Due in large part to his recommendations for reforming state government, and the tidal wave of doting media coverage that has followed, Treasurer John Kennedy’s stock is on the uptick once again. The only mystery is his endgame.

 

 20091209-news-0101.jpg
 State Treasurer John Kennedy
 Photo by Robin May
 

 

Granted, Louisiana voters decided not to send John Kennedy to the U.S. Senate on two different occasions. First, in 2004, it was David Vitter who got the nod. Then, in 2008, senior Sen. Mary Landrieu easily sailed to re-election. But if there is an alternate reality out there where the state treasurer actually graduated to the Hill, it would certainly look something like this:


He’s sitting behind the microphone — actually, it’s more like he’s crouched and ready to attack – with a Cheshire Cat smile on his face and eyeglasses perched on the tip of his nose. He’s wearing a blue and gold selection from what must be a limitless supply of conservative, striped ties. When he’s not talking or sipping from a Styrofoam coffee cup, he’s got that huge smile on his face, the kind that suggests he knows the answers to his questions already, and you’re just going to love what’s coming.

In the hot seat is Alan M. Boxberger, undersecretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, who’s been called to testify before Kennedy’s subcommittee on efficiency and benchmarking. As treasurer, Kennedy doesn’t get many opportunities like this — that is, to govern with a gavel — but his seat on the governor’s Commission on Streamlining Government came with oversight of the subcommittee. Boxberger is in the seat to answer why the Jetson Center for Youth in the Baton Rouge area costs the state twice as much money as similar facilities in Monroe and New Orleans.

Boxberger explains that Jetson is a 24-hour facility that was recently downsized. “We were using three different secure areas on campus, and we are now down to utilizing one of those,” Boxberger says.

Kennedy butts in before Boxberger even takes a breath. “So, that should make it cheaper, huh?”

Underneath the witness table, Boxberger begins shaking his right leg. The rhythm becomes faster the more he tries to explain. “Well, we still have to maintain air conditioning and electricity for the state so it doesn’t fall into disrepair,” Boxberger says, adding that only 31 of Jetson’s 60 or so rooms are actually being used today. 

“You’re using air conditioning in parts you’re not using?” Kennedy asks laughing, quickly removing his glasses, possibly for dramatic effect, before placing them back on. “Why?”

“Due to mold and other issues like that,” Boxberger responds, the ball of his right foot still pumping his leg underneath the table.

Kennedy leans back slightly in his chair before pouncing. “Why are we air conditioning and keeping the lights on in the other 30? I want to know. Are you being directed to do that [by the Division of Administration]?”

Boxberger practically turns a different shade, and it’s no wonder. “I cannot specifically answer that question,” he says. “I’ve only been on the job 10 weeks.”

That’s when Kennedy cuts him loose and moves on to a different topic. It was a performance worthy of a congressional hearing, where theatrics are half the battle. Of course, the reality of the situation is that Kennedy isn’t in D.C. He’s here, in the heart of state government, playing the role of fiscal hawk and government do-gooder.

While it might be a consolation prize, Louisiana’s opinion makers have taken notice. Practically every newspaper in the state has penned an editorial praising Kennedy for his bold ideas and investigative prowess. Letters from the public have echoed those sentiments as well. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s streamlining commission has been slow to embrace each and every idea, but the media attention and public reaction has been enough to rejuvenate Kennedy’s political career after a string of high-profile election losses. The next, obvious question: where does Kennedy go from here?



Anyone who knows anything about politics will tell you that Kennedy is probably positioning himself for something. But for what? Does he want to run for governor? Does he plan on jumping into the GOP primary during next year’s U.S. Senate race? Those answers are difficult to ascertain, but it has been a long and winding journey that brought Kennedy to the point of even pondering such questions.

Just a few months ago, it was practically unfathomable that the treasurer would already be back up on two legs deciding his own fate. Aside from losing two bids for the U.S. Senate, Kennedy also lost a bid for attorney general in 1991 — meaning he has lost every office he has ever sought, save for treasurer (Kennedy was first elected state treasurer in 1999, unseating incumbent Ken Duncan with 55 percent of the vote, and has won re-election without opposition ever since).

Kennedy is also a stranger in a strange land when it comes to party affiliation, but it’s a climate that he’s become accustomed to over the years. In 2007, after months of speculation, Kennedy switched to the Republican Party. Yet even as a Democrat, Kennedy didn’t quite fit into the fold. When officials with the Louisiana Democratic Party backed former Congressman Chris John in the Senate race won by Vitter five years ago, Kennedy fell off the Donkey Grid and went nomad. He was the lone wolf of Louisiana politics, and in many respects he still holds that title.

As a Republican, you won’t find Kennedy at the traditional GOP gatherings. He’s not a banner-bearer, and he’s not a cheerleader. Moreover, he’s shown time and again in recent months that he’s willing to throw criticism Jindal’s way, even though the governor is the inarguable leader of the party. For that reason alone Kennedy has caught the ire of many diehards. “I’m not a big party guy. I look at government through my own lens,” Kennedy says. “But I do feel more at home in the Republican Party, in large part because I’m a fiscal conservative. I’m happy now. I spent three years making the decision to switch, and I don’t regret it. I don’t know how people feel about that or how voters feel about it. I haven’t looked at a poll in over a year.”

