Another Round Of Musical Chairs At The Capitol

Who needs term limits with this kind of turnover?

Almost two months have passed since I last utilized this space to discuss the Legislature’s surprising number of open seats and the low morale inside the Capitol. Politicos who not long ago were begging for dollars and running for their lives to get elected to the House and Senate are now looking for exits. It’s another byproduct of the tense political climate in Baton Rouge — and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Believe it or not, it’s time for another update on this front. The second year of the current term has barely gotten underway and there are already candidates qualified for three special legislative elections. And now, thanks to the surprise resignation of former Sen. Troy Brown, there is a fourth special election that has been called.

Unlike the other three contests, which were called because lawmakers wanted different political jobs, this Senate vacancy came about because Brown, plagued by domestic battery charges, jumped ship last week before his colleagues could vote to expel him.

There’s an election called for April 29, with qualifying set for mid-March. Senate President John Alario wanted to have the seat filled before the regular session convenes on April 10, but opted to give the candidates more time to build their campaigns.

Senate District 2, which is Brown’s old seat, is a minority district that snakes along the Mississippi River from West Baton Rouge Parish and dips south into Lafourche. It covers an astounding eight parishes. Given that geography, a large slate of contenders is expected — and is already building. Two state representatives, a school board president, a film executive and the director of the Louisiana High School Coaches Association are all looking at the race.

There could possibly be another opening in House District 35 if Rep. Stephen Dwight, a freshman lawmaker, gets recruited by President Donald Trump. With U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi on indefinite medical leave, speculation about a potential federal appointment in the Western District is ramping up — and for now Dwight is the focus of that attention.

Dwight, a former prosecutor and city attorney, confirmed that there have been ongoing talks in regard to the job. It’s unclear, though, whether Minaldi will return to her post. A call seeking comment from the Western District clerk recently was not returned.

For now, there are certainly enough scheduled legislative elections on March 25 to keep politicos busy in Louisiana. There are special elections in the House districts anchored by Crowley, Shreveport and Kenner. There’s a very strong likelihood that Republicans will sweep all of these elections, which is especially notable in Crowley’s House District 42 — that seat, long held by a Democrat, has been repeatedly targeted by the state GOP and has only Republicans running.

Those three legislative seats became vacant because, in each case, the incumbent wanted a different political job: Jack Montoucet became wildlife and fisheries secretary; Congressman Mike Johnson moved up to Washington; and Tom Willmott transferred over to the Kenner City Council.

The allure of the Louisiana Legislature just wasn’t enough to keep them coming to Baton Rouge. And they certainly weren’t the first lawmakers to move on this term. Before them, former Reps. Bryan Adams and Joe Lopinto both resigned in early 2016. On their way out, the two men spoke publicly about being frustrated with the process.

Privately, many other lawmakers are saying the same. The Legislature is more divided than ever, social media keeps elected officials under an all-seeing microscope and a seemingly non-stop budget mess is overshadowing other important policy initiatives.

There’s a chance this Legislature could even set a record for turnover if the current pace keeps up. Sen. Danny Martiny has launched a campaign for the Jefferson Parish Council back home and two more lawmakers — Reps. John Schroder and Julie Stokes — are running for state treasurer. Not to be outdone, there are a small handful of legislators likewise contemplating a campaign for mayor of New Orleans.

A lot of these folks would eventually be pushed out of the House and Senate by term limits anyway. In 2019, the next full election cycle for the Legislature, more than a third of all legislators will have to bow out due to term limits.

It’s just that some are more eager than others to begin their new careers. But, given the political landscape and the budget challenges lawmakers face, who can really blame them?

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