off Lafayette’s luster. When Robideaux embraced the Republican Party in September, the area lost the privilege of being represented by one of the few elected independents in the state. But it also goes to show that each lawmaker has his or her own agenda. In fact, every incumbent in the 2012-2016 delegation filed a bill last year. Together, they introduced a total of 41 bills and passed 18 into law. Robideaux, coincidentally, draws a distinction in this category as well by having the most bills filed last year (12) and the most passed into law (five).


Sen. Page Cortez (R)
Bills passed 2011: 2 (4 bills filed)

Sen. Elbert L. Guillory (D)
Bills passed 2011: 3 (4)

Rep. Nancy Landry (R)
Bills passed 2011: 3 (6)

Sen. Jonathan W. Perry (R)
Bills passed 2011: 2 (8)

Rep Joel C. Robideaux (R)
Bills passed 2011: 5 (12)

Rep.-elect Terry Landry (D)
Bills passed 2011: n/a**

Rep.-elect Stuart Bishop (R)
Bills passed 2011: n/a**

Rep.-elect Vincent Pierre (D)
Bills passed 2011: n/a**

Rep.-elect Stephen Ortego (D)
Bills passed 2011: n/a**

SOURCES: Louisiana Legislature; Louisiana Ethics Administration
**These individuals will serve in their first legislative session this year after being sworn into office.


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