If that’s indeed true, then maybe it’s time for Kennedy to take a peep at a few recent polls, says Bernie Pinsonat, who heads up the Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research. In October, Pinsonat’s firm released a poll that showcased Kennedy as the most popular statewide elected official, after Jindal. Pinsonat points out that Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu was technically atop the bunch with a 64 percent approval rating, but when weighed against his 22 percent negative rating, Kennedy’s nearly 61 percent approval figure takes the cake (Kennedy’s 15 percent negative rating was also lower than Jindal’s 32 percent negative rating).

These figures create an ideal foundation for Kennedy’s upward mobility, Pinsonat says. His negatives come largely from “trying to out-Democrat Chris John in 2004” and then turning around to run for the U.S. Senate again as a conservative at heart. “And if his opponents try to do that again, it won’t resonate as much with voters. It won’t be as effective,” Pinsonat says. “He couldn’t ask for a better turn of luck right now. When he’s up on TV and in the papers talking about budget cuts, it’s more like he’s Gov. Kennedy than Treasurer Kennedy. It’s a great image to have right now.”

Still, Pinsonat says anyone who digs below the surface will find a guy who has been all over the map politically. Kennedy remains an enigma to anyone who has been paying close attention to state government during the past two decades. He’s a complicated character with the murkiest of motives and, when viewed from the perspective of his entire career, few can ascertain exactly what he really believes — and maybe that includes Kennedy himself. He’s been a lawyer, a cabinet official, a campaign manager, an elected official, a Republican and a Democrat. Just a few years ago, he was allied with liberal icon Cleo Fields, a former state senator and African-American leader. Today, he’s buddy-buddy with Vitter, the conservative, family-values archetype who has more than once got in hot water with minorities for racially-charged politics. 

If deciphering who Kennedy is, as in the man behind the man, is challenging, then figuring out where he’s going is downright impossible. Asked if he wants to run for governor, Kennedy flatly says “no.” Asked if he’ll jump into the Senate race next year, again he says “no.” Kennedy says he’s “having fun” doing his job, and there’s no endgame in sight. At least for now. “After last year’s election, I decided to leave politics alone. I decided that I was done with it,” he says. “I want to run for re-election as treasurer, and I can’t think of a set of circumstance that would change that.”

As of Kennedy’s latest campaign finance report, he has more than $560,000 in the bank, and consultants interviewed for this story agree a challenger for the treasurer’s post would need at least $2 million to make Team Kennedy worry. Until his re-election bid jumps off, though, speculation will continue as to Kennedy’s angle. When pressed with this line of thought, Kennedy fires back with what he says is a definitive answer. “I’ve made up my mind. I’m enjoying what I’m doing,” he says. “If people want to assign different motives to me, I can’t stop them. I can only look you in the eye and tell you what my plans are. But I understand that speculation and politics are sports in Louisiana.”

One might get the impression from Kennedy that he considers himself the Real Deal, an elected official fighting the good fight just for the sake of political righteousness. As for why he’s doing all this, chasing media attention and hammering on the administration to “cut smart,” Kennedy insists there’s no smoke, no mirrors and, more important, no hidden agenda. “I’m just doing my job,” he says.



Chief among the reasons Kennedy is enjoying a reborn political career is his backstop media team. Consisting of Deputy Treasurer Jason Redmond and Communications Director Sarah Mulhearn, the duo doesn’t allow the Capitol bureau to miss much, and it’s paying off for their boss. For instance, while barely a day goes by that Kennedy doesn’t receive media attention from somewhere in the state, The Advocate has included Kennedy in at least seven different editorials and columns during the month of October and the first two weeks of November.

Kennedy is hitting his old stride again as the state’s top budget hawk. His bold proposals have been well reported, due largely to his outspoken participation on Jindal’s streamlining commission. As chairman of a subcommittee on efficiency and benchmarking, he has taken stances against the administration on topics ranging from state employee hiring to a proposed computer overhaul — the treasurer actually talked the administration out of its plans on the latter.

Getting up in the face of the administration while the cameras are rolling is a wise strategy, if the endgame is increased exposure, according to Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who spoke at a policy summit in New Orleans last month. Devine, who has worked on the presidential campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. John Kerry, says politics is all about playing up differences. “Conflict equals coverage,” he says. “If you want press attention, attack someone. You’ll get a lot of attention that way.”

While it might be a sound strategy, there’s a bit more finesse involved. Here’s an example of how Team Kennedy works: At 5:45 a.m. on Nov. 12, Redmond sends out an e-mail blast to Capitol reporters reminding them that Kennedy’s advisory group will meet that morning to consider recommendations for the streamlining commission. His message is brief and in all caps. “DO NOT MISS IT TODAY!!!” Given Kennedy’s track record, the e-mail prompts editors to pick up their phones and reporters to schedule the hearing.

During the meeting, Kennedy outlines $615 million in “questionable” contracts granted over the past four years by the Department of Education, many for consulting services and speaking honorariums. He recommends that the Division of Administration should be reviewing these contracts in public and should be held accountable for each expenditure.

After the treasurer’s speech, Redmond and Mulhearn begin sending copies of the contracts to reporters. Since the bomb was dropped on Thursday, the story has legs and carries over into the weekend editorials. It’s another win for Kennedy’s free-media operation. “We often are described as an aggressive press operation, and I won’t dispute that a bit,” says Redmond, who has been working for Kennedy 13 years. “This is the information age and information is power. But the speed and ease of access to that information by the public and the press is just as important as the information itself, and that’s what we strive to provide. At the end of the day, however, any degree of message crafting or execution is pointless without a good message and especially a good messenger with vision. And all the credit there has to go to one guy and one guy only: Treasurer John Kennedy.”

