The Anti-Governor

by Jeremy Alford

State Treasurer John Kennedy has $1.3 million in his war chest and the governor in his sights, but his political ambitions might surprise you.

Jason Redmond, the state deputy treasurer, can't help but laugh at his own jokes. "We didn't even ask for it," he says, throwing his hands in the air. "It just fell in our lap." After another hearty chuckle, he smacks his own desk, toppling a Darth Vader statue. That draws laughter as well.

His joy is justified. Redmond's boss has recently enjoyed strong press coverage, including editorials. It was invaluable public relations, with political capital gained. It was the kind of coverage money can't buy. The kind that carries courthouse chatter for weeks. The kind that defines a political campaign before it even starts.

In short, it was Redmond's kind of coverage. He points to an open planner. "We didn't even have to put it on the calendar," he says. "It was completely unexpected."

The watershed moment came earlier this month when reporters asked Gov. Kathleen Blanco how much pork she was planning to cut from the state's $26.7 billion operating budget. Her overly simplistic answer was that Treasurer John Kennedy could drop the ax as well and shoulder some of the burden.

Kennedy didn't miss a beat. A few days before Blanco announced her limited cuts ' $3 million slashed from more than $31 million in pet legislative projects ' Kennedy issued to reporters a multi-million dollar laundry list of items he says he would have eliminated.

But he still doesn't understand why the governor pulled him into the fray, especially since he has no authority over the budget.

"This is a strange business sometimes," Kennedy says. "It was ironic, among other things. I understand the job of a legislator is to bring home the bacon, but that is not the job of a governor. In hindsight, [Blanco] probably regrets doing it."

Kennedy says his office could offer more in the way of fiscal oversight, but Blanco and her staff have chosen to treat him differently than other administrations.

"They could actually talk to me," he says. "They could at least answer my letters."

Indeed, Kennedy has become the critic-du-jour of the governor. He blames the Blanco administration for allowing debt to flourish in recent years, questions the office's recovery efforts and isn't shy about handicapping Blanco's upcoming re-election bid. (Hint: his forecast isn't exactly positive.)

But don't get the wrong idea. Kennedy says he is not interested in running for governor, and he makes the statement unequivocally, without using political jargon.

"I will not be a candidate for governor," Kennedy says.

That might be, but he isn't forsaking politics totally. Redmond tends to handle that side of the coin by filling the dual role of campaign manager. Redmond has held the job since Kennedy's first political contest in 1999 and throughout every other statewide and federal run.

Like it was his own address or phone number, Redmond can easily recite how much money his boss has in the campaign war chest. It's $1.3 million, with very little active fund raising at the moment.

When pressed on the approaching U.S. Senate race, Kennedy isn't as concrete as he was about governor: "I don't think that far out. I'm only focused on being re-elected treasurer right now."

One wrinkle to any upcoming election plans, a curious caveat, is Kennedy's constant criticism of his own Democratic Party. Rumors have run rampant in recent years that Kennedy is being courted by the GOP, and he's embracing more than he's shooing away.

"I'm very lonely," Kennedy says. "I have not been supported in any race I have run in by the Democratic Party in Louisiana. That disappoints me."

But Kennedy refuses to make a commitment on whether he will remain a Democrat for the rest of his life in public service. The likelihood of his switch is only bolstered by the close alliance he holds with U.S. Sen. David Vitter, whom he ran against in 2004.

Kennedy uses an interesting vernacular when describing his powerful Republican "friend" ' courage, brains, reformer. The two have issued joint press releases and even took strong stances together on the spending priorities of the administration.

"You run against someone and you get to know them and they get to know you," Kennedy says. Furthermore, it seems as if Kennedy is sometimes writing his own Republican talking points, which are increasingly pointed at the governor.

He links hurricane recovery efforts and state debt, accusing Blanco of allowing the matters to complicate each other. State debt per capita has grown to $822 for every man, woman and child in Louisiana ' a five-year high, he says.

"We're not prepared for the worst," Kennedy says. "We just keep spending every nickel we have."

As for Blanco's upcoming re-election bid, Kennedy isn't making any predictions.

"You just never know," he says. "A year and a half is a long time in political terms."

Calls to Blanco for comment on this story were not returned by press time.