UNLIKELY SPEAKER: Barras Over Bel

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Editor's Note: We’re pleased to bring you this special behind-the-scenes look at the surprise election of House Speaker Taylor Barras and how it came together. More than 20 sources were interviewed for this story since Monday’s historic vote, with multiple confirmations on the meetings and events described below. It deviates from LaPolitics’ traditional method of storytelling, but captures events nonetheless as they happened.

How An Unlikely Speaker Grabbed The Gavel

With a chilly wind coming off of the Mississippi River ruffling his salt-and-pepper hair, Representative Cameron Henry made his way across Lafayette Street in downtown Baton Rouge with an overnight bag and a head full of thoughts that had long ago overtopped everything else in his professional life. After an unseasonably warm holiday season, the brisk midday temperatures of January 10, 2016, were largely lost on Henry, who was instead playing mental gymnastics with a variety of scenarios for the next day’s vote for House speaker and that afternoon’s meeting with most of the chamber’s Republicans.

The meeting was to be held at the Hilton Capitol Center, whose front doors were opened for Henry after he made his way across the street. “I’m checking in,” he said at the front desk, only to be told a room was not ready. After a brief go at the nearby bar, the leading GOP candidate for speaker was told the room type he and his family had requested was sold out and the Henrys would be upgraded at no charge to the Huey Long Suite.

With John Bel Edwards set to be sworn in the following day as Louisiana’s 56th governor, history was already in the air. Edwards, the night he was elected the preceding November, had described it as the “breeze of hope,” but those gusts felt more like the winds of change at the Hilton Capitol Center, which re-opened in 2006. It was previously the Heidelberg Hotel, a favorite haunt of former Governor Huey Pierce Long Jr. It was 84 years prior, almost to the day of Henry’s scheduled meeting with House Republicans, that the hotel had served as the temporary State Capitol when then-Lieutenant Governor Paul N. Cyr set up his executive offices there to take the state over from Long, who had been elected senator and refused to step down as acting governor.

Henry and the Republicans were taking on a governor-elect: Edwards, who was backing Representative Walt Leger, a fellow Democrat, for speaker. Tradition and history dictates that the governor will always get to handpick the speaker, with the House following suit in its subsequent vote, if needed. So the smart money was on Leger, a likable and experienced policymaker. But the 2 p.m. Sunday meeting was being called to see if the Republican majority could close up the ranks and get behind a single candidate, possibly Henry, who had been campaigning for months. It was a given that a voice vote on the floor would be needed, the first in the House in 32 years. Governors have so much control over the leadership process that their selections for speaker rarely even draw opponents.

After settling into his unexpected suite, Henry headed to the meeting space, which had been reserved days ahead of time. He took the elevator down, followed a series of connecting hallways and stopped at the door with the placard that read The Governor Room. Behind those doors he would find not only his future, but also the seed that would grow into one of the most significant House leadership votes in recent history.

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The Hilton Capitol Center

The First Meeting

Dozens of state representatives paced the floor or sat quietly, some sipping on cocktails and many checking their phones. One lawmaker had brought his young daughter, who was about to receive a life lesson in politics. More than one joke was made about the meeting being held in The Governor Room, but it would be the last time for the next two and a half hours that anyone would laugh. Talk had been percolating about an alternative Republican candidate to rival or replace Henry and this meeting would determine an acceptable path.

“It is essential that you are brutally honest with everything that comes out of your mouth,” Henry said, starting the meeting. Lawmakers nodded their heads while some exchanged glances that betrayed their sentiments about honesty and politics in moments like these. The first half of the meeting was filled with efforts to identify lawmakers who were either on the fence or on Team Edwards-Leger, with hopes of converting them.

At one point, Representative J. Rogers Pope told the group he had thought the meeting would be a gathering of the House GOP Delegation, not a meeting run by Henry. “I’m voting with the governor. Y’all need to figure this out on your own,” Pope said before leaving the room.

A vote was called to determine how many would support a Republican speaker and lawmakers were asked to stand if they were in the affirmative. There weren’t enough chairs to accommodate the crowd, so lawmakers squatted down after they were counted off by Representative Kenny Havard, who would come to play one of the more critical roles in the House election. The tally came to 51, which accounted for everyone in The Governor Room, plus four proxies Henry had brought.

