Alford: Locals prepare for a moment in the sun

If you’re ever bumping around the Capitol, and you hear someone refer to “the locals,” they aren’t discussing Baton Rouge’s lovable flamingo fanatics or the city’s other residents. No, those politicos are more than likely referring to the local stocks of elected talent that can be found in each of Louisiana’s 64 parishes. “The locals” are our district attorneys, sheriffs, assessors, clerks, mayors, parish presidents and others who chase neighborhood-sized blocks of votes to make their ways along the backwater canals and piney paths of Louisiana politics.

These locals, as they’re affectionately called, walk with big sticks. Nothing gets a legislator out of his or her seat like a floor note from their sheriff, and nothing makes them move faster for the rails of the House and Senate than the same notes co-signed by similar “courthouse gang” personalities. That’s because these local officials have a direct line to home, and they’re tremendously influential in practically every precinct they can touch.

For whatever it’s worth, the phrase “courthouse gang” is shunned by many local officials, unless their roots in Louisiana politics are as secure as their egos. The term serves as more of a nod to the past when all politics were indeed local and pragmatism wasn’t a dirty word.

The locals, however, are currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts. And not a moment too soon. The statewide election cycles of 2014-2018 hosted contests that sought to nationalize our races, forcing voters to pass judgment on federal issues that were more closely connected to legislative activities in Washington than Baton Rouge.

But another trend surfaced last year, suggesting a reversal of fortunes for the locals in terms of voter engagement and municipal interest. The early voting data in some areas from this past fall was proof enough, with a 58% spike over 2014’s figures in Pointe Coupee Parish, a 47% increase in Caddo and a 33% bump in Rapides. In all instances, including several more not cited here, local-level races generated higher turnouts for the elections that were listed above them on ballots.

Emboldened, the locals are now eyeing to leave a footprint across the upcoming legislative session that convenes April 8. For instance, the Louisiana Municipal Association, Police Jury Association, School Boards Association, District Attorneys’ Association and Louisiana Sheriff’s Association are preparing to oppose bills that would move sales tax collecting authorities from parishes and municipalities and divert them to state government. “It is no secret that there will be legislation proposing state central collection of all sales taxes,” LMA Executive Director John Gallagher. “Local governments have a sacred, constitutionally-protected right to levy and collect their own taxes, through each single parish collector.”

The expansive issue of tax collecting is another reason the locals are positioned for their time in the sun, particularly with an ongoing push for officials to consider calling another constitutional convention to tackle serious matters such as city, parish and state revenue. This fall will also give way to another round of local, regional and statewide elections.

“The majority of municipalities held elections in 2018, and I have to say that the results were surprising,” Gallagher said in an interview with LaPolitics.com. “In my 20 years with the LMA, I cannot remember such a large turnover at the municipal level in all positions—mayors, council members and chiefs of police. The results did not appear to favor one party over another, so I do not think the results were overly partisan in nature.”

Gallagher added, “This trend did not appear to be isolated to Louisiana, either. I spoke to another southern state’s municipal league executive director after their elections of similar volume and they also saw increased turnover. Will this trend continue in 2019? I am not sure. In checking our records, the number of 2019 municipal elections is very small, so I think they will be overshadowed by statewide and legislative races.”

Both long-serving and first-term officials lost elections, and among the more interesting observations from the LMA team involved the proliferation of newly-elected mayors age 35 and under. “I am very excited to see this trend as it indicates a renewed engagement in local government,” Gallagher said.

If you needed any other hints about the growing surge of interest in local politics again, look no further than LMA’s annual mid-winter conference, which is being held this week. More than 700 attendees are expected to show, which shatters all previous records.

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.