If the Louisiana House of Representatives has taught us anything over the past four years it’s that independence can take on many forms.
Four years ago, a majority of the membership in the state’s lower legislative chamber voted to distance themselves from the rule of the governor. While his predecessors played heavy roles in previous internal elections for speaker, Gov. John Bel Edwards became the first executive in recent memory to be bucked by the House, in 2015, when representative selected former Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, over Edwards’ choice, former Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.
That move by the House, now cemented in our political history, had as much to do with party control— Republicans had it and the governor happened to be a Democrat—as it did with the body’s innate yearning to be free of outside influence.
There’s a phrase that lawmakers use when they want to differentiate what they go through as a Legislature, as compared to everyone else who seeks to influence their shared responsibility. Lawmakers often talk about being “inside the rails” with reverence, a nod to the literal and figurative barriers that surround the House and Senate floors. And never have they been more solidly inside the rails than these past four years, particularly in the House.
On Monday, in the first election for speaker since Barras made history, representatives voted once again to throw down a gauntlet of independence. While the highly anticipated vote didn’t possess the same kind of weighty significance as Barras’ selection, it was nonetheless a blinding flash of light that will be seen not only for the remainder of this term, but possibly for many more years to come.
Rather than tussling with the governor’s druthers, however, representatives in the House, which has a near supermajority of Republicans, were faced with the choice of either backing or turning their backs on the chosen candidate of a gang of GOP influencers. In other words, the intense pressure that was applied to Republican representatives over the last several weeks came from within their own ranks. U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry, along with a sprinkling of donors, consultants, special interests and lobbyists, made a hard push for Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, who was unsuccessful in his bid for speaker.
Instead, members of the House elected Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, who managed to cobble together support from the chamber’s different factions, including Democrats. The governor even made appeals the preceding weekend to help get Schexnayder across the finish line and a couple reps switched their votes at the last minute to help the Gonzales politico. While Barras’ win represented a historical mile marker, Schexnayder’s win serves as an important dose of precedence for future speaker elections.
A former race car driver and onetime sheriff’s deputy who runs an auto shop in Sorrento, Schexnayder will bring a down-to-earth, blue-collar approach to the speakership that has been sorely missing for decades. But he’s not the only big winner. Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, was one of the chief engineers behind Barras’ unlikely victory in 2015, and he was at the tip of the spear for Schexnayder, who almost choked up while thanking his good friend during his acceptance speech. If a group of people should one day be credited for the House’s growing streak of independence, Bishop will undoubtedly be listed near the top.
Edwards, too, should be credited with a quiet win. By all appearances, the governor sat back and allowed the body in which he once served to deliberate internally. He allowed conservative donors and special interests to wade through the body for weeks, all the while attacking members of their own party on TV and social media. It was only during the closing hours that Edwards, at the urging of some Democrats in the chamber, jumped into the fray and backed the winner.
With a new speaker, a new clerk and enough new members to form a respectable voting bloc (should they choose to do so), the primary goal of the House is to now find a way to govern. Last term the chamber become a roadblock of sorts, in part to stymie Edwards but also in part because it failed to speak with a single voice. There’s no doubt that the Schexnayder-Mack race has created a few divisions in the House that will stand the test of time, but surely there are a few others that can be repaired before the first session of the term convenes March 9.
Independence means absolutely nothing if those who have obtained it wield it like a trophy instead of applying it wisely like a tool. The House fell into that trap too many times last term. Perhaps this go around we’ll learn that the House not only yearns for independence, but that its members know what to do with such a prize.