IT’S PERSONAL

This story was originally published in LaPOLITICS Weekly on May 4, 2018. Wish you had read it then? Become a part of our elite community by subscribing today!

Civility is joining goodwill on the Capitol’s list of endangered sentiments.

Could the trend ultimately derail the upcoming special session — and this term?

In enough incidents from this calendar year to amount to a troubling trend, members of the Louisiana Legislature and politicos aligned with the Edwards Administration have either found themselves being attacked or have gone on the attack over the most delicate of issues, like fidelity and integrity — matters once regarded as too personal for public display inside the Capitol building. At the very least, past protocol dictated that fingerprints were never to be left behind when engaging such topics.

Today, however, there are fingerprints everywhere, particularly if you go looking for them.

On the Capitol’s first floor, a very small but significant number of personalities from the legislative branch have been lashing out at lobbyists, second-guessing reporters and otherwise turning on their own. Even those elected members steering clear of the drama have been targeted by increasingly nasty direct mail and social media campaigns.

On the Capitol’s fourth floor, well-intentioned attempts by the governor to bring a degree of goodwill back to the process, through private gatherings with lawmakers, have done little to ease the tightest of nerves. But at least it’s a focus area.

Everywhere else, overworked and overstressed professionals are contributing to a dreary backdrop. They’re bemoaning the Legislature’s unpredictable gridlock while navigating its layers of trust and distrust. They’re interpreting and reinterpreting knee-jerk decisions while rehashing the failed ambitions of this term. Which is not yet over.

If you’ve seen all or part of this trend, then you already know there are no signs of fatigue. Sometimes the examples are tame, like what we saw during the House’s final hours on the floor this week. That was when Speaker Taylor Barras, visibly frustrated, urged a Republican bill-presenter and a Democratic questioner not to speak over each other. “Come on, guys!” the speaker groaned late Thursday, while looking as excited as any unexcitable man can.

There have likewise been dicier examples, like the theatrics hosted Wednesday afternoon by the House Health and Welfare Committee. That was where Sen. John Milkovich accused a female investigator connected to a public board of having an affair with an attorney that triggers a conflict of interest. “That’s a bald-faced lie!” shouted an unidentified member of the audience. “A bald-faced lie!”

As you’ll soon read, there are plenty more examples. And as you surely know, their collective timing is terrible. The hardened emotions, burnt bridges and personal insults are piling up just in time for the term’s sixth special session. But before we go careening off of the fiscal cliff, let’s review some research together.

LaPolitics spent the past two days conducting 32 on-the-record interviews with state legislators. That tally included 23 representatives and nine senators; or 18 Republicans and 14 Democrats; or 28 men and four women. (The full results can be found below.) We asked only two questions of each legislator:

1.) Can you, in one sentence, define the current mood of the Louisiana Legislature?

2.) During your time as an elected official in the Capitol, has the mood of the Louisiana Legislature ever been more emotional or tense?

What Lawmakers Are Saying

Of the lawmakers interviewed for our informal survey, 43.7 percent (or 14 out of 32) said the mood of the Louisiana Legislature has never been worse than it is right now.  Another 31.3 percent (or 10 out of 32) said the mood was either unnoticeable or improving, or they presented a positive spin on the situation. The remaining 25 percent (or eight out of 32) stopped short of labeling the mood as the worse they’ve ever seen, but they did describe it using negative adjectives such as bad or stressful or troublesome.

Newer legislators offered the rosiest assessments, with a few admitting that they’ve only known the environment they were thrust into at the beginning of this term. In other words, controlled chaos is their normal.

But some newbies have recognized subtle shifts from one session to the next and are now echoing concerns shared by their elders. “This (regular) session definitely ranks up there,” said Rep. Julie Emerson, a white Republican and the youngest member of the Legislature. “It’s the first session where everyone seems very personal, and the first session where we haven’t been able to walk out and be as friendly.”

