Republican Kennedy ascended to the U.S. Senate at the beginning of the year, leaving a couple of years left on his term. Into the fray have jumped three major candidates, all Republicans: Angéle Davis, for two years commissioner of administration under former Gov. Bobby Jindal; state Sen. Neil Riser; and former state Rep. John Schroder.
At a recent local Republican Party forum, Davis and Riser found themselves answering a myriad of questions that had really nothing to do with the treasurer’s job, such as their Second Amendment views and religious backgrounds. Schroder could not attend because of a scheduling conflict.
These questions align with rhetoric coming from the candidates in other venues about issues such as budget discipline and taxation. Constitutionally, the treasurer has responsibility for the custody, investment, and disbursement of the public funds of the state; and statutorily attends meeting of state boards such as the Bond Commission and retirement systems and may borrow money from state funds for immediate use in the general fund.
Yet despite this very limited portfolio, the candidates appear eager to talk about these other issues way outside of that. Thank the evolving nature of the state treasurer’s job for that, which has gone through periods of its use as a patronage sink, limited by good government, and finally as a steppingstone to higher office.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the Legislature appointed the officer, and until the century’s end through various constitutions it served as a place on electoral tickets for influential backers of the winning gubernatorial candidate’s faction. Reformist forces then coalesced to restore the office as elective without chance of succession, a practice that lasted until former Gov. Huey Long’s machine successors amended the Constitution to decouple the one-term limit, making the office useful for their patronage purposes, through elections. That enabled two Longite allies, A.P. Tugwell and Mary Evelyn Parker, to tie down the office until 1987.
Reelecting them time and time again mattered little, since the office did little and neither had larger political ambitions. But then-state Rep. Mary Landrieu did, and took advantage of Parker’s retirement with about a year left on her term to capture the office. She parlayed this into an unsuccessful run for governor, leaving the office to do so, then a successful one a year later for U.S. Senate.
Her successor, Ken Duncan, lasted but a single term as the ambitious Kennedy defeated him. Having previously tried and failed at winning the attorney general slot, during his terms Kennedy would try three times to win a Senate seat, with the third time being the charm. He leveraged the springboard power of the office in ways that Landrieu had not; while she used it merely as a method to broaden her name recognition and to enhance her resumé, with the cooperation of former Gov. Mike Foster he had the opportunity to attach higher-profile uses of the job’s statutory powers.
Landrieu and Kennedy’s use of the office over the past three decades has changed its perception to a generation of voters. Even if a candidate intends to make it a career, the electorate perceives it as an audition for something more exalted, groomed to think that way in ways they don’t concerning the other minor elected executive posts (with the possible exception of lieutenant governor, with its proximity to the top job and the example of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco vaulting from it to the top step of the podium, and other such associations could form, such as with attorney general given former Atty. Gen. Richard Ieyoub’s past unsuccessful bid for governor and speculation current Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry eventually may eye bigger things).
So, as exasperating to purists as the questions asked and statements made by the candidates that don’t address the actual job description of the Louisiana treasurer may be, observers, voters, and the candidates better get used to these.