La. House Makes History

Republicans in the Louisiana House did something Monday that hasn’t been done in nearly 100 years.  They elected a Speaker of the House who was not handpicked in advance by the governor.

This rare expression of legislative independence came after the election of a Democratic governor in a state where 61 of the 105 members of the House are Republicans.

Soon after his Nov. 21 election, then Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards decided to do what virtually every other governor has done in living memory — impose his choice for Speaker on the House.

At the time, a vigorous campaign for Speaker was well under way with at least seven candidates in contention — Democrat Rep.

Walt Leger of New Orleans and Republican Reps. Taylor Barras, Johnny Berthelot, Chris Broadwater, Steve Carter, Cameron Henry, and John Schroder.

The number of votes required to elect a Speaker is 53. With 61 Republicans, 42 Democrats, and two Independents in the new House, Republicans would normally be expected to choose the Speaker.  Certainly, that would be true in any other state.

But the new governor felt he could corral the votes of all 41 Democrats, both Independents, and at least 10 Republicans to swing the election for Democrat Leger, who served as Speaker Pro-Tem the past four years and was well liked by his colleagues.

As the days passed, two things  became clear.  First, Republicans were coalescing around Rep. Cameron Henry.  He had worked tirelessly and had face-to-face meetings with almost all Republican legislators in their home districts.  When Henry got 25 commitments, all of the other Republicans dropped out one by one.

The other thing that became clear was the fact that the Governor-elect was succeeding in peeling away Republicans at a disturbing rate.

Rep. John Shroeder was reportedly promised Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and was in Leger’s column.

Republicans could easily count eight to 10 of their colleagues who appeared to be leaning to Leger or actually committed to him.

Some lawmakers said the governor-elect was twisting their arms with threats or cajoling them with promises.

The legislature was to be sworn in on Jan. 11, 2016, and as the day approached, both sides said a floor fight was unavoidable.

Inside the Republican caucus, veteran legislators were angry at the 16 freshmen, many of whom were withholding support from Rep. Henry.  “I have problems with Cameron Henry,” one freshman said.  A veteran retorted, “You have problems with him?  You don’t even know him!”

On Sunday night, Jan. 10, the caucus met and took a vote by secret ballot.  A total of 54 pledged to vote for a Republican, but only 41 pledged to support Cameron Henry.

Several veteran lawmakers left the meeting in disgust at the freshman.  One said, “It’s always the same. Freshmen come here with no experience. They are typically very gullible. They meet with the Governor who threatens them or promises the moon, and they buy it and promise him their vote for Speaker.  Of course, that’s the most important vote of the four years, because they are giving the governor a blank check on every issue and in every committee!”

So many members had left the caucus meeting that it was difficult to conduct business.  They took another vote.  It was 25 for Cameron Henry, 2-1/2 votes for Taylor Barras, and 2-1/2 votes for Chris Broadwater.

That’s when Henry reportedly decided to break the impasse.  A plan began to emerge.  Rep. Kenny Havard lobbied many of the freshmen, and they agreed to support it.

Actually, there was a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A was that in addition to Leger, three other candidates would be nominated from the floor, including Henry and Taylor Barras  If neither Leger or Henry got 53 votes, Henry would withdraw and support Barras before the second round of voting.  Plan B was for Henry to stay in the race and continue for multiple rounds of voting until a candidate had a majority.

On Monday morning, Republican lawmakers continued the discussion in the Ellender Room until five minutes before the session was called to order.  It was only then that Rep. Henry decided to go with Plan A.  Republicans from the Acadiana area were released to vote for Barras.

Even though more than 50 members of the House were aware of the plan, no one leaked it, and Democratic lawmakers and the governor had no clue about what was going on.

At 10 a.m., the House was called to order by the acting Speaker, Rep. Andy Anders.  Members were sworn in, and nominations were opened for Speaker.  Just as planned, four candidates were nominated — Democrats Walt Leger and Neil Abramson, both of New Orleans, and Republican Reps. Cameron Henry of Metairie or Taylor Barras of New Iberia.

When the roll was called, the result of the first round of voting was:

•Walt Leger, 49

•Cameron Henry, 28

•Taylor Barras, 26

•Neil Abramson, 2

Immediately, Rep. Henry stood and asked for recognition.  He said that he would like to withdraw his name from consideration.

A cheer went up from Democrats in the House.  They thought he was withdrawing to support Leger and that the election was over.

But Henry immediately added that he was urging his supporters to vote for Barras.

As the 2nd round of voting began, Democrats still thought they had a chance to elect Leger. They failed to see the obvious.  The hard core of Republican support was Henry’s 28 votes.  They could be counted on to support Barras, and Barras’ 26 votes would obviously stick with Barras.

No matter what else happened, Barras would get at least 54 votes, one more than needed.

The second round of voting was as follows:

•Walter Leger, 49

•Taylor Barras, 56

It was a stunning win for the Republicans and a rather significant defeat for the new governor.

To amazement of the governor, the Democratic members of the House, the media, and the general public, Rep. Barras was sworn in as Speaker of the House.  In a matter of minutes, the dynamics of the House of Representatives had changed in a dramatic way.

Rep. Leger was reelected Speaker Pro-Tem.

In the final analysis, all Democrats voted Walt Leger in the first and second rounds of voting, except Rep. Neil Abramson, who voted for himself in the first round and for Rep. Barras in the second round and Rep. Jerry Gisclair who voted for Rep. Abramson in the first round and Leger in the second round.

All Republicans voted for Cameron Henry or Taylor Barras in the first and second round, except the following who voted for Barras: Reps. Bryan Adams, Bubba Chaney, Patrick Connick, Chris Hazel, Joseph Lopinto, Rogers Pope, and Robert Shadoin.

One Republican, Stephanie Hilferty, voted for Leger in the first round and Barras in the second round.

Independent Jerome Richard voted for Henry in the first round and Barras in the second round.

Independent Terry Brown voted for Leger in the first and second rounds.

In meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, House members mostly reviewed the state’s budget.

At a meeting of the House Republican delegation on Tuesday, the Republicans who supported Leger for Speaker were subjected to some good-natured ribbing by other Republicans.  But Speaker Barras told the members he won’t be vindictive and “Don’t worry, you won’t be evicted from your Pentagon Apartment!”

A limited number of apartments are available for rent in the Pentagon Barracks, and it is considered an important perk to be allowed to live there.  The Speaker controls half of the apartments, and the President of the Senate controls the other half.

What kind of Speaker will Rep. Barras be?  One prominent Republican legislator said, “Taylor Barras is affable and will listen to all sides.  He was a Democrat until four years ago, but he is definitely a conservative.  He is 100 percent pro-life.  He votes with Family Forum 90 per cent of the time and with LABI 85 percent of the time.  He will be far better than Leger, who was probably the most liberal member of the House!”

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