Rep. Cedric Glover, a black Democrat who served in the House from 1996 to 2006 before reclaiming his seat this term, described the mood of the Legislature as “difficult.” Glover also said he’s survived rougher patches — specifically 1996, when former Gov. Mike Foster started peeling back affirmative action programs.

Nonetheless, Glover sees ample room for improvement. Term limits created a “disconnectedness” in the Legislature, he said, eroding what deep and lasting relationships used to mean for the process. “The ability to be able to develop the kind of relationships that I observed in those veteran members that were here when I got here is not possible from 1996 going forward,” said Glover. “You don’t have the kind of dynamic that encourages that kind of connection and camaraderie.”

Then there are those of another opinion entirely, like Sen. Dan Claitor, a term-limited committee chairman. “I don’t think it’s that bad,” he said when asked about the mood of his fellow lawmakers Wednesday evening. “I just think they’re weary.”

How Did We Get Here?

No one can point to the exact time the worm turned in the Capitol this year, but few can forget how Rep. Barry Ivey addressed the House, and his Republican colleagues, on Feb. 28, just over a week into the first special session of 2018.

“We don’t want a Democrat to get re-elected, and we don’t want to give him a political win by doing tax reform – that was something that was told to me,” Ivey said on the mic, to the delight of JBE boosters. “We’ve placed politics ahead of our constituents. We should all be ashamed. Myself included.”

Not long after the regular session convened March 12, a colleague “called Ivey out” during a House Republican Delegation meeting and suggested that he should be teaming with the Democrats. The colleague also asked Ivey to apologize for his floor comments and for allegedly participating in a plot to replace Speaker Taylor Barras.

Some time later, Ivey found a voter registration card on his desk in the House — changing his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. No one ever owned up to the prank.

Ivey said in an interview this week that he did eventually meet with Barras on an unrelated issue and an opportunity presented itself to dispel the rumor that he was working against the speaker. “It’s not a rumor,” Ivey said he told Barras. “I’m talking about replacing you.”

Asked for his thoughts, Ivey said, “I tend to be an outlier regardless… I’ve never had a tremendous amount of camaraderie with my colleagues.”

Then there’s Rep. Alan Seabaugh, who supposedly called Gov. John Bel Edwards a “liar,” if you rely solely on the social media coverage of his floor speech during the recent special session’s final Friday night. While it was indeed a tense time, Seabaugh never actually used the word “liar” in his remarks. 

Speaking against an income tax bill while noting a shortfall figure cited by the governor, Seabaugh pointed in the general vicinity of where he was standing behind the podium and said, “The governor stood right here at the opening of the session. And he said it, and it was a bald-faced lie when he said it. Because he knew it wasn’t an accurate number.”

Via a staffer, the governor invited Seabaugh to the fourth floor. Seabaugh said he took the elevator upstairs, but found the governor’s office overcrowded and decided to leave. “If he wants to meet somewhere, I’ll meet him,” said Seabaugh. “I’m certainly not scared of him. I don’t have any problem with him.”

About a month later, Mark Cooper, Edwards’ chief of staff, sought out Seabaugh during the ongoing regular session. During a conversation conducted just outside of the House chamber, Cooper said he wanted to see if there was an opening to simply communicate amicably, and he told Seabaugh the “bald-faced lie” comment was inaccurate and unfair. “I was not asked by the governor to reach out to him. I felt like it was a low point for the House and I told him that,” Cooper said, adding he remembered receiving “some kind of apology” and the exchange ending on a positive note.

Seabaugh said he argued the same points with Cooper he had argued on the floor. “I don’t regret it. I was right,” Seabaugh said of the dustup, which was an extension of a long-raging disagreement between the two men that has surfaced prior in op-eds and on Facebook. “If I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn't have said it was a ‘lie.’ I would have said it was ‘not true.’”

This story was originally published in LaPOLITICS Weekly on May 4, 2018. Wish you had read it then? Become a part of our elite community by subscribing today!

