On one such evening, during the waning hours of the 1971 regular session, the House sent over their meanest bullies to take on a group of senators who were messing with pet construction projects. "Big John" McKeithen, as he was affectionately called, stormed over wearing a custom-made jumpsuit and refereed the ruckus. It was one of many fights amongst lawmakers that had to be broken up during that period of forced reform.
That's viewed as an unfortunate chapter in Louisiana politics ' and it's also the last time the Legislature has been as volatile as it is now. There haven't been any brawls during the hurricane-recovery sessions, but tempers have crested following Katrina and Rita, prompting lawmakers to walk out of debates, once-staid coalitions to combust and a thunderous public outcry.
"I haven't seen it like this before ' not in recent history," says Jim Brown, who formerly served as a state senator and commissioner of insurance. "There have been some major financial crises in the state and other issues, one by one, are stemming great controversy and some real soul searching."
He's not the only one looking on in disbelief. The mantra has been repeated by lobbyists in the hallways of the Capitol, during debates by lawmakers who have seen it all ' or close to it ' and by political historians wondering what's next.
The consolidation of levee boards in southeast Louisiana was one of the most contentious issues during this month's special session. Ensuing debates often ran several hours long, with lawmakers waging turf battles over which parishes should be included. Even though Gov. Kathleen Blanco backed the proposal and called the session to enact it, many of her committee chairs ' her handpicked leadership ' opposed the bill and only offered their support after compromises were brokered.
Just minutes after the Senate reached a compromise on the levee reform bill, Sen. Tom Schedler, a Mandeville Republican, took to the floor and warned his colleagues that the jostling was reaching a "dangerous" level. For once, he declared, Louisiana should be thankful for term limits.
"I have personally never seen anything like this in my 10 years," Schedler says. "A lot of us can't wait to get out of here because this is a changing environment that is like quicksand. And it's truly unfortunate for the future."
The same emotions boiled over into anger on the House side this session when a bill to set up satellite voting centers for displaced New Orleanians was initially voted down. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Crescent City Democrat, responded by blaming racism and no clear vision on the part of lawmakers. He made a motion to end the session four days early, and 24 of his fellow House members voted with him.
"This House is more divided than I've ever seen," Richmond says. "That makes it difficult for us to get our business done."
Richmond's speech ended that evening with several members of the Legislative Black Caucus, joined by a few white lawmakers, walking off the House floor during debate.
Geographic and racial disputes in the aftermath of the storms were somewhat expected. People outside of the disaster zone aren't willing to embrace change, while those impacted are desperate for it. The end result only aggravates an already violent political atmosphere.
"Some of what is happening was predictable," says Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Dan Juneau, head of one of the state's most powerful lobbies. "Some of it is purely bizarre. Much has to do with the fact that power abhors a vacuum and the Capitol is definitely in a power vacuum right now."
Indeed, Republican lawmakers are taking their usual potshots at the governor and even the historical north-south divide between legislators is becoming more pronounced. During one committee meeting, Sen. Robert Adley, a Democrat from Benton, slammed a bill creating a special undersecretary for hurricane protection, noting it does very little for his constituents in north Louisiana, aside from soaking up their tax dollars.
"There is another part of this state that is having to share in these costs," Adley says. "There are a lot of people viewing all this a whole lot differently."
If the issues debated during the most recent two-week special session were enough to send the Legislature into a tizzy, the coming months could provoke more chaos. There are a bevy of other issues that promise to be touchier than any of those addressed thus far ' like land rights ' and the topics could be brought up as early as the regular session this spring, which is scheduled to convene March 27.
"I don't see any break in the political climate until the 2007 election cycle," says Dr. Pearson Cross, an assistant professor of political science at UL Lafayette. "The state is in an uproar."
Leadership is at the core of the aggravation, Brown says. The governor only testified in person on a few select issues during this month's special session, and her staff was not overly aggressive in hammering home the agenda of smaller government, consolidated levees and greater election rights for evacuees.
"Edwin Edwards, Dave Treen, Mike Foster, and others previously, worked that telephone hard during sessions and had meetings with everyone involved before anything took place," Brown says. "There were breakfasts and lunches and efforts to call certain constituencies back in the districts to lean on people. â?¦ Current conditions are going to continue like this for the next two years if the governor doesn't draw a line in the dirt."
