Arnold had found out there was an open seat next to former Rep. Bryant Hammett, a fellow Democrat and chairman of the almighty Ways and Means Committee, the premier tax-writing panel. The seat in question was also surrounded by the chairmen of appropriations and education, as well as a former speaker of the House. "Obviously, your seat mate can be really important, so I called Bryant to ask about getting that seat," Arnold says. "But he never returned my call."
New Orleans Rep. Arnold says he felt snubbed, but in subsequent weeks a couple of people told him Hammett had been calling with questions. Hammett was doing his research on Arnold. "And you know, he never did call me back," Arnold says laughing. "But I did get the seat, and we became quick friends. When Katrina blew us out, he offered my entire family his hunting camp. The man has a huge heart, but he can be calculating. He likes to know the outcome before going into battle."
Some might say that's Hammett in a nutshell, but his cautious nature is only one side of this complicated man. Yet there's little doubt he's perfect for his new job as secretary of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. If you've spent any significant amount of time in rural Louisiana, then you already know Hammett, 50, or someone like him. He's spent a lifetime chasing frogs, sitting in trees, hiding in blinds and riding on water. His four-wheel drive pickup truck shows perpetual evidence of mud and has a Jerry Jeff Walker album in the CD player.
Hammett has a folksy sense of humor as well, kidding that he wants deer stands around the wooded area surrounding the department's headquarters in Baton Rouge. As a proud resident of Ferriday, he also claims to know all three of the city's legends ' Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart. "In fact, my dad taught 'em. Those three married three women that were cousins, so they were double-first cousins," Hammett says with a laugh. "I guess there are a lot of jokes you can make about that, huh?"
But Hammett's country veneer doesn't stick long. He totes around two different BlackBerrys ' he calls them his "CrackBerrys" ' in an effort to separate his civil engineering business and government responsibilities from his personal life. For more than 22 years he has operated a private engineering firm from his home parish of Concordia, sometimes benefiting from government contracts.
In fact, the company has been about the only constant in Hammett's life over the past six months. Term limited from running for re-election in the House, Hammett stepped down in July to become the infrastructure manager for the governor's Disaster Recovery Unit. But when the wildlife job came open, Hammett was offered the gig by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and took it without hesitation. (He was considered for the job when Blanco first took office.)
Hammett's new $116,500 salary represents a $23,500 pay cut from the recovery position, but it's only one of the sacrifices he's having to make for his dream job. He has leased an apartment in Baton Rouge far from his real home, and his engineering firm won't be able to do work for the department any more due to obvious conflicts. "We won't be able to do the boundary lines for the department like we've done in the past," he says. But he will continue to operate the firm full-time while he fulfills his duties as secretary, a formula he argues will work. "I'll do whatever I have to do," he says.
As he doesn't officially take office until Dec. 4, Hammett's not saying much yet about the longtime issues facing the department ' the internal animosity between biology and enforcement, the feuding between commercial and recreational interests. As for fee increases and related taxes, he won't shy away from them if there's a real need, as officials have recently argued, but he isn't ready to discuss that topic either. "I have a learning curve to get through, and I am very anxious to do that," Hammett notes. "I've been going through a lot of briefings and learning as much as possible. I do know that I want the department and its policies to keep working like they've always have. I want to be visible and plan on pending a lot of time in the field."
Todd Masson, who has served as editor of Louisiana Sportsman magazine for the past 11 years, says Hammett might want to focus on the lack of recognition the secretary traditionally has with everyday hunters and anglers. "I think the average outdoorsman doesn't pay a lot of attention to the secretary's position," the editor says. "I don't even think most of them could tell you the name of the secretary. But they are familiar with what's coming down the pipe and what the [Wildlife and Fisheries] commission is making decisions about. They seem to have the real power."
Hammett wants to zero in on building relationships, which may be his calling card as secretary. Whether that means partnering with corporations for conservation efforts or teaming up with hunters for an informational forum, Hammett plans to take a big-tent approach to the job. "This department is the focal point of our sportsman's paradise, and we need to be there for the public," he says. Hammett is also interested in exploring partnerships with nonprofit groups to expand public hunting lands in southeast Louisiana and finding federal money for construction of new public boat launches destroyed by Katrina and Rita. "The more partners at the table," he says, "the more you can accomplish."
