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."
Business organizations opposed the proposal, saying it would lead to job losses and higher prices for goods and services.
An attempt to repeal a six-year-old law that permits public school science teachers to use material outside a classroom's adopted textbook has been rejected by the Senate Education Committee.
New York Times poll shows Obama, Jindal have identical approval and disapproval ratings in the state.
OK, so they’re bentgrass, the type used on golf course greens. But grass is grass.
The Senate Finance Committee approved the bill Wednesday, despite opponents who argued it would shut down the storefront lenders.
A measure to allow the state to implement its own, less stringent plan for limiting carbon dioxide emissions unanimously passed the Senate.
FDA to regulate e-cigarettes, Jodie Foster gets married, Vermont to require labels on genetically-modified food, and more news for today, April 24, 2014.
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
A push to expand Louisiana's Medicaid program as allowed under the federal health care has been overwhelmingly rejected by the Senate health committee.
Louisiana welfare recipients would be prohibited in state law from spending the federal assistance at lingerie shops, tattoo parlors, nail salons and jewelry stores, under a bill that received the support Wednesday of a House committee.
Senators will consider whether to prohibit private businesses in Louisiana from paying unequal wages to employees of different genders for the same job.
Rep. Joel Robideaux has delayed bill hearings and said unless a compromise can be reached, he won't bring up the legislation this session.
Once again, Lafayette Parish School Board President Hunter Beasley is focused on an issue that has nothing to do with the educational well-being of our public school children.
After exhausting his appeals all the way to the state Supreme Court, the owner of the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete has no legal remedy left save one: do an end run around the high court via a bill that would grandfather his “right” to keep a 550-pound tiger enclosed in a pin at his roadside business.
Louisiana poet Darrell Bourque has won the 2014 Louisiana Writer Award, given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana's literary and intellectual life.
Drivers would have to secure dogs riding in truck beds while on interstate highways, if the Senate agrees to a bill backed by the House.
An effort to prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity was shelved Tuesday for the legislative session.
Louisiana won't lessen its penalties for marijuana possession, keeping laws on the books that allow people to be jailed up to 20 years for repeat offenses of having the drug in hand.
“This is one of the oldest divides that exists, and that divide is about the haves and the have-nots.”
It took a few weeks for the pitfalls to emerge in the governor’s $25 billion budget, but the time of judgment has finally arrived.
With pressure continuing to build for him to resign, Congressman Vance McAllister announced plans recently to remain secluded during the Easter break, but the Swartz Republican has said he’ll be back on the Hill casting votes and attending committee meetings when the congressional recess ends April 28.
A bid to limit the use of unmanned aircraft on private property in Louisiana stalled Monday in the Louisiana Senate.
A Shreveport lawmaker said Monday he's scrapping his proposal to name the Bible as Louisiana's official state book.
Attorney hopes fellow lawyers will join him in urging the D.A. to step aside and allow a competent, ethical challenger to take over the scandal-ridden office.
An official with the Louisiana Department of Education was arrested on a range of charges Friday after allegedly breaking into a home and brandishing a knife.