The lack of enthusiastic lobbying activity from various interests also played against the governor in recent sessions, he adds, because those forces can bring pressure on the Legislature regarding hot button topics.
According to Cross, it's all bad news for the first woman governor of Louisiana: "It's quite clear to me that the governor's prestige, and certainly any reelection hopes, hang quite literally in the balance in terms of her accomplishments from the special sessions and the upcoming regular session."
Juneau says what is most telling at this juncture is the lack of desire to reform old practices in government. If parochialism can prevent reforms from being enacted in a time of great crisis, then one has to question whether reform is possible at all, he notes. In the end, it may be up to voters to bring in such a dramatic change.
"Right now, Louisiana is at war with itself and with Washington," Juneau says. "That is not the recipe for a successful recovery from severe devastation. It is reminiscent of the acrimony that existed after the Great Flood of 1927, acrimony that led a few months later to the beginning of the Long dynasty in Louisiana politics. Power abhorred a vacuum then, also."
Coton de tulear joins Westminster; Paypal splitting from Ebay; first US Ebola diagnosis and more national and international news for Wednesday, October 1, 2014.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Stage 4 vet takes on cancer and reminds us all what it really means to get involved.
Is Mary fading as Vitter solidifies his lock on the fourth floor?
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration has renegotiated contracts for six LSU hospital privatization deals, hoping to reach a compromise with federal health officials that will keep Medicaid dollars flowing to the privatized patient services.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is defending her record on gun rights, seeking to rebut sharp criticism from the NRA in a state where the right to bear arms is given special constitutional protection.
Citizens, you have less than a week to register to vote in the Nov. 4 election. Remember, if you don’t vote you can’t complain about the outcome. Well, you can but it’s kind of hypocritical.
After being forced out by its former landlords last year, the community garden has a new location and a 10-year lease.
The party says it has hit a milestone, reaching 10,000 registered voters in the state.
Defensive captain Junior Galette is disgusted by the Saints' sluggish start.
The use of $60 million in Louisiana's public school financing formula to pay for nearly three dozen charter schools violates the state constitution, a statewide teachers' union claimed Monday in a lawsuit.
February trial date indicates parties were unable to negotiate a settlement.
There was a time when United Ballot had a political stranglehold so tight on Lafayette’s black community it was nearly unbreakable, but that grip might be loosening.
The race for Lafayette city marshal may not be the most exciting of this year’s local political contests, but it could prove the most historic.
With the DA’s race too close to call and negative media coverage of Mike Harson on the ebb, will challenger Keith Stutes take the gloves off?
Gov. Bobby Jindal has been viewed as a health care policy wonk, and he's tried to build on that image ahead of a likely 2016 presidential campaign, positioning himself as the candidate with substantive ideas.
Jerry Jones watched what he called the best effort he's seen in 25 years as owner of the Dallas Cowboys in the first half, and that was before Tony Romo had the longest scramble of his career and DeMarco Murray finished off yet another 100-yard game.
Two of the most recognizable women in Republican politics, Sarah Palin and Mary Matalin, have been heavily involved in Louisiana’s current election cycle.
Even though the Louisiana Democratic Party has thrown its support behind former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ congressional bid, national Democrats are not expected to follow suit.
“[Mike] is no longer the energetic ADA that his recent ad is trying to portray. I just think Mike needs to get the hell out.” — Kermit Harson, DA Mike Harson’s brother
The New Orleans Saints have listed Jonathan Goodwin as questionable for Sunday night's game in Dallas, raising the prospect that second-year pro Tim Lelito will start at center for the first time.
The endorsements keep coming for District 9 LPSB candidate Jeremy Hidalgo, who picked up his fifth vow of support Thursday, this time from the Chamber’s political action committee.
Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter will be out knocking on doors this weekend with anti-abortion activists encouraging people to vote against his colleague, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
The ACLU of Louisiana has sued Abbeville's mayor and police chief over a policy barring police from any social media use showing the city in a bad light.
Prospective Republican presidential candidates are expected to promote "religious liberty" at home and abroad at a gathering of religious conservatives Friday, with anti-Obama speeches from the likes of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.