When Lawmakers Attack

There are too many examples of lawmakers talking over each other to list in this limited space. But Rep. Pat Smith, for one, said she’s seeing more of it this year than ever before. There are also several examples of witnesses and lobbyists being dressed down during committee meetings. Rep. Katrina Jackson even told NFIB director Dawn Starns, during a fiery cross-examination earlier this session, that she wanted to talk to her board of directors.

You could fill a newsletter or two with all of the passive-aggressive comments made into the mics this year regarding issues that were unrelated to the bills being debated. Like the time Rep. Marcus Hunter kept referring to “work requirements,” which Republicans want for Medicaid recipients, while discussing TOPS and education funding.

Other incidents will just have to stay inside the rails, where they belong. Like the recent outbursts of a lawmaker who was disappointed by certain health care funding decisions — outbursts that included ill wishes for the health of fellow legislators who were on the other side of the issue.

Rep. Major Thibaut has had his fill with fading the heat, whether in person or in the digital ether. In early April, Thibaut was presenting a set of bills to the House Criminal Justice Committee when a man, an opponent of one of the proposals, asked for the representative’s attention while he was still at the witness table. Thibaut told the man they could talk when his bill hearings were done, but the man reacted angrily, prompting the nearest sergeant-at-arms to jump into action. “He thought it was taking away his right to free speech,” said Thibaut. “He put his finger right in my face and security escorted him out. I’ve never seen him again.”

Thibaut has caught it on Facebook as well, especially on HB 391, which whipped recreational fishermen into a frenzy over the issue of access to running waters. In one such post and profanity-laced reply section, which provided a wide variety of spellings for Thibaut (such as “Tebos"), his critics called him a “disgrace,” “thug,” “dead head” and “puppet.” They accused Thibaut of being elected by “convicted felons” and promised he would “lose votes” in the future.

“They’ve gone name-calling and cyberbullying and so forth,” Thibaut told LaPolitics. “I think that’s the total wrong way to go about things. It’s tough not to respond. Because you want to. I’ve tried to. I’ve put out a statement. It’s evident that nothing will change people’s minds that are in that corner.”

Why There May Be Hope

Another regrettable exchange from this calendar year, on March 22, generated splashy headlines and pitted Rep. Joe Bouie against Sen. Conrad Appel. Bouie, testifying on behalf of a charter school bill, told Senate Education Committee members that black students were disproportionately affected by current regulations. “This is the big elephant in the room,” he said. “It appears the only place the benign neglect occurs is a majority African American district.”

"Sir, let me tell you something,” Appel replied to Bouie. “You are so far off base with your racial comments. It's disgusting,” Appel said, later adding, “I’m taking it personally. You accused us of being racist.”

As heated as that exchange was, and as bad as it still looks on tape, both men have already agreed to put it behind them and to have a meal together, which was a proposal made by Appel and accepted by Bouie. “I’ve heard him for years and years say the same stuff and I disagree with it totally and, finally, I’d had a bad day,” Appel said Thursday of his “friend” and House counterpart. “We’ve had so many special sessions that it grates on your nerves after a while.”

Bouie struck a similar tone. “He realized, after he and others looked at the tape, I never used the word ‘racist,’” Bouie said. “We’re cool.”

Also reaching out to sooth wounds and press “reset” has been Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has been hosting a bipartisan mix of legislators at the Mansion, at basketball games and at other events. You name the caucus — black, rural, women, etc. — and you’ll find members who have been invited by the governor to these recent gatherings. And that includes Republicans.

While diehard conservatives haven’t always walked away with improved feelings about the Democratic governor, those involved with the informal get-togethers contend Edwards’ intentions have been pure. Still, some Republicans, referencing recent meetings at the Mansion, including one from this week, said they were disappointed to hear the governor express frustration over his negotiations and dealings with the speaker, which they took as jabs, but Edwards’ supporters have since described as brief replies to comments initiated by Republicans.

(***To view LaPolitics’ complete House and Senate survey results, visit https://lapolitics.com/2018/05/house-senate-survey-results/.)

This story was originally published in LaPOLITICS Weekly on May 4, 2018. Wish you had read it then? Become a part of our elite community by subscribing today!

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