The next vote was to be on Henry’s candidacy alone, which many lawmakers did not want to cast in any way that would be public. Others disagreed, arguing those with Edwards and Leger should make themselves known; most of the Republicans who were siding with the Democrats had not been invited at all. “Let’s smoke ‘em out,” shouted one representative. Instead, small strips from blank sheets of paper were used, resulting in 41 votes for Henry, not including his four proxies.

With 53 votes needed to win in the next day’s election, an alternative seemed more likely than ever. Henry left the room so his colleagues could privately discuss alternatives. Names were nominated: Representatives Taylor Barras, Chris Broadwater, Thomas Carmody and Kenny Havard. Eager to attend the Republican Delegation reception at the hotel, or other functions and meetings around the city that were beginning, House members started to come and go as those who remained debated names and ways to poll. A third vote was never taken and the lack of a compromise seemed to have given Leger and Edwards a momentary advantage.

Wrangling The Freshmen

As the meeting was breaking up, Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards was on the steps of the Capitol with his wife, Donna, and staff conducting a walkthrough for the next day’s inauguration ceremony. Reporters asked him about the speaker’s race. "Today is not a day for me to be worried, and I'm not,” Edwards said. “And I won't be worried tomorrow, either.”

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Rep. Kenny Havard

A few miles away back at the Hilton, Representative Kenny Havard exited The Governor Room with a deep sigh and heavy look on his face. He had tried to keep representatives in the room, but was forced to watch them disperse slowly and steadily. Thinking of ways to patch the delegation back together, he found Representative Lance Harris, the GOP’s House chair, in the Hilton lobby around 4:30 p.m. “We can still make this happen,” he told Harris, mentioning there was a group of freshmen that had committed to voting as a bloc and could be swayed toward an alternative candidate.

“Get them in a room and give them these names,” replied Harris.

Havard, having kept close tabs on the group of newbies, replied to a chain text message asking them to gather up their fellow freshmen in the coalition to meet one more time. Following a delegation photo shoot in the hotel at the Republican reception, eight House freshmen were taken back to The Governor Room by Havard and the door was closed. “I’m going to give you three names,” Havard told them.

One was his own, along with Representatives Taylor Barras and Johnny Berthelot. Before their first official day on the floor, the new lawmakers were being asked to make a critical decision that could be used to build a consensus with more senior members who also thought Henry was either too conservative or were thinking about playing ball with the governor-elect.

“We don’t know anything about these guys,” said a freshman. Another added, “You’re putting us in a position to vote against you, you know that, right, Kenny?”

Havard unleashed years of knowledge on the freshmen, telling them everything he could remember — bills filed, personalities, that Barras was a third-termer and he and Berthelot were in their second terms. With that, Havard left the freshmen to discuss the possibilities and he grabbed a scotch and water from the bar. He sat down, sipping and thinking and hoping. Around 10 minutes had passed when the door opened. “We want Barras,” one of the group said. “We want the third-termer.”

With a small glimmer of potential, Havard raced back to the Republican delegation’s reception and located Barras speaking to friends. Havard grabbed his arm and leaned in close to whisper. “Come on, Mr. Speaker,” Havard told Barras, who knew what that meant but was in disbelief. “We need to find Lance.”

Busted And Trusted

Getting the freshmen on one page was important, as it helped build an early coalition around Representative Barras. But more importantly, it reversed some of the attempts from Edwards and Leger to pick off the freshmen and some senior members for the Democratic category. Phone calls from donors and businessmen like Lane Grigsby; media buys from special interests; and appeals from Republican women groups also kept Republicans from crossing over. Yet the freshmen were key, and they sent Havard, Harris and others on a Sunday evening outreach mission to inform Republicans of the developing consensus.

But they needed to make sure the freshmen would stand strong. So another meeting was planned for The Governor Room at 9 p.m. With Barras tagging along, Havard and Harris led the group down the hallway only to find the door locked. They were forced to meet out in the open for what should have been a closed-door conversation for what amounted to a well-meaning push to replace Henry. The men let the women sit down as Barras stood and Havard sat on the arm of a chair in a nearby lobby area.

As a plan started to come together, political worlds collided in what might have otherwise been a spy versus spy routine. Representative Cameron Henry turned the corner as he was bringing his family’s babysitter to her car. After a brief round of shocked expressions, Henry laughed. “This wasn’t planned!” he said, throwing his arms up. More laughter cut the tension, with Henry continuing on his way before returning to his room to spend time with his children.

