The weather was beautiful, and the attendees were all in what appeared to be a jovial mood. Complete with a guest appearance by West Point Cadets and his priest from his home church in St. Helena Parish, John Bel Edwards, a Catholic and a West Point graduate himself, couldn’t have asked for a nicer setting to take the oath of office as Louisiana’s 56th governor. His inaugural speech was what you would expect from a Democrat following in the footsteps of a conservative Republican. It was big on promises for more and bigger government. Higher taxes, though not mentioned specifically, hung in the air. The code words these days are “shared sacrifice” and “rework the failed system of tax incentives, credits and rebates.” From the looks of things, though, you would have never known Edwards’ inauguration had been overshadowed by a colossal political failure of the highest order. But that’s exactly what had occurred even before Edwards put his hand on a Bible to be sworn into office. Just an hour or so earlier, the House of Representatives, spearheaded by Republicans, extended a proverbial middle finger toward the new governor and sandbagged the election of his hand-picked Speaker. Not in my lifetime has the House of Representatives balked at electing a new governor’s choice for Speaker. Then again, it was bit audacious of Edwards to believe a Republican-controlled House would elect a liberal Democrat from New Orleans, Walt Leger, to hold down the most powerful position in the House, complete with naming committee chairmen and doling out committee assignments. Not only did Edwards publicly endorse Leger’s bid for Speaker, he spent considerable time over the past month or so twisting arms and making deals to get Leger elected. It just wasn’t meant to be. Republicans, surprisingly, found their backbones and stopped Edwards in his tracks. House Republicans, however, didn’t get all they wanted. Their favorite for Speaker, Rep. Cameron Henry from Metairie, couldn’t muster the votes to carry the day either. Henry’s alliance with Sen. David Vitter, who Edwards defeated in the November general election with 56 percent of the vote, was too toxic for moderate Democrats and some Republicans to stomach. Yet, few knew that a day earlier Republicans had settled on an alternate candidate for Speaker, Rep. Taylor Barras, a Republican from New Iberia. A Democrat until 2011, Barras is widely regarded as a levelheaded lawmaker who hasn’t made too many enemies in his two terms representing District 48, anchored in Iberia Parish. A market president for Iberia Bank, Barras holds an accounting degree from LSU. Without a doubt, the most significant development to surface from Barras’ election concerns the flow of legislation as well as those coveted committee chairmanships and committee assignments. The Speaker decides who will chair what and who will sit on which committee, and, to paraphrase former President George W. Bush, he is the “decider” when the time arrives to pick which bills get green-lighted out of committee to be entertained on the floor of the House. So it is that Barras will lead the House over the next four years and so it was that Edwards, before he even took the oath of office, suffered a monumental defeat in the Legislature. It’s not a good omen for the new governor. Sam Hanna is a state political writer.
Sam Hanna is a state political writer.