Much has been made in the mainstream media about the supermajority Republicans hold in the Louisiana Senate and the near supermajority they enjoy in the House—possibly at the cost of having a broader conversation regarding the priorities of their Democratic counterparts.
Yes, there are still Democrats in the Legislature: 35 seats in the 105-member House and 12 out of 39 spots in the Senate. A Democrat also controls the governorship, and with it veto authority.
As for legislative leaders, only half of the picture is clear. While the Senate Democratic Caucus has already re-elected Sen. Troy Carter of New Orleans as its chairman, the House Democratic Caucus won’t elect its next chair until the regular session convenes March 9.
As the vice chairman of the House caucus last term and the interim chairman now, there’s some focus on Rep. Sam Jenkins of Shreveport, who may be positioned to take over the helm. If elected, Jenkins would be the caucus’s first African American chairman.
Jenkins says recently-elected Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Republican from Ascension Parish, offered Democrats “some good committee assignments,” but that there are a few areas of concern. “I wish there would have been more of a balance on Appropriations, but I know those are elected,” Jenkins says. “I’m concerned about the Labor Committee also and our representation on there.”
The caucus held its annual retreat this past weekend, on March 2, which allowed its 17 newest members an opportunity to bond with long-timers. Relationships with moderate Republicans, however, may prove to be just as important.
Jenkins says if he’s elected part of his focus will be on helping the caucus seek out lasting alliances with those middle-of-the-road lawmakers who along with Dems elected Schexnayder. “We’re going to be interested in bills getting fair hearings and bills not dying for political reasons, which we saw too much of last term,” Jenkins says. “We want to restore civility and bipartisanship. I think the speaker’s race showed what moderates and Democrats can do if we work together.”
Jenkins says he would also work to help House Democrats get ahead of issues like tort reform and redistricting. “We’re going to be bringing in consultants and experts to discuss redistricting and we’re certainly going to have some maps made available,” Jenkins says. “The work has already begun on redistricting.”
The Senate Democratic retreat was held two weeks ago and Carter says a handful of priorities for members have already been identified. The Senate caucus heard presentations from Gov. John Bel Edwards and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne during their retreat and, since Carter had already been elected as chair, it was able to start making some important policy decisions.
“We’re already establishing more effective lines of communication with the administration to make sure we accomplish our shared goals during session, and we’re doing that with the House as well,” Carter says. “The notion that we are all somehow so far apart is one I don’t believe. I think there are more people in the middle than ever before, and they’re more than the people on the extremes, and my efforts will be aimed at capitalizing on those centrists.”
Carter says the caucus isn’t yet ready to announce its final package of bills, but many of the issues should sound familiar. “We’re lining up behind the minimum wage and pay secrecy and pay equity,” Carter says, “and we intend to build a coalition of bipartisan members to make it happen.”
The man at the top of the pecking order sounds like he’s on board. According to Christina Stephens, Edwards’ deputy chief of staff and communications director, the big change in how the administration will approach the discussion on equal pay and the gender wage gap is by “working to ban the use of pay history in hiring decisions.”
Also on the governor’s to-do list for the upcoming session are issues related to education funding, lower automobile insurance rates, workplace protections for pregnant women and maternal mortality.
Put another way, the Democrats may not have enviable numbers at the Capitol, but they are not short on issues that mean something to their collective base. In the House, at least, Democrats have already shown an ability to unite with Republicans to make a difference, particularly in electing the speaker. Achieving that feat once again during the session on an important policy issue will be the real trick.