Speed and stealth are also key weapons in the arsenal of Team Kennedy. For example, no one except those closest to Kennedy knew the treasurer was going to call into question more than 5,500 individual contracts on Nov. 12, a volume that even Kennedy admits is “astonishing.” While some might call the move sneaky, especially since education and administration officials had no time to prepare a response, Kennedy says it was all in the timing — that is, he had come upon the contracts the previous day, spent eight hours sifting through them, and his subcommittee just happened to have a meeting pending the following day.

Four days after the meeting was held, Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek issued a detailed response. In part, he gave a nod to Kennedy’s efforts by saying, “We know we can do better.” On the other hand, Pastorek deflated some of Kennedy’s well-publicized antics by explaining that a number of the contracts are federally funded and have nothing to do with the state budget (in other words, their value to the streamlining process were minimal at best). He adds that some of the other contracts were a part of internal streamlining efforts. “Many of the contracts in question are executed in an attempt to outsource services that are needed on an interim basis. This allows us to avoid hiring permanent employees,” Pastorek says.

Nonetheless, Kennedy was able to use the event as a badly needed eye opener to what government is really spending money on, even if he failed to mention all of the external contractual services he has relied upon while in state government. In the end, Kennedy may be the only winner from this debate, since it brought even more attention to his political brand via press coverage. As for how much he’s involved with such media outreach, Kennedy says he takes a hands-off approach unless he’s directly contacted by the media. “I don’t do any of the initiating when it comes to that,” Kennedy says. “But if a reporter calls me, I want to know immediately. Every message comes directly to my desk.”




It takes a special kind of Republican to second guess Jindal, who’s among the darlings of the national GOP and unquestionably the top conservative honcho back home in Louisiana. Then again, it also took a special kind of Democrat to repeatedly undermine former Gov. Kathleen Blanco when she was in office, serving as the state’s Dem-in-Chief.

Maybe it’s just that Kennedy has a problem with authority figures, even if he is one himself. Back in the day, he hounded Blanco in the same fashion he’s now pestering the Jindal administration. In a way, Team Kennedy was creating the framework that’s has proven itself so successful today. On one occasion, Kennedy questioned Blanco’s decision to approve a long list of pet projects — known commonly as slush funds — that were inserted into the budget by lawmakers. (He says he counseled former Gov. Mike Foster against them as well.) When Blanco challenged Kennedy to suggest cuts, he did just that, directly to the media instead of to the Queen Bee. In a recent interview, Blanco remarked that Kennedy wasn’t doing his job as much as he was chasing headlines. “John Kennedy,” Blanco says, “he’s just a grandstander. That simple.”

Kennedy admits that he has made enemies over the years and is only adding to the collection right now with his brazen ideas on streamlining government. But the same criticisms that hovered around him during the Blanco administration still remain. “John Kennedy is just making a lot of noise,” says one high-ranking elected official. “Why hasn’t he been pushing these ideas in the past? Nothing that he’s proposing has any real substance.”

In his own defense, Kennedy says he’s been preaching the same sermon to different choirs. For instance, the treasurer has recommended reducing the state’s workforce by 5,000 positions annually for a period of three years. The 15,000 jobs would basically come from unfilled vacancies and would, in theory, save the state money. He says he lobbied both Foster and Blanco to adopt such a strategy when they were in office. “I don’t pay any attention to the critics,” Kennedy says. “Grandstanding is the kind of response you get from people who just plain don’t like you and don’t have their own ideas to bring forward.”

When Kennedy addressed the Baton Rouge Press Club in early October, The Independent Weekly asked if he would be willing to go around the governor and Legislature, should they not implement his job-cutting plan, by not filling positions in his own department as they become vacant. Basically, would he put his money where his mouth is on this issue? Kennedy responded that he had already streamlined the treasury, and there would be no need to take extra steps. “We don’t have a lot of turnover,” he says.

The treasurer has also pushed for a single board for higher education, rather than the various panels running the show now. Louisiana has three systems of higher education — the LSU System, the Southern System and the University of Louisiana System. Each also has its own board of supervisors. “We need a government structure for higher education that looks like someone designed it on purpose,” Kennedy says.

As the state ramps up efforts to control its estimated $3 billion shortfall over the next two years, Kennedy says he’s primarily concerned there won’t be enough political will to enact real and meaningful streamlining reforms. The easy way out, he says, would include taking even more money from Louisiana’s citizenry. He went on to cite the low taxes in states like Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas as the reasons for those states’ successes during these dire economic times. “I do not believe we should raise taxes,” Kennedy says. “We cannot afford to lose more people.”

Kennedy has also advocated for eliminating some of the state’s 305 statutorily dedicated funds, which today hold nearly $3 billion for everything from boll weevil eradication and DNA post-conviction testing to shrimp marketing and pet overpopulation. By law, these funds cannot be cut, which places them in order of importance ahead of health care and education, both of which can be cut, Kennedy argues. “It’s time for us to take a look at which funds are appropriate and which are not,” he says. One approach offered would involve placing an expiration date on all dedicated funds — not including those within the Constitution — and having the recipients justify their state dollars.

