Alford: House continues to buck tradition

In terms of legislative lines of demarcation, there’s before Barras and after Barras. That’s to say there was the Louisiana House before the election of Speaker Taylor Barras and then the one that exists today, following his unexpected rise to the position on January 11, 2016.

Many of those inside the rails of the House believe the seeds for increased independence were planted long before Barras came along. Regardless, the lower chamber has taken on an entirely new look this term and the changes will continue into the next, beginning with leadership elections.

While Barras’ ability to get elected without the help of a sitting governor was remarkable, and will undoubtedly color his standing in history books, the speaker’s management style has done more to shape the modern House than most other factors. The lack of hardball politics coming from the top and the GOP hold on the House have created an environment where it’s now OK to start running early and publicly for speaker.

For example, Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House GOP delegation, told LaPolitics.com last week that he intends to run for speaker when lawmakers vote internally in January 2020. “I want to see the work we started in the House continue, I want to see it through and grow the conservative agenda we’ve created as a body,” said Harris, who took office in 2012.

A businessman and farmer best known professionally for his string of convenience stores, Harris has formed a leadership PAC and said he’s aggressively fundraising. His entry into the developing race shows the field is hardly set, and it’s another signal that leadership races are coming out of the shadows.

“I guess with the idea that the House was able to choose its own leader last time, things have become more public,” said Rep. Sam Jones, a term-limited Democrat with long roots in Louisiana politics. “There are so many Republicans running for speaker that if any of them get five votes, they’ll be able to make a runoff.”

To become the majority leader during his first term, Harris built a reputation on the back of personal visits to districts—a road map he plans to follow once more. But he won’t be the only representative traveling those conservative roads.

Republicans currently control 56% of the chamber, a percentage likely to increase next term. If there are any doubts, just considering the expanding field for speaker.

“In his first term, Bobby Jindal didn’t get too involved in the speaker’s election, and (former Speaker) Jim Tucker worked it hard,” said Jones, who was elected in 2007. “I think that gave the House its first taste of independence.”

Rep. Thomas Carmody, a term-limited Republican who was elected in 2008, suggested that the chain of events that followed have limited the pool of potential candidates, resulting in a race that’s becoming more political and public than representative of the body’s true trust.

“How many of the people expressing interest are Democrats?” asked Carmody. “When I came to the House, with Speaker Tucker, the place-settings were already set. Then with (former Speaker) Chuck Kleckley, he went upstairs and told Jindal what Jindal needed to be told. Now, after Taylor, it’s completely different.”

While he has no immediate plans to raise money, House Civil Law Chairman Ray Garofalo confirmed to LaPolitics that he will run for speaker using a nontraditional campaign structure.

“I’ll be trying to educate new members on who I am and what I stand for,” he said, “without seeming like I’m trying to buy their vote.”

This comes just days following Rep. Alan Seabaugh’s disclosure to journalist Greg Hilburn that he, too, will be running.

“Louisiana is currently facing many challenges and my role as a conservative leader in the Louisiana Legislature is more important than ever,” Seabaugh told Hilburn. “I intend to run for reelection in 2019 and will be a serious candidate for the position of speaker of the House.”

In a follow-up interview, Seabaugh added that he has a busy few days ahead, before he starts fundraising in earnest, “I originally wanted the name SeaPAC, but the riverboat pilots beat me to it. So it will be named Seabaugh PAC instead.”

So far the other competitors, based on fundraising and positioning, have been Natural Resources Chair Stuart Bishop, particularly, and Criminal Justice Chair Sherman Mack, more recently. Rep. Barry Ivey is expected to mount a bid and no one is discounting late movement from the likes of Reps. Jack McFarland, Johnny Berthelot, Paula Davis or Blake Miguez, to name a few.

That recently prompted a freshman lawmaker to privately quip, “When is Santa Claus going to announce?”

Everyone won’t be a winner, and the smartest politicos already realize as much. While it’s often said there are no second place prizes in politics, some of the maybe-candidates certainly know that among the best ways to secure a chairmanship is to cut a deal with the future speaker, before any votes are cast.

That proud House tradition will likely go unchanged in Louisiana after Barras. As for everything else, take your best guess.

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, atLaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.