Hammett's also aware of the various problems facing Louisiana's fisheries, ranging from charter boat captains losing their livelihoods during last year's storms to commercial fishermen losing their longtime battle to benefit from direct payments put up by foreign importers. But he doesn't have specific solutions.
Jeff Angers, chairman of the Louisiana chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, says that shouldn't draw concern from recreational or commercial interests. While Hammett has always been a solid vote for recreational fishermen, Angers says the new secretary's love for the land and natural resources will always prevail when he's forced to make a big decision. "He is a huge sportsman, and that is going to carry him far in this job," Angers says. "Bryant lives and breathes the outdoors, and you better believe he's always going to do what is right."
The Louisiana Supreme Court has punted on its first chance to decide whether a new state constitutional provision declaring gun possession a fundamental right could void a long list of criminal statutes that regulate firearms.
New Orleans' offense, which ranks sixth in the NFL, isn't helping many of its skill players pile up Pro Bowl-type stats. Rather, the approach of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees has enabled a wide range of play-makers to emerge periodically with high-production outings.
An ordinance phasing out a rebate businesses receive for collecting and remitting sales taxes is tabled, but it doesn’t solve the vexing issue of government revenue.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Thursday, December 12, 2013:
As part of a national undertaking known by industry insiders as the “Butterfly Project,” a rebranded version of The Daily Advertiser is set to launch with Sunday’s edition of the Gannett-owned paper.
Louisiana moved up a slot to 48th in the ranking of healthy states — once again, thank God for Mississippi! — so all this frettin’ about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid per Obamacare ... fuggidaboutit! We don’t need Medicaid no more!
The Denham Springs woman who placed Christmas lights in the shape of a butter finger on her roof in a display of anger directed at neighbors has doubled the trouble for the 2013 holiday season.
The 30-second commercial, to run around the state, is the Democratic senator's first TV spot in her bid for re-election to a fourth term.
It's a number that has edged up but falls far short of the thousands who are eligible for subsidized coverage.
A group of mostly higher education leaders will make recommendations to state lawmakers about how to tweak the policies governing tuition rates charged at the state's public colleges.
That would be Congressman John Fleming talking about Sen. David Vitter.
The alleged mastermind behind the bribery scheme that went on for four years under DA Mike Harson’s nose isn’t just schizophrenic, bipolar and recovering from mini strokes; he now says he has cancer.
Louisiana's higher education leaders are trying to work out a financing deal to keep the state's public colleges from running low on state cash to operate their campuses.
With their latest triumph, the Saints left little doubt about how tough they are to beat in the Superdome. Unfortunately, two of their remaining three games are on the road.
For the first time in at least five years, retired teachers, state workers and school system employees could see an increase in their pension checks.
Lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration shared a collective sigh of relief with the news that Louisiana's tax amnesty program brought in the $200 million that they used to help balance this year's budget.
Drew Brees often makes the extraordinary look routine, particularly during night games in the Superdome.
The teams were extended invitations Sunday for the New Year's Day matchup played at Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If all 44 projects are approved, about $300 million would remain in the fund set up as a down payment to help the Gulf.
Last week, the Saints gave up 429 yards to Seattle, second most in a game this season.
Since Anthony Jennings and Brooks Haack were not expected to contribute until next year at the earliest, it seemed like a sneak peek at hidden Christmas gifts.
Louisiana National Guard personnel seeking benefits for same-sex spouses will have an easier time filing the requests, despite a state refusal to let its workers process the paperwork.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera sees one potential flaw with his team's stellar defensive play so far this season. "Apparently we like to bite on the double moves," Rivera said.
Computer hackers may have gained access to the personal information of thousands of Louisiana residents who use debit cards issued by JPMorgan Chase for three state agencies, authorities said Wednesday.
Jim Purcell, who has been in the job since February 2011, notified the Board of Regents about his decision at its monthly meeting.