The Commission on Streamlining Government has been lukewarm to most of Kennedy’s ideas, but he says it doesn’t matter. (The commission is charged with presenting recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 15.) Regardless of how the commission proceeds, Kennedy says he’s already looking ahead to the 2010 regular session, where he may just operate independently. “Several legislators have already contacted me about filing bills, and I’m trying to work with all of them,” he says. “But what I do at the end of the day doesn’t matter. What does matter is what the Legislature and governor do. It will all be for naught if the governor doesn’t get behind these ideas.”




While it’s easy to direct Kennedy’s budget angst at Jindal, it’s more of a direct path to aim it at Commissioner of Administration Angèle Davis. Above everyone else, she’s the state’s top budget crafter. Since taking office, and actually long before, Davis has been a champion of the reinventing government strategies of David Osborne of the Minnesota-based Public Strategies Group. In very basic terms, the strategy requires department and agency heads to prove in their annual funding requests that their individual activities are worth the money being assigned to them.

Known informally as “outcomes-based budgeting,” it’s a work-in-progress that started last year. And so far, it’s only been publicly discussed in broad terms by the administration, although more specific plans have been introduced in recent weeks. Kennedy, though, says he’s still waiting to see the complete picture. “I don’t have a taste for this new flavor of budget yet, but I do plan on trying to participate,” Kennedy says.

Davis, for her part, has shown a willingness to work with Kennedy, and neither says there’s a contentious relationship building between their respective offices. For instance, Davis, who is becoming a political superstar in her own right for similarly bold ideas, accepted Kennedy’s suggestion to partially delay a planned $100 million computer overhaul the administration was pushing. It was one of many small wins for Kennedy on paper, but it was Davis who eventually pushed the change through. And she did so in quick order.

In her own and separate address to the Baton Rouge Press Club last month, Davis told reporters that her office is “open to the ideas that many others are now bringing to the table.” But the ideas have to do more than sound good in a meeting. “Reform means taking action,” Davis says. “The ideas are great, but we must think them through and then put them into motion. There will be resistance to change. There will be institutional inertia that plays out with indignant headlines. But you have to lower your head, get back down in those weeds, do the hard work that must be done, and press forward. And we will.”

As for Kennedy, some of his ideas have been treated as pie-in-the-sky initiatives. When he suggested that elected officials teach in public schools on occasion — a long-standing goal of the treasurer’s — many commission members reacted by laughing. But Kennedy didn’t laugh; to him, even the small things add up over time to make for a better government.

Looking ahead, Kennedy will only be able to leverage his newfound popularity if his ideas are enacted. Otherwise, this long run of positive media coverage will be a flash in the pan. But already, he’s willing to shoulder that outcome, should it come to that. “The time for action is now. Rational people fix the roof while the sun is shining, not while it’s raining,” Kennedy says. “I’m not going to speculate on how the commission will eventually vote, and I’m not going to second-guess their votes at the end of the day. Some people vote their politics, and some people vote their conscious. For me, I’ll just be happy if all this work actually has results.

 

 

 

Top Five
recommendations
 
State Treasurer John Kennedy was asked to name his top five recommendations to the Commission on Streamlining Government. With nearly two dozen ideas in the hopper, and the ability to discuss each one in great detail, Kennedy begrudgingly selected the following short list:


1. Reduce the state’s workforce by 5,000 positions annually for a period of three years. The 15,000 jobs would basically come from unfilled vacancies — Louisiana’s turnover rate fluctuates between 15 percent and 22 percent. “No one would be fired,” Kennedy says, adding that the goal would be to establish only five layers of management in each department, or one manager for every 10 or more employees. The proposal further calls for 20 percent of the savings to be used to increase the salaries of those state employees taking on additional responsibilities.

2. Create a single board for higher education, rather than the various panels running the show now. Louisiana has three systems of higher education: the LSU System, the Southern System and the University of Louisiana System. Each also has its own board of supervisors. “We need a government structure for higher education that looks like someone designed it on purpose,” Kennedy says.

3. Establish some type of public review process for state contracts. To make his point, Kennedy points to some $615 million in “questionable” contracts granted over the past four years by the Department of Education, many for consulting services and speaking honorariums.

4. Eliminate some of the state’s 305 statutorily dedicated funds, which today hold nearly $3 billion for everything from boll weevil and DNA post-conviction testing to shrimp marketing and pet overpopulation.

5. Create a program where all inmates are forced to obtain a GED in hopes of reducing recidivism rates. Kennedy says he has already contacted a company that can accomplish this for $40 per inmate. “It’s just so cheap,” Kennedy says, “and the payoff will be worth so much more.”
 

Granted, Louisiana voters decided not to send John Kennedy to the U.S. Senate on two different occasions. First, in 2004, it was David Vitter who got the nod. Then, in 2008, senior Sen. Mary Landrieu easily sailed to re-election. But if there is an alternate reality out there where the state treasurer actually graduated to the Hill, it would certainly look something like this:

He’s sitting behind the microphone — actually, it’s more like he’s crouched and ready to attack – with a Cheshire Cat smile on his face and eyeglasses perched on the tip of his nose. He’s wearing a blue and gold selection from what must be a limitless supply of conservative, striped ties. When he’s not talking or sipping from a Styrofoam coffee cup, he’s got that huge smile on his face, the kind that suggests he knows the answers to his questions already, and you’re just going to love what’s coming.

