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."
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Wednesday, March 12, 2014:
So far the Democratic agenda includes proposals to expand Medicaid; increase the minimum wage; offer equal pay to women; heighten regulations on predatory lending practices, like payday loans; and add more transparency in the governor’s office.
Hot-button education issues ranging from Common Core to charter schools have some lawmakers pushing to scrap the appointing process and go back to electing the state's super.
Police say the handcuffed man fatally shot himself in the back, but his family isn't buying the story.
Gov. Bobby Jindal offered a budget proposal that suggests new education and health care spending, pay raises for state workers and an incentive fund to encourage colleges to enhance their science, engineering and technology training.
Hopefully he’ll be better prepared today than he was in that Feb. 20 deposition.
They came by the hundreds, arriving from all regions of the state to gather on the steps of our Capitol in protest of the Legislature’s long tradition of giving industry the go-ahead to abuse our air, our water and our coastline, all in the name of good economics.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent rhetoric against President Barack Obama has failed to boost his standing among the conservative base.
Louisiana's annual legislative session begins.
The state has hired marksmen to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at two wildlife management areas in south Louisiana.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.