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Cheerleading, Chiding and Chicanery

A look into LABI President Stephen Waguespack’s change from an advocate for business coming to Louisiana, to an antagonist, warning investors away.

Cheerleading is changing, and so are the people who do it.

It’s still early in the 2018 football season, but there’s already been more than a bit of controversy over the New Orleans Saints’ cheerleader, Jesse Hernandez. As one of only three male cheerleaders in the National Football League, he’s been the target of commentary on his performance – nay, his very existence on the pep squad — ranging from “I do not feel ‘threatened’. I feel repulsed & disgusted,” to “It’s a sign of moral decay,” to “What male football fan wants some queer prancing around with the women?”

Jesse Hernandez, Saintsation. Source: YouTube, 2018 

Beyond the inherent sexism and homophobia in the assumption that cheerleaders must be women to entertain the male fans, and the ignorance of history (cheerleaders were almost exclusively male until the 1940s, when women – as they did with many traditionally male tasks – stepped up to fill positions left vacant while the guys were away fighting World War II), Jesse Hernandez IS doing his job, consistently and well.

On the other hand, another guy charged with being a cheerleader for Louisiana is doing a less-than-stellar job.

“State GDP growth is ranked at the bottom of the nation.”

“Louisiana’s legal climate is ranked dead-last in the nation.”

“Louisiana needs Medicaid reform. Louisiana needs pension reform. Louisiana needs continued education reform. Louisiana needs legal reform. Louisiana needs economic reform. Louisiana needs infrastructure reform. Louisiana needs government reform.”

These are all excerpts from recent columns penned by Louisiana Association of Business and Industry president Stephen Waguespack. Titled the “President’s View,” the opinion pieces are sent out via email multiple times each month and are prominently featured on the organization’s website.

LABI publicizes itself as “Louisiana’s official state chapter for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

The official U.S. Chamber website defines a “chamber of commerce” as “an organization of businesses working together to improve the economic, civic, and cultural well-being of the area. The main function of a Chamber of Commerce is to promote interest in local business possibilities, and promote industrial and business development.”

Yet if you were looking at opening up or moving a business to Louisiana and were reading Waguespack’s columns, wouldn’t you reconsider?

His messages weren’t always so negative.

Stephen Michael Waguespack, or “Wags” as he’s known by friends, associates, and the capitol press corps, is still only 44. But he’s already worked in the public sphere, in some capacity, for more than two decades. It’s in his DNA. 

His grandfather, Hickley Waguespack, Sr., was a long-time powerful sheriff of Ascension Parish, serving for nearly 24 years. Last year, when the APSO opened Waguespack Park in Donaldsonville, Chief Deputy Bobby Webre praised the late sheriff. “A great man and a great sheriff through the Civil Rights Movement,” Webre said. “He was ahead of his time.”  

Sheriff Hickley Waguespack, Sr. 

His grandson was always a Louisianian, though he spent a portion of early years in Missouri, where his father worked as the Chief Operating Officer of Rehab Care Group in St. Louis. After Stephen graduated from LSU in 1997, with a degree in Mass Communications, he took a job as a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Joe Barton from Texas’ Sixth District in the Dallas metroplex area. Two years later, Barton promoted him to legislative director, and Wags spent another couple of years on Capitol Hill before heading to law school at Catholic University. 

After 33 years in office, Barton, who became a leading voice in the Tea Party movement, announced earlier this year he would not seek reelection, after a collection of embarrassing lewd photos and videos of the congressman emerged online. 

While in law school, Wags moonlighted as a lobbyist for clients of the D.C.-based Alpine Group, a job he’d keep until 2007 when another position with a promising young conservative politician from Louisiana became available: Policy Director for Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial campaign.

Once Jindal was elected, Waguespack served as his Deputy Chief of Staff for nearly two years. Then, the 35-year-old was named Jindal’s Executive Counsel, a position he would keep for another two years before being promoted again, as the Governor’s Chief of Staff. 

All told, he spent nearly five years at Gov. Jindal’s side until yet another opportunity presented itself. 

There was a lot of tongue-wagging when Wags was appointed to head up the business group in September 2013, upon the retirement of LABI’s prior president Dan Juneau. Much of that controversy stemmed from his work in the Jindal administration; among many of LABI’s members, there were worries that the trade organization could not possibly be expected to be independent of the governor and that Waguespack’s selection could undermine LABI’s credibility. 