In the hot seat is Alan M. Boxberger, undersecretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, who’s been called to testify before Kennedy’s subcommittee on efficiency and benchmarking. As treasurer, Kennedy doesn’t get many opportunities like this — that is, to govern with a gavel — but his seat on the governor’s Commission on Streamlining Government came with oversight of the subcommittee. Boxberger is in the seat to answer why the Jetson Center for Youth in the Baton Rouge area costs the state twice as much money as similar facilities in Monroe and New Orleans.

Boxberger explains that Jetson is a 24-hour facility that was recently downsized. “We were using three different secure areas on campus, and we are now down to utilizing one of those,” Boxberger says.

Kennedy butts in before Boxberger even takes a breath. “So, that should make it cheaper, huh?”

Underneath the witness table, Boxberger begins shaking his right leg. The rhythm becomes faster the more he tries to explain. “Well, we still have to maintain air conditioning and electricity for the state so it doesn’t fall into disrepair,” Boxberger says, adding that only 31 of Jetson’s 60 or so rooms are actually being used today. 

“You’re using air conditioning in parts you’re not using?” Kennedy asks laughing, quickly removing his glasses, possibly for dramatic effect, before placing them back on. “Why?”

“Due to mold and other issues like that,” Boxberger responds, the ball of his right foot still pumping his leg underneath the table.

Kennedy leans back slightly in his chair before pouncing. “Why are we air conditioning and keeping the lights on in the other 30? I want to know. Are you being directed to do that [by the Division of Administration]?”

Boxberger practically turns a different shade, and it’s no wonder. “I cannot specifically answer that question,” he says. “I’ve only been on the job 10 weeks.”

That’s when Kennedy cuts him loose and moves on to a different topic. It was a performance worthy of a congressional hearing, where theatrics are half the battle. Of course, the reality of the situation is that Kennedy isn’t in D.C. He’s here, in the heart of state government, playing the role of fiscal hawk and government do-gooder.

While it might be a consolation prize, Louisiana’s opinion makers have taken notice. Practically every newspaper in the state has penned an editorial praising Kennedy for his bold ideas and investigative prowess. Letters from the public have echoed those sentiments as well. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s streamlining commission has been slow to embrace each and every idea, but the media attention and public reaction has been enough to rejuvenate Kennedy’s political career after a string of high-profile election losses. The next, obvious question: where does Kennedy go from here?



Anyone who knows anything about politics will tell you that Kennedy is probably positioning himself for something. But for what? Does he want to run for governor? Does he plan on jumping into the GOP primary during next year’s U.S. Senate race? Those answers are difficult to ascertain, but it has been a long and winding journey that brought Kennedy to the point of even pondering such questions.

Just a few months ago, it was practically unfathomable that the treasurer would already be back up on two legs deciding his own fate. Aside from losing two bids for the U.S. Senate, Kennedy also lost a bid for attorney general in 1991 — meaning he has lost every office he has ever sought, save for treasurer (Kennedy was first elected state treasurer in 1999, unseating incumbent Ken Duncan with 55 percent of the vote, and has won re-election without opposition ever since).

Kennedy is also a stranger in a strange land when it comes to party affiliation, but it’s a climate that he’s become accustomed to over the years. In 2007, after months of speculation, Kennedy switched to the Republican Party. Yet even as a Democrat, Kennedy didn’t quite fit into the fold. When officials with the Louisiana Democratic Party backed former Congressman Chris John in the Senate race won by Vitter five years ago, Kennedy fell off the Donkey Grid and went nomad. He was the lone wolf of Louisiana politics, and in many respects he still holds that title.

As a Republican, you won’t find Kennedy at the traditional GOP gatherings. He’s not a banner-bearer, and he’s not a cheerleader. Moreover, he’s shown time and again in recent months that he’s willing to throw criticism Jindal’s way, even though the governor is the inarguable leader of the party. For that reason alone Kennedy has caught the ire of many diehards. “I’m not a big party guy. I look at government through my own lens,” Kennedy says. “But I do feel more at home in the Republican Party, in large part because I’m a fiscal conservative. I’m happy now. I spent three years making the decision to switch, and I don’t regret it. I don’t know how people feel about that or how voters feel about it. I haven’t looked at a poll in over a year.”

If that’s indeed true, then maybe it’s time for Kennedy to take a peep at a few recent polls, says Bernie Pinsonat, who heads up the Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research. In October, Pinsonat’s firm released a poll that showcased Kennedy as the most popular statewide elected official, after Jindal. Pinsonat points out that Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu was technically atop the bunch with a 64 percent approval rating, but when weighed against his 22 percent negative rating, Kennedy’s nearly 61 percent approval figure takes the cake (Kennedy’s 15 percent negative rating was also lower than Jindal’s 32 percent negative rating).

These figures create an ideal foundation for Kennedy’s upward mobility, Pinsonat says. His negatives come largely from “trying to out-Democrat Chris John in 2004” and then turning around to run for the U.S. Senate again as a conservative at heart. “And if his opponents try to do that again, it won’t resonate as much with voters. It won’t be as effective,” Pinsonat says. “He couldn’t ask for a better turn of luck right now. When he’s up on TV and in the papers talking about budget cuts, it’s more like he’s Gov. Kennedy than Treasurer Kennedy. It’s a great image to have right now.”

