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Officer vote shows personality still plays big role

For a largely symbolic office, we got largely symbolic results, but it’s a significant symbolism that offers a tiny hope that Louisiana’s political system continues to mature away from being based on personality and more towards focusing on ideas.

In the contest for House Speaker Pro-Tempore, Lafayette-area state Rep. Joel Robideaux, an independent who entered the House through a special election and won reelection for this term, defeated Democrat state Rep. Noble Ellington from northeast Louisiana who has served longer in the Legislature (having previously been term-limited out of the Senate before winning a House seat this past election) than any other member of the House. The 53-48 result showed personalistic politics still plays a large role in decision-making.

This officer does little more than a typical member of the House, unlike his boss the Speaker, Republican Jim Tucker. He gets a salary bump and a better office and can preside over the chamber when the Speaker isn’t around but the latter offers few opportunities (rulings mainly) to wield power. So how the vote turned out is where the real significance is.

In understanding legislative politics in Louisiana, the most important factor is the personalistic nature of politics. That is, politics revolves first and foremost around the individuals themselves and their characteristics, interest group support and own agendas, with party and ideology less important. Historically in Louisiana, regionalism has been next in importance; only within the last 20 years has party and ideology become at all significant in understanding legislative behavior.

From the perspective of classic democratic theory, personalistic politics is problematic. Because it relies so much on individuals rather than institutions and on personal agendas rather than ideologies, it creates a difficult linkage mechanism for the mass public in terms of its decisions about who to send to office and how to keep them accountable once in office. Unless a constituent has a special connection to a policy-maker, partisan and ideological ties that bind the two together create a weak bond. It’s no accident that, around the world, in states with weak or nonexistent democracies personalistic politics plays the dominant role in understanding political behavior.

In a mature institution, party and ideology play more important roles in decision-making than personal relations which assists the public in assigning credit or blame for actions because knowing the partisanship and ideology of representatives very often coveys accurate information about how they decide. Where politics is personalistic, that muddies the waters considerably and creates confusion among the mass public.

Were either chamber of the Legislature more professional bodies (such as the U.S. Congress), this vote would have sharp cleavages: most if not all Democrats would have voted for Ellington and most if not all blacks (since all but one are Democrats) should have voted for him. Had he captured all of these and all members had been present, he would have lost 52-51 (two seats lie vacant, most recently represented by black Democrats).

Instead, his losing tally (even though they answered the roll call as present, state Reps. Patrick Williams and Juan LaFonta seemed to wander off by the time of the vote; Tucker asserted they would have voted for Robideaux) was comprised of 13 Republicans, while Robideaux helped win with 17 Democrats including seven blacks. Lest anyone think regionalism has lost its power, Ellington captured nearly half (29) of the members outside of north and central Louisiana – including some Republicans, while Robideaux siphoned 10 from that region – some white Republicans, but also some black Democrats.

In the final analysis, many more Republicans voted for Robideaux (he essentially is one of them but because of internecine Lafayette politics originally ran as an independent and has stayed one) and many more Democrats did he same for Ellington, showing that party and ideology does matter. That leads to some belief that psychological attachments may be gaining in strength in terms of decision-making calculus in the Legislature, but that personalistic considerations continue to hold substantial sway in a body that slowly is becoming more professional.

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