He quickly worked to quell those concerns with his genuine “nice-guy” personality, proactively reaching out to meet with skeptical LABI members, and by steadily shaking the pom-poms by lauding promised economic development projects around Louisiana and the state’s anticipated economic growth.

LABI President Stephen Waguespack, known as “Wags” by friends, associates, and the capitol press corps. Credit: Marie Constantin.

“In Louisiana, we are on the verge of a manufacturing renaissance that has the potential to revamp our economy in a way that will benefit our people for generations,” Waguespack wrote in 2014. “Over $60 billion in new manufacturing projects have been announced in our state and more are expected to come on line in the years ahead. The Louisiana manufacturing sector contributes an estimated $55.1 billion to the economy and accounts for 7.4 percent of our workforce.“

“A sense of urgency is needed to fill the 69,000 STEM-related jobs Louisiana will gain between now and 2018,” Waguespack said in another 2014 column.

In January 2015, marking LABI’s 40th anniversary, Wags wrote, “We are on the right track. We have seen over $100 billion in announced projects throughout the state and Louisiana is soon expected to surpass two million non-farm jobs for the first time in history. Our economy is also diversifying before our very eyes, with growing technology, trade, health care and manufacturing sectors joining our more traditional economic drivers. Our employment trends continue to outperform the nation and our employers are growing their businesses at a promising rate.”

Go team!

Four months later, LABI’s president started changing his tune. As the cumulative result of the Jindal administration’s “if you offer them state dollars, they will come” economic development policies, the unraveling of the Stelly Plan, and smoke-and-mirrors budgeting practices, the state was saddled with a projected $1.6 billion budget deficit; the legislature voted to scale back many business tax credits, rebates, and giveaways.

And despite his prior involvement in developing and implementing what we now know were disastrous fiscal policies, Waguespack was peeved about the results.

“On May 7, the Louisiana House of Representatives voted repeatedly to raise taxes on employers and individuals by $664 million in 11 different bills,” he wrote. “Likely the largest single-day tax increase effort in the history of the Louisiana Legislature, this collection of tax hikes was broad in its scope and impact on the private sector. In fact, the average amount of taxes raised per minute of floor debate was $2.8 million.”

Still, his tone continued to be generally positive, with a June 2015 column thanking the association’s members “for what you do to make this state great.” And in the midst of the debates during Louisiana’s statewide election season that fall, Waguespack reminded all the players in the political game, “Have we forgotten the ultimate goal we are trying to achieve? Aren’t we striving to build the Louisiana we have always wanted, where an innovative and growing economy provides a good quality of life and a robust variety of employment opportunities for our people?”

And he urged people to exercise their right to vote. They did, sending the governor’s race to a runoff between Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards.

Edwards, as chair of the Legislative Democratic Caucus, had been a consistent and vocal critic of Bobby Jindal’s policies, many of which had been crafted by Waguespack. And Edwards, as a member of the House Education Committee, had been outspoken in his opposition to the Jindal and LABI-backed “education reforms” enacted in 2012.

During the leadup to the runoff, when the campaign’s epic “Prostitutes Over Patriots” ad hit the airwaves, Waguespack went after Edwards.

Edwards’ award-winning ad, which many consider to be a turning point in the 2015 election, is now known as “Prostitutes Over Patriots.” It’s actually titled “The Choice.”
  

Calling the Democrat “the Pied Piper,” Wags’ column was very well-written, appealing to the business community’s self identification of “conservative” as good, versus their antipathy for anything branded “liberal.”

LABI’s president wrote, “Three Republicans have taken turns attacking one another in the hopes of convincing an overwhelmingly conservative state like Louisiana that they were the best man for the job. All the while, the lone Democrat in the race watched his competitors eat one another alive as his campaign consultants portrayed their candidate as a moderate. His campaign was never challenged and played uninterrupted the music that plays to his most admirable attributes: his distinguished military education and his close-knit family. His campaign’s song does not reflect the reality of his political agenda nor the policies his potential administration will pursue…. Many of the hard fought reforms won over the last 20 years, through both Democrat and Republican administrations, will likely either whither (sic) on the vine or be quickly torn out by the roots…. His campaign’s music masks the truth about the policies and priorities he would pursue as governor.”

And Waguespack warned his organization’s members, “If the Pied Piper’s song prevails, don’t be surprised when conservatives are left standing without a chair.”

Edwards, of course, won that election. And, to play further on that column’s musical theme, it would seem the LABI president has been singing the blues ever since.