Still, Pinsonat says anyone who digs below the surface will find a guy who has been all over the map politically. Kennedy remains an enigma to anyone who has been paying close attention to state government during the past two decades. He’s a complicated character with the murkiest of motives and, when viewed from the perspective of his entire career, few can ascertain exactly what he really believes — and maybe that includes Kennedy himself. He’s been a lawyer, a cabinet official, a campaign manager, an elected official, a Republican and a Democrat. Just a few years ago, he was allied with liberal icon Cleo Fields, a former state senator and African-American leader. Today, he’s buddy-buddy with Vitter, the conservative, family-values archetype who has more than once got in hot water with minorities for racially-charged politics. 

If deciphering who Kennedy is, as in the man behind the man, is challenging, then figuring out where he’s going is downright impossible. Asked if he wants to run for governor, Kennedy flatly says “no.” Asked if he’ll jump into the Senate race next year, again he says “no.” Kennedy says he’s “having fun” doing his job, and there’s no endgame in sight. At least for now. “After last year’s election, I decided to leave politics alone. I decided that I was done with it,” he says. “I want to run for re-election as treasurer, and I can’t think of a set of circumstance that would change that.”

As of Kennedy’s latest campaign finance report, he has more than $560,000 in the bank, and consultants interviewed for this story agree a challenger for the treasurer’s post would need at least $2 million to make Team Kennedy worry. Until his re-election bid jumps off, though, speculation will continue as to Kennedy’s angle. When pressed with this line of thought, Kennedy fires back with what he says is a definitive answer. “I’ve made up my mind. I’m enjoying what I’m doing,” he says. “If people want to assign different motives to me, I can’t stop them. I can only look you in the eye and tell you what my plans are. But I understand that speculation and politics are sports in Louisiana.”

One might get the impression from Kennedy that he considers himself the Real Deal, an elected official fighting the good fight just for the sake of political righteousness. As for why he’s doing all this, chasing media attention and hammering on the administration to “cut smart,” Kennedy insists there’s no smoke, no mirrors and, more important, no hidden agenda. “I’m just doing my job,” he says.



Chief among the reasons Kennedy is enjoying a reborn political career is his backstop media team. Consisting of Deputy Treasurer Jason Redmond and Communications Director Sarah Mulhearn, the duo doesn’t allow the Capitol bureau to miss much, and it’s paying off for their boss. For instance, while barely a day goes by that Kennedy doesn’t receive media attention from somewhere in the state, The Advocate has included Kennedy in at least seven different editorials and columns during the month of October and the first two weeks of November.

Kennedy is hitting his old stride again as the state’s top budget hawk. His bold proposals have been well reported, due largely to his outspoken participation on Jindal’s streamlining commission. As chairman of a subcommittee on efficiency and benchmarking, he has taken stances against the administration on topics ranging from state employee hiring to a proposed computer overhaul — the treasurer actually talked the administration out of its plans on the latter.

Getting up in the face of the administration while the cameras are rolling is a wise strategy, if the endgame is increased exposure, according to Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who spoke at a policy summit in New Orleans last month. Devine, who has worked on the presidential campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. John Kerry, says politics is all about playing up differences. “Conflict equals coverage,” he says. “If you want press attention, attack someone. You’ll get a lot of attention that way.”

While it might be a sound strategy, there’s a bit more finesse involved. Here’s an example of how Team Kennedy works: At 5:45 a.m. on Nov. 12, Redmond sends out an e-mail blast to Capitol reporters reminding them that Kennedy’s advisory group will meet that morning to consider recommendations for the streamlining commission. His message is brief and in all caps. “DO NOT MISS IT TODAY!!!” Given Kennedy’s track record, the e-mail prompts editors to pick up their phones and reporters to schedule the hearing.

During the meeting, Kennedy outlines $615 million in “questionable” contracts granted over the past four years by the Department of Education, many for consulting services and speaking honorariums. He recommends that the Division of Administration should be reviewing these contracts in public and should be held accountable for each expenditure.

After the treasurer’s speech, Redmond and Mulhearn begin sending copies of the contracts to reporters. Since the bomb was dropped on Thursday, the story has legs and carries over into the weekend editorials. It’s another win for Kennedy’s free-media operation. “We often are described as an aggressive press operation, and I won’t dispute that a bit,” says Redmond, who has been working for Kennedy 13 years. “This is the information age and information is power. But the speed and ease of access to that information by the public and the press is just as important as the information itself, and that’s what we strive to provide. At the end of the day, however, any degree of message crafting or execution is pointless without a good message and especially a good messenger with vision. And all the credit there has to go to one guy and one guy only: Treasurer John Kennedy.”

Speed and stealth are also key weapons in the arsenal of Team Kennedy. For example, no one except those closest to Kennedy knew the treasurer was going to call into question more than 5,500 individual contracts on Nov. 12, a volume that even Kennedy admits is “astonishing.” While some might call the move sneaky, especially since education and administration officials had no time to prepare a response, Kennedy says it was all in the timing — that is, he had come upon the contracts the previous day, spent eight hours sifting through them, and his subcommittee just happened to have a meeting pending the following day.