That’s around the time Henry received a text message from one of the freshmen stating he was sticking with Henry, not Barras. Wanting to be part of the solution, Henry contacted Barras and went back downstairs to the bar where the final plan was hatched and alliances were firmed up. Representative Blake Miguez, beginning his first full term, joined the clique and marveled at the inner workings of the House leadership, or rather what it had become. So this is how it works, he thought to himself with a smile.

A deal was put in place and Harris sent out a text message to delegation members at 11:27 p.m. A final meeting was needed, it read, at 9:15 a.m. tomorrow morning at the Capitol in the Ellender Room — just 45 minutes before the House was scheduled to convene to pick the next speaker of the House.

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Gov. Edwards at his inaugural mass Monday morning.

The Big Day: Prayers And Politics

It was indeed John Bel Edwards’ day, on January 11, 2016, with his inauguration planned for noon and the House being gaveled in at 10 a.m. He had spent the preceding weeks meeting with Republican lawmakers, telling them Representative Walt Leger would be their next speaker and twisting arms as needed. Sometimes Edwards met with them one-on-one, other times Leger was present alongside Chief of Staff Ben Nevers. On a few occasions, former state Senator Robert Adley, who Edwards had appointed to run the state’s oil port, was in the room and later worked lawmakers on Edwards’ behalf.

But all of it was put on hold when Edwards arrived at St. Joseph Cathedral, a block away from the Capitol, for his 8 a.m. inaugural mass. Pews were filled with political players with standing room only in the rear. Morning light filtered in through stained glass and the church’s bells vibrated the chamber throughout the celebration.

It proceeded as one might expect, until around 8:50 a.m., as the worship hymnal “You Satisfy A Hungry Heart” for the communion professorial was being sung. A second-term House member left the church early with his wife, then a freshman made an exit followed by a term-limited representative. Those in the know knew why. Others simply guessed something was up.

Text messages and cell phones were spreading the news. The fix was in and Representative Taylor Barras would be the next speaker after a larger-than-expected field was cleared. At the same time, on the House floor, Representatives Cameron Henry and Lance Harris let House Clerk Butch Speer in on the details, so he wouldn't be surprised, before the duo headed downstairs to the Ellender Room.

Once gathered, Henry explained to House members that there would be two other candidates aside from himself and Leger, that Barras and Democratic Representative Neil Abramson would be nominated that morning as well.

It was no coincidence that the Ellender Room meeting was called for 9:15 a.m. Henry didn’t want any lag time between the end of the meeting and the House convening. He didn’t want lawmakers alerting the governor-elect, who still had not been sworn in, or Democrats picking them off.

“If my vote and Taylor’s vote equal or combine to 53, we will have a Republican speaker,” Henry said to start the final meeting. “But it won’t be me.” For once, a meeting room filled with Republican House members went silent. In that moment, Henry actually envisioned a pin dropping with a thunderous plunk.

The plan was for Henry to drop out of the race if he ran second and Barras ran third, forcing a Leger-Barras runoff. Barras would carry all of Henry’s votes, and Henry knew he would never be able to capture some of Barras’ support. If Abramson ran third, Representative Mike Johnson suggested that they could ask the chair for a ruling to start the procedure over and have enough votes to override the assumed position not to. But it never came to that and Barras trumped Leger 56-49 on the final balloting. The first round gave 49 votes to Leger, 28 to Henry, 26 to Barras and just two to Abramson.

Speaker Taylor Barras

While his showing was less then breathtaking, Abramson had hoped to gain last-minute support from white rural Democrats who had concerns about Leger’s anticipated committee assignments to urban lawmakers. Abramson’s candidacy also allowed Henry and Barras to suggest to Republicans who were considering supporting Leger that his base was breaking up and that Democrats would be going to Abramson’s surprise candidacy. Abramson was the only Democrat who supported Barras on the second ballot.

Having two votes on the floor was a strategic move as well. Henry and Barras needed their delegation to see on the board that Leger did not have the votes. It likewise permitted any Republican who might be with Leger in the first vote to switch their allegiance on the second ballot.

Following adjournment, Edwards spoke to U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy in the hallway opposite Memorial Hall, just feet away from the spot where Huey Long’s assassination took place 80 years ago. A reporter asked the governor to comment on the House vote and Edwards said it would be addressed in his inauguration speech, but it never was. Edwards had just become the first governor in modern history to not select the House speaker, but it was also just the first page in his book as a new governor. That’s all to say the story is just beginning, not ending.

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