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Musical chairs in the offing for ambitious LA politicians

With the elections of Democrats Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu as New Orleans mayor and state Rep. Karen Peterson, currently the Speaker Pro-Tem, to the state Senate, the musical chairs have started early in Louisiana state government, creating some interesting succession scenarios.

For the state’s second job, Landrieu’s choice not to leave it until shortly before his mayoral inauguration sets interesting dynamics. With talk intensifying about eliminating the job for money-saving and logistical reasons after the current term ends in early 2012 as a result of no elected incumbent being there for months after Landrieu leaves, it’s possible that a bill to do so will be well through the Legislature by that time. Two-thirds of each chamber must approve, followed by a majority vote of the people which would be held at the same time as the election to replace the temporary gubernatorial appointee to finish the term.

By the end of April, legislators should have sense of the bill’s likelihood of passage and this could affect substantially offers to fill the seat temporarily, which Gov. Bobby Jindal has said would go to somebody who will pledge not to run for it in the general election, and to run to finish the term. The temporary appointee likely would be a Republican and/or Jindal loyalist either at the end of a political career, or had a long-serving career and recently retired from it, or is looking for a little visibility for a future but not immediate career. One thing it will not be would be a Democrat, as the stakes simply are too high to have a situation of vacancy even during a time span of a few months just in case the office becomes vacant within that window for whatever reason, as this would give such a Democrat a big leg up to run for it in 2011.

If the winds seem to be blowing fairly convincingly for the elimination of the lieutenant governor’s job among the judgment of legislators by the beginning of May, more interest among sitting term-limited legislators approaching the end of their political careers might manifest as they will see this as an easier ticket on which to wrap up their service than jockeying in a race for a job that has no future. But if elimination seems uncertain, interest will be light in the appointive six-month job and interest in running for the replacement job will perk up substantially. If the bill fails to get out of the Legislature, interest by legislators will go through the ceiling since it would not cost them their seat to win; if it does get out but voter approval seems uncertain, a fair amount of interest still will remain for qualifying by term-limited legislators that will begin over a month after adjournment.

Two leading names suggested for the appointive job – former House Speaker Hunt Downer and Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle – are interesting in that they also have been linked to running for the Third District of the U.S. House, itself a possible lame duck seat that may be apportioned away, this fall. Selection of one of them would indicate passing on this contest and might leave the other as one of the favorites if entering. But either they will enter prior to Jindal’s selection or very shortly thereafter, given by then only four months will remain until the party primaries. If both do, this may tip that former state Sen. Ken Hollis could be the leading candidate.

Assuming there is ambiguity about whether the office will be eliminated, one figure that will not run is Republican Sec. of State Jay Dardenne, who stands to become next in line to the governorship if it is done away with. Nor would Republican Treasurer John Kennedy run, whose position now would be much higher profile. Others who are more influential legislators who are not term-limited also would be unlikely to run (unless bored with their present post), since they would give up a sure seat and reelection to run for a job that may last only a year, and would have to campaign twice in a year to get their old seat back. Thus, the field mostly would be term-limited legislators.

The dynamics differ somewhat when dealing with the House pro-tem position, as no spending nor voluntary leaving of a seat is necessary. Clearly favored here is state Rep. Rick Gallot given the demographic and partisan composition of the House. With a virtual 50/50 split between parties and with Speaker Jim Tucker being a Republican, a black Democrat normally almost would be required as pro-tem choice with over half of House Democrats being black.

However, Gallot has a choice laid down to him by Tucker: either be the (largely symbolic) second-ranked officer or be chairman of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee that will control the redistricting process, but not both. Him being term-limited, look for Gallot to take the House’s second spot and perhaps try to parlay that into the state’s second position. But should he remain in this chairman’s role, the next choice could be interesting.

Tucker cannot pick a Republican, given the close split in the House. Yet he could pick state Rep. Joel Robideaux, an independent who votes more often with Republicans if he wants a more reform-minded colleague. Otherwise, he could go with an old warhorse who has served in the Legislature longer than any other House member, Democrat state Rep. Noble Ellington. He won’t be much of a reformer, but his sclerotic nature as a political force may allow Tucker to ignore him largely in pushing a more conservative agenda.

Tucker promises his pick within a week, and certainly by the time three months have passed we’ll know what has developed concerning the job a step away from Jindal’s.

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