“Fiscal conservatism in Louisiana is on the ropes.”

“And the hits just keep on coming.”

“Louisiana has entered an era where our leaders regularly tell us the only real way to make progress is to spend more and place the blame and burdens on someone else.”

Gone from Waguespack’s columns are any attempts to cheerlead for Louisiana, as a place to bring or grow your business. Gone are any mentions of new economic development projects promising more jobs. Instead, his message has been consistently critical of the state, its leadership, legislature, and policies.

There have been important economic development “wins” during the past three years. Waguespack, who once cheered on practically every new business created during Jindal’s final term in office, has largely ignored those that have occurred since.

LABI professes to champion economic growth and the desire to attract more business opportunities here in Louisiana, but in recent years, they seem far more interested in pursuing another agenda. 

It’s politics over propagating entrepreneurship.

I offered him the opportunity to address this critique. Here is his statement:

Since its founding in 1973, LABI has proudly been the guardian of free enterprise in Louisiana. To capably do so, we have had to take tough stands on many different policies throughout the years. We develop, promote and support these policy positions based upon the feedback of our diverse statewide membership and we have never been beholden to any one politician or political party. We have never gone out of our way to oppose the proposals from any particular politician, nor do we shy away from articulating an alternative view when necessary. Louisiana is a great state filled with tremendous potential for growth. Our members are proud to call it home and proud to advocate strongly throughout the years for the reform policies that can elevate it to even greater heights. We stand ready to work with anyone and everyone to make that happen.

Stephen Waguespack

President and CEO

Louisiana Association of Business and Industry

Note that he uses the editorial “we” throughout, yet has a hint of the royal “we” as well. “We” can be inclusive, but among politicians, it often transitions to a language device that indicates their presumption of divine right to rule. It’s a subtle difference, but one that bears watching – especially since Waguespack’s name has been steadily mentioned among the possible challengers in next year’s governor’s race.

And certainly one of the recent “President’s View” columns, proposing a “Contract With Louisiana,” could be viewed as Waguespack’s first overt step in that direction.

Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 2008. Ginrgrich had called Jindal a “rising star.” The two men ran against one another for president in 2016. 

His July 27, 2018 opinion piece highly praises the 1994 Republican document known as the “Contract With America.” The book-length statement, the brainchild of Newt Gingrich, is generally conceded to be a masterpiece of political propaganda which led to Republican control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

It’s also generally acknowledged that the policies enumerated in the “Contract With America” (which former Pres. Bill Clinton frequently called the “Contract ON America”) exacerbated classism in the United States, pitting the country’s middle class against those earning minimum wage and those in need of public assistance. That left the nation’s upper income echelon – including corporations – free to operate and speculate with impunity. By promoting the desire to qualify as the favored “middle class” with “home ownership” and multiple credit cards touted as the ticket to that status, the provisions of the mid-90s “Contract” led inexorably to the 2008 mortgage and banking crises, stock market crash, and “Great Recession”.

Waguespack’s proposed “Contract With Louisiana” conveniently ignores all that, while applying intentional misdirection to many of the problems that plague our state.

For example, he says, “Louisiana needs Medicaid reform,” having noted elsewhere that “more than 40 percent of Louisianans utilize Medicaid for health care.” Of course he doesn’t mention that his organization and its affiliates have consistently lobbied against any legislative action requiring employers to provide health care coverage for their workers, while they’ve argued strenuously against establishing a state minimum wage that could enable people to purchase health insurance on their own.

He calls for “pension reform,” saying, “These costs are crippling our school and university budgets, and these plans are not meeting the needs of workers.” This ignores the fact that the nation’s largest population group by age, the Baby Boomer generation, is now retiring and collecting their benefits. That drawdown of the pension systems’ assets has been expected for decades. The expectation was that state pay would increase, and the new hires to replace retirees would pay sufficient dollars into the systems to keep the funding flowing. Pension plans did not anticipate the devaluation of their assets due to the 2008 global financial crisis. Nor did they anticipate the Jindal administration’s push toward privatization and elimination of state jobs, which further depleted the pool of funding the pension systems have available.

And who was one of the architects of those Jindal-era policies?

In fact, Waguespack’s “Contract” proposal calls for more shedding of state government jobs, and expanding efforts toward privatization, saying, “The size of state government must shrink” and “This plan must include public/private partnerships.”

Who profits from these proposed changes? Why, the unelected “they” – the corporations. It’s decidedly not “We, the people.”

Which team do you cheer for?

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