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."
Tuesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Oscar de la Renta dies; Pistorius sentenced; World Series begins and more national and international news for Tuesday, October 21, 2014.
We will be offering our recommendations on the constitutional amendments tomorrow.
The justices did not comment in leaving in place lower court rulings that dismissed the lawsuits against BP and other companies involved in the worst U.S. offshore oil spill.
White registration is down by 7,700 voters while black registration has shot up by 7,100 voters.
Even though it had been rumored for months, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu finally pulled the trigger recently on a major campaign shakeup that moved control over to a few Big Easy insiders.
Louisiana's health department says it will seek law changes to stop billing sexual assault victims for exams and tests.
It wasn’t the historic slashes to higher ed funding or the ensuing tuition spikes that recently had LSU’s student body and faculty riled up in collective outrage.
Will $400 be enough for the re-election campaign of LPSB's Hunter Beasley to overcome two years of holding our school system hostage and hurting the education of our children all because of a personal dislike of the superintendent?
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said Friday he expects his playing status in Detroit to be decided by coach Sean Payton on Sunday, shortly before the game.
Lawmakers have sidestepped a decision on whether they accept claims from Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration that the state closed last year's books with a nearly $179 million surplus.
Coming off the high of a fourth quarter comeback against Tampa Bay and a helpful bye week, linebacker Junior Galette sees a real turnaround coming for New Orleans' struggling defense.
Former President Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party's most popular surrogate this fall, is heading to Louisiana early next week for a campaign rally with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Time and again you hear people say DA Mike Harson is unbeatable because he's doled out political favors over the past 20 years. But a new lawsuit could end that speculation.
After the season's signature win (so far), here are some helpful tips for Cajun Nation during the conference stretch.
Did the state close last year's books with a surplus or a deficit?
Practicing without limitations on Wednesday, running back Mark Ingram looked ready to return to a New Orleans offense that once again ranks among the NFL's best when the Saints play at Detroit on Sunday.
It’s been decided: Superintendents of Louisiana’s public school system will retain the controversial powers granted by Act 1 of the 2012 session.
Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy has a bone to pick with the Jindal administration, which recently — surprise! — announced that the state ended the most recent budget year with a $178.5 million dollar surplus.
The messaging battle, however, isn't tied to individual campaign accounts. Third-party groups have poured millions of dollars into advertising.
With her political future in jeopardy, Sen. Mary Landrieu is turning to a natural constituent base in her re-election bid.
Terrance Broadway threw for a touchdown and rushed for 113 yards to lead Louisiana-Lafayette to a 34-10 victory over Texas State on Tuesday night.
Aligned with the party of an unpopular president, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu sought to keep her distance from the Obama administration, against claims from her chief Republican challenger Bill Cassidy that a vote to re-elect the Democratic incumbent was a vote for Barack Obama.
Seven people in Louisiana and two others in Mississippi have been arrested in connection with an international online sales scam.
Despite the hype and potential misinformation to have spread in the wake of Mark Cockerham’s recent departure from the LPSB, his candidacy for reelection is still on — now with the backing of the Chamber's Empower PAC.