Four days after the meeting was held, Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek issued a detailed response. In part, he gave a nod to Kennedy’s efforts by saying, “We know we can do better.” On the other hand, Pastorek deflated some of Kennedy’s well-publicized antics by explaining that a number of the contracts are federally funded and have nothing to do with the state budget (in other words, their value to the streamlining process were minimal at best). He adds that some of the other contracts were a part of internal streamlining efforts. “Many of the contracts in question are executed in an attempt to outsource services that are needed on an interim basis. This allows us to avoid hiring permanent employees,” Pastorek says.

Nonetheless, Kennedy was able to use the event as a badly needed eye opener to what government is really spending money on, even if he failed to mention all of the external contractual services he has relied upon while in state government. In the end, Kennedy may be the only winner from this debate, since it brought even more attention to his political brand via press coverage. As for how much he’s involved with such media outreach, Kennedy says he takes a hands-off approach unless he’s directly contacted by the media. “I don’t do any of the initiating when it comes to that,” Kennedy says. “But if a reporter calls me, I want to know immediately. Every message comes directly to my desk.”




It takes a special kind of Republican to second guess Jindal, who’s among the darlings of the national GOP and unquestionably the top conservative honcho back home in Louisiana. Then again, it also took a special kind of Democrat to repeatedly undermine former Gov. Kathleen Blanco when she was in office, serving as the state’s Dem-in-Chief.

Maybe it’s just that Kennedy has a problem with authority figures, even if he is one himself. Back in the day, he hounded Blanco in the same fashion he’s now pestering the Jindal administration. In a way, Team Kennedy was creating the framework that’s has proven itself so successful today. On one occasion, Kennedy questioned Blanco’s decision to approve a long list of pet projects — known commonly as slush funds — that were inserted into the budget by lawmakers. (He says he counseled former Gov. Mike Foster against them as well.) When Blanco challenged Kennedy to suggest cuts, he did just that, directly to the media instead of to the Queen Bee. In a recent interview, Blanco remarked that Kennedy wasn’t doing his job as much as he was chasing headlines. “John Kennedy,” Blanco says, “he’s just a grandstander. That simple.”

Kennedy admits that he has made enemies over the years and is only adding to the collection right now with his brazen ideas on streamlining government. But the same criticisms that hovered around him during the Blanco administration still remain. “John Kennedy is just making a lot of noise,” says one high-ranking elected official. “Why hasn’t he been pushing these ideas in the past? Nothing that he’s proposing has any real substance.”

In his own defense, Kennedy says he’s been preaching the same sermon to different choirs. For instance, the treasurer has recommended reducing the state’s workforce by 5,000 positions annually for a period of three years. The 15,000 jobs would basically come from unfilled vacancies and would, in theory, save the state money. He says he lobbied both Foster and Blanco to adopt such a strategy when they were in office. “I don’t pay any attention to the critics,” Kennedy says. “Grandstanding is the kind of response you get from people who just plain don’t like you and don’t have their own ideas to bring forward.”

When Kennedy addressed the Baton Rouge Press Club in early October, The Independent Weekly asked if he would be willing to go around the governor and Legislature, should they not implement his job-cutting plan, by not filling positions in his own department as they become vacant. Basically, would he put his money where his mouth is on this issue? Kennedy responded that he had already streamlined the treasury, and there would be no need to take extra steps. “We don’t have a lot of turnover,” he says.

The treasurer has also pushed for a single board for higher education, rather than the various panels running the show now. Louisiana has three systems of higher education — the LSU System, the Southern System and the University of Louisiana System. Each also has its own board of supervisors. “We need a government structure for higher education that looks like someone designed it on purpose,” Kennedy says.

As the state ramps up efforts to control its estimated $3 billion shortfall over the next two years, Kennedy says he’s primarily concerned there won’t be enough political will to enact real and meaningful streamlining reforms. The easy way out, he says, would include taking even more money from Louisiana’s citizenry. He went on to cite the low taxes in states like Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas as the reasons for those states’ successes during these dire economic times. “I do not believe we should raise taxes,” Kennedy says. “We cannot afford to lose more people.”

Kennedy has also advocated for eliminating some of the state’s 305 statutorily dedicated funds, which today hold nearly $3 billion for everything from boll weevil eradication and DNA post-conviction testing to shrimp marketing and pet overpopulation. By law, these funds cannot be cut, which places them in order of importance ahead of health care and education, both of which can be cut, Kennedy argues. “It’s time for us to take a look at which funds are appropriate and which are not,” he says. One approach offered would involve placing an expiration date on all dedicated funds — not including those within the Constitution — and having the recipients justify their state dollars.

The Commission on Streamlining Government has been lukewarm to most of Kennedy’s ideas, but he says it doesn’t matter. (The commission is charged with presenting recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 15.) Regardless of how the commission proceeds, Kennedy says he’s already looking ahead to the 2010 regular session, where he may just operate independently. “Several legislators have already contacted me about filing bills, and I’m trying to work with all of them,” he says. “But what I do at the end of the day doesn’t matter. What does matter is what the Legislature and governor do. It will all be for naught if the governor doesn’t get behind these ideas.”




While it’s easy to direct Kennedy’s budget angst at Jindal, it’s more of a direct path to aim it at Commissioner of Administration Angèle Davis. Above everyone else, she’s the state’s top budget crafter. Since taking office, and actually long before, Davis has been a champion of the reinventing government strategies of David Osborne of the Minnesota-based Public Strategies Group. In very basic terms, the strategy requires department and agency heads to prove in their annual funding requests that their individual activities are worth the money being assigned to them.

