Ever since Governor John Bel Edwards issued Louisiana’s “safer at home” executive order on March 22, it has often seemed as though the time sea we are adrift upon has been frequently roiled by waves lifting, then plunging, us into what feel like alternative universes.
A gentleman I encountered in the grocery store asked where I’d gotten my face mask (I made it), then asked if I’d like to join him somewhere, later, for a drink. When I replied that all the restaurants and bars were closed because of this coronavirus, he seemed befuddled to discover his go-to routine for dating was currently invalid.
For a couple of weeks, the biggest “hit” and accompanying buzz has been the Netflix mini-series “Tiger King.” For those of you who haven’t seen it, think of it as “Real Housewives of the Trailer Park” do “Ru-Paul’s Drag Race” wearing only animal print. Instead of fighting over who is sleeping with whose husband or wife, it’s a battle over who is treating the big cats in their private zoos the worst.
Yes, we watched this and discussed it as if it were a serious documentary investigation.
People are starting to use a phrase that’s been common in apocalyptically-themed science fiction – “the before time” – for referring to the era prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And among the word games being played via Facebook and Twitter, there’s What If? A list of musically-referenced what-if’s is proposed, and friends are encouraged to add their own. For example: What if James Brown didn’t feel good? What if Journey stopped believing? What if the Devil never went down to Georgia? What if Ozzy never barked at the moon? What if it wasn’t Fancy’s one chance?
Along those lines, and with folks who, early on in this COVID-19 crisis, were saying how glad they were to have John Bel Edwards in charge now increasingly perturbed by the compulsory pause in their profitable endeavors, and returning to their partisan protestations, let’s pose another what if.
What if, instead of re-electing John Bel Edwards as governor, Louisiana voters had chosen Eddie Rispone?
Let’s get out our telescopes and gaze at the events as they have unfolded in that parallel universe, which we will call AltLA-20.
The first indication that anything was amiss came when the honor guard of lawmakers escorted Governor Eddie Rispone into the House chamber on the first day of the session.
The 71-year-old governor was wearing a full haz-mat suit. As part of his first-ever “State of the State” address, Rispone announced AltLA-20’s first case of COVID-19 had been officially confirmed earlier that morning, coinciding with the first day of the legislative session.
Two days later, the formerly gregarious governor declared a public health emergency and transformed himself into Rispone the Recluse.
While his name and signature appeared on subsequent declarations regarding official health emergency procedures, including “stay home” orders, the day-to-day state government management is not being conducted by Gov. Rispone, but rather by the man-behind-the-curtain, Commissioner of Administration Lane Grigsby.
It’s clear that this crisis has created the ideal opportunity to implement some of Rispone and Grigsby’s wish list of pet policies.
For example, there has been the directive to shut down all public K-12 schools and preschools, because they can be Coronavirus infection vectors. Parochial schools, however, are permitted to remain open, because to close them or the churches that operate them would violate the federal guarantee of freedom of religion. Besides, as the governor’s proclamation stated, we just KNOW church-affiliated schools are safer and all around better.
That same order required the cessation of all college and university liberal arts programs, presumably because they are designated liberal, and AltLA-20, as everyone knows is a conservative state.
Meanwhile, business and career track college programs like accounting, nursing, engineering, chemistry, construction, IT, even agriculture and forestry programs, are fast-tracked, reflecting Rispone’s and Grigsby’s longstanding efforts to elevate business rights and privileges over those of people.
With Rispone in seclusion to protect his health, many gubernatorial duties would constitutionally fall to the Lieutenant Governor. Yet Billy Nungesser’s record hasn’t made Rispone or Kingmaker Grigsby very confident in Nungesser’s judgment.
Remember, this is the guy who, along with then-chairman of the Louisiana GOP Roger Villere (a licensed florist by trade) announced to the Wall Street Journal in April 2016 they were pursuing a landmark, mega-million dollar deal for the state, which included building a new fleet of supertankers at the former Avondale Shipyard.
Those ships would then have exclusive shipping rights for all oil produced by the country of Iraq, and would transport the oil to a Lake Charles refinery for processing. Oh, and the guy Nungesser was negotiating with, the purported CEO of a medical technology firm based in Delaware, was promising to invest 100% of his profits from this arrangement into the state’s motion picture industry. The only thing missing from the alleged deal was e-mail from a Nigerian prince.
