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."
State Rep. Lenar Whitney — one of a handful of Republican candidates vying for Louisiana’s 6th Congressional district — has been described by Cook Political Report analyst David Wasserman as one of the most “frightening or fact-averse candidate[s]” he’s ever met following her reaction to an interview last week.
Mid-August hearing dates have been set for dueling lawsuits over Louisiana's use of the Common Core education standards in public schools.
An investigation into the last-minute passage of a pension hike for the state police superintendent continues, despite Col. Mike Edmonson's decision not to accept the increase.
Safety Jairus Byrd practiced with the New Orleans Saints on Tuesday for the first time since his signing in March.
Sentencing has been delayed for a businessman who provided key testimony in the corruption case that resulted in the conviction of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
The spectre of priest sex abuse has returned to haunt the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette following the recent release of an investigative report by Minnesota Public Radio, revealing new allegations of another child predator hiding behind the clerical collar.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Times Square impersonator crackdown; Israel shells Gaza school; Russia hit with sanctions and more national and international news for Wednesday, July 30, 2014.
The sponsor of a Louisiana law that requires doctors that perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges doesn't believe the provision is in jeopardy after a federal appeals court struck down a similar Mississippi law.
Louisiana's state school board has jumped into a lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal that accuses the governor of illegally meddling in education policy through his efforts to block Common Core education standards.
Here's how one nationally recognized conservative political pundit reacted upon hearing the news Monday that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was leaning toward an endorsement of Louisiana’s lone Democrat senator.
With the qualifying deadline for Lafayette Parish School Board elections quickly approaching, a series of candidate forums have been announced by the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council.
The investigation and potential prosecution of the man charged in the recent hit-and-run death of a Youngsville cyclist won’t happen overnight, according to local law enforcement officials.
Louisiana's state school board is holding a special meeting to consider whether to sue Gov. Bobby Jindal in an ongoing dispute over the Common Core education standards.
A bipartisan congressional deal to help improve veterans' health care access includes approval for new veterans clinics in Lafayette and Lake Charles.
It wouldn’t be a first, however, as the Chamber has thrown money behind Landrieu before.
The Democratic incumbent, seeking her fourth term in office, is a strong supporter of the Export-Import Bank, which helps finance exports of U.S. companies.
The world is a politically tense place these days with hot spots ranging from the Middle East to Ukraine. In Louisiana and Mississippi, where the political chessboard tends to be a lot less threatening and at times entertaining, this election season is living up to expectations.
Louisiana has joined nine other states in support of Indiana’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that the Hoosier State’s ban on sam-sex marriage violates the Constitution.
The Saints are being cautious in an effort to minimize risk of re-injury.
LSU Health Sciences Center says people with a common, hard-to-treat kind of lung cancer can join a new national trial to test drugs faster.
As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis spoke about the opening of training camp, steep, tree-covered mountains were in full view behind them.
The family of fallen cyclist Lon Lomas is speaking out after the release this week of the man charged with his death.
"The solutions are obvious: undo consolidation, or amend the charter to make this hybrid attempt at a new form of government work better."
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering whether to get involved in a lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal for his attempts to undermine use of the Common Core education standards in Louisiana's public schools.