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Barras win could signal Edwards' term peaked

Did the governorship of Democrat John Bel Edwards peak two hours prior to his swearing in?

Approximately at that time, state Rep. Taylor Barras became Speaker of the House, an unexpected choice combining with a rare contested election for the post. In the past, overwhelming majorities of Democrats elected a Democrat as speaker regardless of the party of the governor. The modern Republican governors, except for former Gov. Bobby Jindal, complied by backing a Democrat both he and the majority found acceptable; Jindal in his first term backed a Republican when neither party had a majority and when the GOP, which would gain that majority over the next four years, trailed Democrats by just one seat.

But Edwards within days of his election publicly announced he would back a promotion for Democrat Speaker Pro-Tem Walt Leger. Not only would this make for the first time in history the party not with a majority not to possess the speakership, but it also would promote to speaker someone from a party with only about 40 percent of the total chamber seats, trailing the majority party in this instance by 19. It would have become an unprecedented foray into House minority rule.

For this to happen, assuming all Democrats voted for a Democrat, Leger would have had to persuade one or both of the two no-party members and, depending upon that, anywhere from nine to 11 Republicans to defect in a two-up contest. But state Rep. Truck Gisclair put forward another Democrat, state Rep. Neil Abramson, with that pair only voting for Abramson, meaning to win on the first ballot Leger needed a dozen GOP defectors because the independents split between him and Barras. For Barras’ part, he had another Republican competing as well to fend off, state Rep. Cameron Henry, who rumor had it would have been chosen by Republican Sen. David Vitter had he defeated Edwards for governor and who openly had run for the speakership against Leger.

Only the day before the vote had Barras come to prominence as a Speaker candidate, as a handful of unnamed Republicans threatened to vote for Leger if Henry remained their only GOP choice. Gisclair’s tactic might have been in response to that, giving Republicans a perceived less liberal choice on the Democrats’ side.

As it turned out, only Republican state Reps. Bryan Adams, Bubba Chaney (who nominated Leger), Patrick Connick, Chris Hazel, Stephanie Hilferty, Joe Lopinto, Rogers Pope, and Rob Shadoin abandoned their party and majority of constituents who voted for them in casting their lots for Leger, insufficient for his election. Henry picked up 28 and Barras 26, but given that presumably at least four more Republicans would sell out party and constituents if proffered Henry’s name, he withdrew prior to the runoff, allowing Barras to win by collecting all of Henry’s votes and Hilferty (switching in order to dampen a groundswell calling for her recall if she voted for Leger) and Abramson.

It’s expected that the GOP defectors will face punishment of some sort, in terms of committee assignments and other office perquisites. But the disordered nature of the transition makes consequences at this point unknown.

However, with certainty this represented a huge defeat for Edwards. It showed the limits of his influence as a governor from the party of heavy minority status in the Legislature (the Senate without controversy reelected Republican state Sen. John Alario as its President, where Republicans have about as big a proportional majority as they do in the House), which will redound negatively to his legislative agenda. And it’s not like Barras, a Democrat in his first House term, signifies much ideological difference from Henry; the former over his two terms scored about 71 on the Louisiana Legislature Log’s index of ideology and reformism in legislative voting, where higher scores denote more conservatism and reformism, while the latter registered an average of 73, both more conservative and reformist than the typical GOP House member.

Practically speaking, the election of a conservative like Barras makes it practically impossible for most of Edwards’ policy preferences such as increasing the minimum wage and bigger-spending budgets to succeed, while preserving GOP policy gains over the last eight years. As a result of this election, Edwards might find, contrary to his transition slogan of “Onward Louisiana,” more fittingly for his agenda from here it’s now all “downward.”

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