A Ship of Fools, a Band of Pirates, and a Mutiny by the Majority

On the morning after the second extraordinary session of the Louisiana legislature ended, once again, in failure, The Advocate did something extraordinary itself: On its front page, above the fold, it featured a story about the inevitability of another session and an incredible report about the ways in which key members of the legislature appear to have used their positions in government to advance their business interests. But that wasn’t the extraordinary feature of the day’s paper. Directly below the fold, on the front page, The Advocate published a blistering editorial, admonishing Republican leadership in the state House for failing the people of Louisiana. It is rare and notable for a newspaper to feature an editorial on its front page; it’s even more unusual if that opinion was written on behalf of the newspaper’s editorial board. The Advocate, publicly but also subtly, was taking a bold position. In the print edition, the headline of the editorial reads, “A ship of fools sailing nowhere.” Unfortunately, that’s not the headline most readers saw. On its online version, the paper restyled the headline as “Our Views: In Louisiana politics, compromise is a dirty word and residents bear consequences,” which stripped the column of its punch. Online, the paper also failed to note the fact that the column ran on the front page of its print edition, which stripped it of its context as well.

But, regardless, “A ship of fools sailing nowhere” is a perfect metaphor, and on the eve of yet another special session, it is one worth revisiting and extending.

In 2015, John Bel Edwards, a Democrat and, at the time, a largely unknown state representative and a small-town lawyer from Amite, defeated the most senior and most powerful Republican in the entire state, U.S. Sen. David Vitter. It was a sensational and consequential victory; Edwards was the first Democrat to win a statewide office after fourteen consecutive elections and the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. Remember, the conventional wisdom, at least during the first full year of the campaign, was that Edwards would lose to Vitter in a landslide. Throughout the course of that year, though, the news out of the state Capitol was increasingly grim. There was talk of billion dollar structural deficits; the state’s bond rating had been downgraded; emergency rooms were closing. And the governor at the time continually refused to accept federal funding for projects both big and small. Jindal had first been elected by presenting himself as a skilled technocrat, and then he spent the majority of his tenure focused on fighting culture wars and with sights on the White House. Louisianians were eager for him to leave. Several early polls showed that if Hillary Clinton had been running against Bobby Jindal heads-up, Clinton would have won Louisiana easily. Jindal, his style of politics, and his political ideology had grown out of fashion in the state. People were ready to fix things, instead of blowing things up. Edwards’ victory was resounding, 12.1 points, double-digits, and contrary to the conventional wisdom being peddled by the Republican establishment, Edwards didn’t win because of anything David Vitter ever did in his own private life. (Remember, Vitter had won his previous statewide election by double-digits, well after his name became at the center of a national scandal involving the D.C. Madam). Edwards won resoundingly because, unlike Vitter, he represented a clean break from the policies of the outgoing governor, something Louisianians desperately wanted. During his campaign, Edwards repeatedly pledged that he would accept Medicaid expansion funds; by the end, all three of his Republican opponents made the same pledge. At the time, Jindal’s approval ratings were abysmal, lower than anyone in the state and than any other previous governor. The people of Louisiana spoke, clearly. They rejected the Republican establishment. The leaders of the Louisiana Republican Party scrambled. Their donors had invested vast fortunes into the race, and they had largely taken for granted that Vitter would prevail. By the time it was clear that he couldn’t, it was too late to do anything. The real battle would now be about protecting the political power these Republican leaders had always enjoyed under Jindal.

Our ship isn’t led by fools. It’s been commandeered by pirates.

Edwards would not get a honeymoon. Republican leaders were petulant after Vitter’s embarrassing loss, and almost immediately, they began plotting against the new governor. John Bel Edwards would be the first governor in modern Louisiana history deprived of the custom of effectively selecting the Speaker of the House. For decades, the coordination between the speaker and the governor had been critical to ensure the efficiency of the legislative process. Edwards had wanted Walt Leger (D- New Orleans) to serve as speaker, and at least initially, his nomination and appointment seemed inevitable, if not perfunctory.  Leger required just 53 of 105 yeas. He’d only need to convince a dozen Republicans to vote in favor of what had always been ministerial. But two Republican leaders, Lance Harris (R- Alexandria), the head of the House Republican Caucus, and Cameron Henry (R -Metairie), a friend and former aide to Congressman Steve Scalise, stood in the way. Henry had been all but guaranteed the speakership in a future Vitter administration, and he decided not to be inconvenienced by the fact that Vitter lost. When it became obvious Henry couldn’t get the necessary votes, however, he and Harris recruited a term-limited colleague who wasn’t widely-known at the time, Taylor Barras (R- New Iberia), as the consensus candidate. They then called in a group of ten newly-elected Republican legislators who had demonstrated a willingness to follow tradition and vote for Leger, the governor’s endorsed candidate. In a closed door, late-night, marathon series of meetings at the Capitol Hilton in downtown Baton Rouge, they pressured the ten freshmen to reconsider. The gamble paid off. Leger lost the speakership; Barras won, and from the very beginning of his term, Gov. John Bel Edwards has dealt with a legislature led by their most extreme and radically ideological Republican members, the very people who had enabled and embraced the policies of former Gov. Bobby Jindal. They’re not and have never been serious policymakers. They are a small band of political pirates, and the ship was easy to steal. It’s worth noting these legislators aren’t particularly well-respected by their fellow Republicans, several of whom have made their dissatisfaction public. Today, there are more than enough votes to replace House leadership, and until that happens, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming session, the pirates will continue to steer the ship.

Do the Majority in the House of Representatives have the Courage to Mount a Mutiny on behalf of the People of Louisiana?

Consider this: During the last special session, only twenty-one members voted against Leger’s bill for a half-cent sales tax renewal and also for Harris’s bill for a third-of-a-cent renewal (three of whom were Henry, Harris, and Barras).

The Speaker, Chair of Appropriations, and Chair of the House Republican Caucus are outnumbered. Public opinion is not on their side. They have no guns or swords. In fact, the dirty little secret around the state Capitol is that they don’t even have the votes within their own Chamber. Just take a look at the votes on the key bills in the recently concluded special session. All three of the pirates were on the losing side. Bigly. The Advocate was right on point – the pirate’s political mission to obstruct the Governor has blinded their regard for the policy outcomes of their actions. TOPS cut? So what? 10,000 inmates released to the streets? Too bad. DCFS defunded? Fend for yourselves. Higher educations slashed yet again? Dig deeper, Mom and Dad. But the question is: When will the focus of the peoples’ anger transition from the pirates to the willing accomplices? That’s right. The two dozen or so House Republicans that continue to ride shotgun and turn a blind eye to Captain Taylor, First Mate Lance, and Cameron the Skipper. Because after two years, and now seven special sessions, their willingness to accommodate the political ransom demands of Barras, Harris, and Henry, many of the so-called moderate Republicans in the Louisiana House are just as culpable for the harms being inflicted upon the people of Louisiana as the small band of political pirates we’ve all come to know. When the legislature reconvenes today, will those in the moderate middle finally garner the courage to stage a mutiny on behalf of the people of Louisiana? On behalf of our students, seniors, working families, sick and disabled. Or, will they continue to ride along as a ship of fools being piloted by a handful of political pirates?
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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.