Known informally as “outcomes-based budgeting,” it’s a work-in-progress that started last year. And so far, it’s only been publicly discussed in broad terms by the administration, although more specific plans have been introduced in recent weeks. Kennedy, though, says he’s still waiting to see the complete picture. “I don’t have a taste for this new flavor of budget yet, but I do plan on trying to participate,” Kennedy says.

Davis, for her part, has shown a willingness to work with Kennedy, and neither says there’s a contentious relationship building between their respective offices. For instance, Davis, who is becoming a political superstar in her own right for similarly bold ideas, accepted Kennedy’s suggestion to partially delay a planned $100 million computer overhaul the administration was pushing. It was one of many small wins for Kennedy on paper, but it was Davis who eventually pushed the change through. And she did so in quick order.

In her own and separate address to the Baton Rouge Press Club last month, Davis told reporters that her office is “open to the ideas that many others are now bringing to the table.” But the ideas have to do more than sound good in a meeting. “Reform means taking action,” Davis says. “The ideas are great, but we must think them through and then put them into motion. There will be resistance to change. There will be institutional inertia that plays out with indignant headlines. But you have to lower your head, get back down in those weeds, do the hard work that must be done, and press forward. And we will.”

As for Kennedy, some of his ideas have been treated as pie-in-the-sky initiatives. When he suggested that elected officials teach in public schools on occasion — a long-standing goal of the treasurer’s — many commission members reacted by laughing. But Kennedy didn’t laugh; to him, even the small things add up over time to make for a better government.

Looking ahead, Kennedy will only be able to leverage his newfound popularity if his ideas are enacted. Otherwise, this long run of positive media coverage will be a flash in the pan. But already, he’s willing to shoulder that outcome, should it come to that. “The time for action is now. Rational people fix the roof while the sun is shining, not while it’s raining,” Kennedy says. “I’m not going to speculate on how the commission will eventually vote, and I’m not going to second-guess their votes at the end of the day. Some people vote their politics, and some people vote their conscious. For me, I’ll just be happy if all this work actually has results.

 

The Man Behind the Office

While it has been difficult to ignore the politics of Treasurer John Kennedy lately, given the media attention he receives, trying to peg exactly who he is as a private citizen is just as elusive as ever. On the surface, at least, he’s a country boy with wonkish tendencies, and a quick glance around his office confirms as much. From his collection of letter openers to a framed arm patch once worn by late comic actor Don Knotts as part of his Barney Fife costume on The Andy Griffith Show, Kennedy’s office truly reflects his unique, if not humdrum, interests.


But then he comes out of left field with something that jars this widely-held perception. “I just think Meatloaf is an unbelievably talented musician,” Kennedy says. “He’s getting old and his pipes are a little rusty, but the guy can really sing and perform. I knew my wife Becky really loved me when she sat through an entire Meatloaf concert.”


As soon as Kennedy transitions, however, he’s back on track, talking about the dozens of financial magazines he reads on a regular basis. “I just think The Economist is one of the finest publications out there,” he says. “I just can’t get enough of it.”
In his spare time, Kennedy is also an adjunct professor at LSU Law School and a substitute teacher for East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, where he says he teaches at least three times each year. As for his real free time, Kennedy has a passion for fly fishing, although he hasn’t gone as far as making his own flies yet.


In fact, Kennedy says he doesn’t even buy flies anymore from retail outlets, revealing yet again why he has surfaced as Louisiana’s chief budget hawk. “It’s just too expensive to go out and buy a bunch of flies and to make them, really,” Kennedy says. “That’s why I go on eBay. You can find flies on there for 50 cents or less sometimes.” —JA

 

Top Five Recommendations
 
State Treasurer John Kennedy was asked to name his top five recommendations to the Commission on Streamlining Government. With nearly two dozen ideas in the hopper, and the ability to discuss each one in great detail, Kennedy begrudgingly selected the following short list:


1. Reduce the state’s workforce by 5,000 positions annually for a period of three years. The 15,000 jobs would basically come from unfilled vacancies — Louisiana’s turnover rate fluctuates between 15 percent and 22 percent. “No one would be fired,” Kennedy says, adding that the goal would be to establish only five layers of management in each department, or one manager for every 10 or more employees. The proposal further calls for 20 percent of the savings to be used to increase the salaries of those state employees taking on additional responsibilities.

2. Create a single board for higher education, rather than the various panels running the show now. Louisiana has three systems of higher education: the LSU System, the Southern System and the University of Louisiana System. Each also has its own board of supervisors. “We need a government structure for higher education that looks like someone designed it on purpose,” Kennedy says.

3. Establish some type of public review process for state contracts. To make his point, Kennedy points to some $615 million in “questionable” contracts granted over the past four years by the Department of Education, many for consulting services and speaking honorariums.

4. Eliminate some of the state’s 305 statutorily dedicated funds, which today hold nearly $3 billion for everything from boll weevil and DNA post-conviction testing to shrimp marketing and pet overpopulation.

5. Create a program where all inmates are forced to obtain a GED in hopes of reducing recidivism rates. Kennedy says he has already contacted a company that can accomplish this for $40 per inmate. “It’s just so cheap,” Kennedy says, “and the payoff will be worth so much more.”

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