Though he’s only 33 years old, Tommy Screen has had more than a quarter of a century experience in Louisiana politics. He was just five years old when his father Pat Screen was elected mayor of Baton Rouge, and he spent his childhood following his dad around City Hall. He had an internship with famed political consultant James Carville before he even started college, and his first job after graduating was with the state’s senior senator, John Breaux.
So it seems only fitting that Screen has taken over the reins at Loyola University’s esteemed Institute of Politics, a six-month primer course that schools corporate CEOs, TV news anchors, and elected officials at every level of government in the colorful, often-arcane ways of Louisiana politics.
He has big shoes to fill. Screen succeeds Dr. Ed Renwick, himself a fixture on the local political scene and one of the state’s best-known political pollsters. Renwick ran the IOP for nearly 40 years and made it his own. Implementing change at such an established institution won’t be easy, but Screen is up for the challenge and ready to make his mark in politic circles?behind the scenes, that is.
“We’re not going to take it in a new direction per se,” Screen says. “Let’s just say I’d like to update or modernize some things about the institute and provide some benefits to fellows once they graduate.”
It’s a position for which Screen seems tailor-made. The youngest of the three Screen children, he was always keenly interested in the career path his father had chosen. Walter Monsour, who was chief administrative officer during the Screen administration, remembers young Tommy studying his father and the men around him, listening, observing and soaking it all up.
“Sports and politics really intrigued him,” Monsour says. “I recall Pat, James Carville and I having many conversations about both of those subjects and Tommy, as a very young boy at that time, listening to every word.”
Like most young boys, Screen looked up to his father. He was also aware that while the senior Screen was a very popular mayor, he had almost as many foes as fans.
“Dad was effective in a lot of ways but he was also combative,” Screen says. “And so growing up I was able to see the good and then as I got older I could see the negatives that were there as well.”
One of those negatives was Pat Screen’s battle with substance abuse. Shortly after he took office in 1981, he publicly admitted his addiction to alcohol and drugs and went into rehab. It was difficult for the high-profile, civic-minded Screen family. But if it caused the family personal pain, they didn’t show it in public.
“The spotlight was always on them and they performed very well,” says longtime family friend and Baton Rouge attorney Mary Olive Pierson. “Whatever problems they had, there were lots of things Pat obviously did right, and his kids turned out very well.”
For his part, Screen talks of his late father’s problems with a calm detachment. He is a soft-spoken man, who says he is proud that his father went public with his chemical addiction at a time when few elected officials were fessing up to such personal matters. But it taught him a lesson. Recognizing the scrutiny under which elected officials and their families have to live influenced his decision to pursue a political career behind the scenes instead of one in the spotlight.
That pursuit began almost as soon as he graduated from Catholic High School. The summer before starting college, he did a six-week internship in Carville’s office in Washington D.C. It was the early months of the new Clinton administration and an exciting time to be in the nation’s capital. A few months later, he entered Georgetown University and continued soaking up the lessons taught by the master Carville.
“I was exposed to D.C. and Capital Hill and I really caught the bug,” he recalls.
When Pat Screen was found dead unexpectedly in a French Quarter hotel room in 1994, Tommy transferred back to LSU to be close to his family. He majored in political science and went on to earn a law degree. But he had no intention of practicing law.
He went back to D.C. the first chance he had and worked for then-Sen. John Breaux, first as a legislative correspondent and then as a legislative assistant. The atmosphere was great, especially for a young guy from Louisiana. Breaux was among the most influential and effective senators on the Hill and Screen quickly recognized the opportunity he had before him.
“He was my first boss and he was great,” he said. “I basically had an opportunity to pick his brain any time I wanted and I certainly tried to take advantage of that.”
After Breaux retired in 2005, Screen came back to Louisiana and took a position at Loyola University as director of governmental relations, which is essentially a lobbying position. Being familiar with the ins and outs of the legislative process, he was effective in helping the University regroup after Katrina in 2005.
During the 2006-2007 academic year, he took Renwick’s IOP course. Even with his extensive familiarity with the subject matter, the course?which invites in a different guest speaker every week?held a lot of interest for Screen. At the time, he had no idea the position would come open within months.
But last year, it did. Renwick announced his retirement after running the IOP for 38 years. Screen decided to apply, bringing with him a very different perspective and skill set than the academically trained Renwick.
“One of the first things I expressed to the board was a desire to modernize the course and add some new things to it,” Screen says. “It seemed like an exciting opportunity.”
Screen’s first class began this past October and is currently under way. So far, it’s going well and the changes have been well received. The class is bigger now than in the past?with 37 students instead of 20 or so. There’s more communication and content available to students online than in years before, and Screen has added new lecturers to the curriculum.
He says presiding over the course has been a lot of fun. It’s also given him a different vantage point from which to observe state politics, which he believes is changing for the better. He observes more regional cooperation between New Orleans and Baton Rouge than in the past, something that is long overdue.
“I think young professionals realize that you can’t be as parochial as you used to be,” he says. “It’s the whole concept of the world is flat. You can’t be so restrictive as to just live in the city you live in.”
Screen sees many positive things happening in the city where he grew up, as well as in his new city, which he is enjoying. He and his wife Adrienne Wallace Screen have a six-month-old son and live Uptown, not far from the new home of his former mentor James Carville.
When he looks to the future, Screen says he’d like to continue his involvement in the political arena. But he has no plans to seek elected office himself. As he learned long ago, a life in the public spotlight is not where he wants to be.
“After everything I’ve observed over the years about being in politics,” he says. “That’s not anything I want to do.”