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Edwards can take solace in Alario reelection

Maybe the governorship of Democrat John Bel Edwards hit its high point prior to his taking the oath of office, but it may not go downhill too far or fast depending upon the wiles of legislative leader who already has served two terms in that role under a governor then named Edwards.

State Sen. John Alario gained unanimous reelection for Senate president from his colleagues earlier this week. Just as Prisoner #03128-095, known back then as Gov. Edwin Edwards, held the state’s top office for 16 years, Alario now threatens to do the same in serving as top officer of the House of Representatives, accomplished in non-consecutive terms during the last two terms of Prisoner #03128-095’s reign, and now if completing his term would log two consecutively additionally in the equivalent position in the Senate.

Interestingly, for this final voyage on the hayride he will take the trip, for the first time, as a member of a different political party than the governor. Alario switched from Democrat to Republican prior to his reelection as senator in 2011, after which he would take the Senate’s helm. In some ways it did not seem all that unusual as by then his voting record more often reflected conservativism and reformism. His Louisiana Legislature Log voting record for his last term in the House averaged 35; he registered an average of 61 his first term in the Senate and then posted a 63 during his chamber presidency (100 denotes all conservative/reform votes cast, with 0 meaning none).

Put another way, he scored 11 points below the chamber average but 4 points above his party’s average in it three terms ago; he scored 9 points above the chamber average and 2 points above his party’s average in it two terms ago; and last term he scored 9 points above the chamber’s average and at his party’s average in it.

If legislative scholars advise anything, they warn of the complexity that determines representatives’ voting behavior. Constituency characteristics, acquiring power for the interests that comprise the group with which you identify (commonly congruent with partisanship), and ideological attitudes all mix to produce voting outcomes. Analyzing Alario’s last dozen years produces a telling combination.

He chaired the House Appropriations Committee in that last (his ninth) term in that body, the second-most powerful position in the chamber, with Democrat former Gov. Kathleen Blanco in the Governor’s Mansion and her ally former state Rep. Joe Salter as Speaker, in a district with then 58 percent Democrat and white voter registration. He then jumped to the Senate coinciding with Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s election, winning as Democrat a district with then 50 percent Democrat and 64 percent white. During that time he held no leadership position but his 2010 switch to the GOP indicated some ambition to change that status. For his and Jindal’s second term, when he took command of the chamber, the district continued about half Democrat but the proportion of whites slipped to 60 percent. Both the proportion of whites and Democrats have slid slightly since then.

Accordingly, this history on the surface appears to make him the Geico gecko of the Louisiana Legislature: a political chameleon who balances expertly the wishes of his constituency with a desire to wield power, with his own personal beliefs stuffed somewhere in there. The question in this new environment, one he never has encountered as a leader, is which group’s interests does he serve, the governor from the other party but whom he voted similarly to a dozen years ago, or a chamber led by his party that put him in power and can remove him?

With the House planting a solid conservative/reformer into its top job, against the wishes of Edwards, the governor naturally will try to wheedle Alario into his corner. If he wants any of his populist agenda to have any chance to succeed, he must have Alario mimic his policy preferences more often than not. If he has both chambers working against him, at best he would provide a small moderating influence on a right-of-center agenda that means he will have little of his agenda implemented, although able to block much further movement to the right.

Perhaps not surprisingly, over the past year Alario has delivered mixed signals. Last year, he championed Jindal’s SAVE proposal despite its disdain by many of his colleagues, which essentially created a bookkeeping mechanism that appeared to offset other tax increases while locking in dedicated funding to higher education, on the basis that the Senate preferred it as a device to pass a budget then believed balanced. Yet he opposed a Jindal-backed measure that would have protected individuals and businesses from government retaliation on the basis of views about marriage in that he alleged this put the state in a “bad light.”

Yesterday, he did appoint six Democrats to committee chairmanships and gave the party control of four committees, which together slightly overweighs their numerical importance in the chamber. State Sen. Eric LaFleur heads up the budget-writing Finance Committee but has a GOP majority to contend with, while state Sen. JP Morrell does have a Democrat majority on the tax-considering Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. It’s not unusual historically for minority party members to lead committees and/or constitute majorities on them, and as the governor comes from the minority, in some ways a pragmatic admission of the legislating parameters of the next four years. Undoubtedly, the fact that some immediate past chairmen found themselves out of jobs came from Edwards’ intervention.

But perhaps the most salient information regarding how much the Senate will bend to Edwards’ will derives from the certainty of Alario’s term limitation at the end of 2019. After 48 years, surely he will retire, so he has no more constituents or policy-makers to have to please. So what behavior we see from him over these next four years might end up as the most accurate reading of his own views, which seems, given the evidence at hand, as a regression to the mean. After his shellacking by House Republicans that saw them install one of their own as speaker over his own Democrat preference, Edwards can interpret this as a bit of good news.

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