Therefore, to keep Lt. Gov. Nungesser busy (since Rispone’s March 22 “stay-at-home” order effectively suspended tourism and the Lt. Gov’s duties overseeing that industry), Rispone followed the lead of his hero, President Donald Trump. Trump placed Vice President Pence in charge of coordinating the COVID-19 response, and in AltLA-20, Rispone’s henchman Grigsby tasked Nungesser with overseeing GOHSEP, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. So now he’s the one announcing the daily infection counts and death toll numbers at press conferences, then serving as emcee to introduce various state experts who have new emergency response details to impart.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin also has new duties in this Grigsby-designed realignment of statewide-elected officials. Constitutionally, the Secretary of State (SoS) is primary custodian of state records, along with being in charge of standing up elections. As the pandemic has resulted in the election process standing down – at least the opposing party’s official Democratic preference primary – Gov. Rispone has once again looked toward the Trump administration with hero-worshipful eyes, and acting on the governor’s desires, Commissioner of Administration Grigsby realigned the state Secretary of State duties to make them more analogous to those of the U.S. Secretary of State. So now AltLa-20 Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin is in charge of foreign, er, interstate policy, along with trade and treaties. Basically, he is overseeing negotiations and incentives to bring new industry to the state.
Never one to let proprieties or legalities get in the way of realizing his ambitions, Attorney General Jeff Landry has been utilizing the virus-prompted time out from business-as-usual to expand his powers, apparently with the full blessing (or at least a blind eye) from the Rispone-Grigsby administration.
After meeting U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams in the early days of the virus pandemic, General Landry (as he has insisted on being addressed) found himself wishing for greater rank.
As Surgeon General Adams is also a U.S. Navy Vice Admiral, Landry indulged in a fit of one-upsmanship. Calling the entire contingent of the Cajun Navy to his office, he deputized them en masse (in violation of the social distancing guidelines) and tasked them with patrolling the state’s waterways during the course of this health emergency. Landry then announced he would hereafter wear the title of Attorney Admiral Jeff Landry.
State Treasurer John Schroder hasn’t been idle, either. Although the pandemic-prompted worldwide economic slowdown has reduced the state’s bond-ability to a mere trickle, Schroder came up with an ingenious gimmick to bring some quick cash into the state coffers.
The health emergency directives pushed the due date for individual state tax returns back 45 days, from May 15 to June 30. The due date for corporate tax returns, on the other hand, was bumped to August 15. Yet to encourage folks to file and pay their taxes on the usual May 15 date, Schroder is offering an incentive: a complete set of VHS tapes of all five seasons of History Channel’s “Top Shot” (2010-2014). State Rep. Blake Miguez, good friend to Treasurer Schroder and Attorney Admiral Landry, competed in seasons one and five, and served as one of the show’s experts in season two.
And speaking of Miguez, he’s one of the main reasons indoor and outdoor shooting ranges were designated “essential businesses” and allowed to remain open, while many others have been required to shut down as an infection preventative. Some can credit their “essential business” designation to political influencers, too. Automotive repair shops can thank House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, the owner-operator of one such facility in Gonzales, for keeping them in the category of “need to stay open.” Furniture stores can credit Senate President Page Cortez, the owner of a LaZBoy gallery in Lafayette, with getting them named among the “essential businesses” throughout the statewide reduction in commerce.
Because the state has engaged in a layered rather than complete shutdown of social interactions, it has not been sufficient to either reduce the contagion or the fatalities from this pandemic. Doctors and nurses continue to collapse from exhaustion and their contraction of the disease while they remain on duty, struggling to find ways to alleviate symptoms and prevent patients from developing the frequently fatal complication of viral pneumonia. Hospital morgues and coroner’s morgues are exceeding their capacity for holding the bodies of victims until the funeral homes can accept and bury or cremate them. Cemeteries are running out of available plots, and there’s even been talk of converting state, parish, and city-owned golf courses into burial grounds…
Many of those who worked so hard to put the Rispone-Grigsby coalition in power are now dissatisfied with this administration’s first four months in office. They are among the loudest of those people publicly demanding an “immediate return to full normal.”
Others, who are staying home and sewing masks for first responders, sewing shrouds for the bodies soon to be tumbled into mass graves, are quietly asking, “What if we had re-elected John Bel Edwards as governor, instead?”