Cover Story

The Man with the Plan

by Jeremy Alford

Due in part to a popular recovery plan bearing his namesake, Congressman Richard Baker has ascended to the ranks of a political superstar ' and he intends to make the most of his momentum.

The back yard was impeccably manicured and landscaped, and all the leaves had vanished for the day's big event. The women often held these home meetings for local politicians to decide where to throw their support, and the crowds swelled to 200 concerned residents or more. In their own corner of the world in north Baton Rouge, back in the mid-60s, the little old ladies had sway. If you were running for office, and they requested an audience, you raced over, smiling and kissing and flirting.

It was the neighborhood event to attend, complete with punch, cakes and trays of sandwiches with the crusts cut off. The politician du jour, sweating in the summer heat and laughing, dabbed his brow with a handkerchief before he began stumping. Toward the back, staying quiet as usual, was 17-year-old "Little Richard" Baker, as he was called in his younger years. He took everything in with a blazing intensity.

It wasn't the words of the politicians that inspired the future congressman, but the actions and encouragement of his mother-in-law, who helped organize the backyard meetings. A few years later when he ran for a seat in the state Legislature, it was her team that pushed him over the top. Baker speaks fondly of her, and it's perfectly clear where he truly cut his teeth in Louisiana politics.

"It was like having a fleet of Sunday school teachers walking and knocking on doors," recalls the 58-year-old Baker. "They were awesome."

Baker's father, a Methodist preacher, instilled a capacity for public responsibility in him that the younger Baker still embraces. He's the quintessential policy wonk, the kind of kid back in high school who busted the curve for everyone else. (Baker claims he was just a "typical 'B' student.") Today, Baker says he's "really getting into astrophysics" and casually references Russian scientists from the early 19th century in conversation.

In Washington, D.C., some view Baker as introspective and sort of a loner ' but not in a negative way. He just keeps to himself, focusing only on issues where he can make a dramatic and real change, dogging the topics until they yield something tangible. It's that gentle tenacity that has come to define Baker ' until now.

In the week following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, as Louisiana's elected officials ran around wildly trying to score or avoid national media interviews, Baker was nowhere to be seen. He was behind the scenes, working on a plan that would be heralded as a singular solution to recovery. Baker, however, admits his proposal for federally backed buyouts of flooded homes in the devastated region is not the only answer.

"I thought this would be one contribution in a complicated mix," Baker says in a recent interview at his Baton Rouge office. "Probably the most surprising thing to me is not the attention it has gotten, but the lack of alternatives. I still don't have an answer to that."

Gov. Kathleen Blanco is pushing a more modest housing plan of her own. But she doesn't have the drama attached to her efforts like Baker does ' facing off against President Bush, twisting arms from his own party and watching his concept get hammered at the hands of fellow conservatives.

The passage of the Baker plan is now questionable, but the crusade helped pressure the White House into proposing another multi-billion dollar relief package for the state's housing needs. (Ironically, that same proposed allocation may have knocked some of the wind out of the Baker plan and made Blanco's proposal more credible.) The end result could be a battle of the plans between a congressman and a governor, although both sides have voiced a willingness to work together.

Through all the turmoil and political strife, Baker has offered people hope. Politically speaking, his national press coverage and statewide praise have given him a nearly unstoppable momentum. Some onlookers are pushing him to run for governor, and Baker is also the odds-on favorite to become the next chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services.

The path Baker has taken is an ambitious one, a winding trail that's worlds away from his humble beginnings in Baton Rouge.

Given his father's philosophical career choice, Baker's obvious course would have led to the church. In many ways, the congressman's a natural for the pulpit. He's got that preacher charm ' a slight southern drawl, motivational phrasing and an animated conversational style.

"I knew I couldn't be a pastor because I'm too opinionated," Baker says. "I couldn't wear that coat very well. They would run me off after the first couple of weeks."

Instead, Baker pursued a geology degree at Louisiana State University, turning down a football scholarship because he was more interested in being a student than a linebacker. While on a field trip in Texas during his junior year, chewing on limestone to determine its grain, Baker says a heavenly voice pushed him in another direction.

"God spoke to me and said, 'You've got to find something else to do,' so that's when I came back and changed my major to political science, not knowing at that point where I was going to wind up," he recalls.

A few years later in 1971, while still finishing up his studies at LSU, Baker was elected as a Democrat to the state House of Representatives at the age of 22, becoming one of the youngest ever to serve in the Legislature. He didn't even have an office in the Legislature; his small home in north Baton Rouge became the district headquarters, and pothole problems could end up on his doorstep ' literally ' any time of the day or night.

Baker's seatmate in the Legislature was Woody Jenkins, who later made an unsuccessful run against Mary Landrieu for the U.S. Senate. During those early days, they were both greener than the azaleas on the Capitol grounds. "When the bell rang (to vote), we jumped like Pavlov's dogs," recalls Baker. "We didn't know what to do. We were scared to leave the House chamber."

Jenkins, who now runs a newspaper in Central, says his seatmate wasn't the kind of politician who got involved in every fight that came along. But when Baker did hook up on an issue, "he became a bulldog." Additionally, Jenkins says Baker was a striking figure: "I remember Richard always being a straight arrow. He was tall and handsome and articulate, a completely honest person with a lot of integrity."

Upon meeting Baker, one might also notice the pupils of his eyes. They're not perfectly round, but elongated and somewhat splotched. It's a birth defect that can cause problems for Baker any time he is in bright light, forcing him to squint painfully during outside interviews, but he can still joke about it.

"I always thought it was a neat asset to be a Louisiana politician and to be able to see in the dark better than the other guys," he says.

C.B. Forgotston, who worked as a staff attorney for the Legislature during the '70s and then as chief counsel for the House Appropriations Committee, noticed something else about Baker. Forgotston says Baker was a quick learner and among the best orators to move through the Capitol.

"What he did to distinguish himself when he got in the Legislature as a rookie is he dug in like no other legislator since and started looking into the Department of Highways," Forgotston says. "He didn't ask the staff to do anything. He learned everything himself. He got in and got his hands dirty, learning everything from the administration down."

Baker's battle was a David versus Goliath fight against the old Louisiana system. But he had whistleblowers from inside the department stopping by his house to pass along information.

During one televised debate with the agency head, Baker dropped a bombshell by uncovering an annual expenditure of $2.3 million for snow removal ' in Louisiana. It provided Baker with instant credibility in the Baton Rouge region, and the opportunity to serve as chairman of the transportation committee.

"That's when I gained great appreciation for doing your homework, learning your subject, not opening your mouth until you're sure, and then once you get it in view, don't stop until you get there," Baker says.

After switching parties to join the GOP ranks, where he says he felt more at home, Baker was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1986. He recalls being as timid during his first days there as he was in the Legislature.

"I was totally intimidated," he says. "But what was worse was finding where things were. I had a phone that rang, but wouldn't dial out. I had stacks of mail, but no employees to open it. It was really depressing."

As he did back home in Louisiana, Baker followed his own path and intensely focused on one topic ' this time it was financial institutions, and he became the House banking committee's resident expert on the issue of systemic risk. He was ahead of the curve when he started alerting the nation, and the Federal Reserve, about the dangers posed by long-term capital management. Months later, regulators took action to prop up the markets when hedge funds started to collapse. In 2000, long before accounting irregularities at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac surfaced, Baker fought for major regulatory reforms in the mortgage finance industry.

With these highly publicized accomplishments, Baker was garnering headlines and political capital. He was given his own subcommittee and led the way with hearings on the Enron scandal and mutual fund reform. In 2001, Smart Money magazine named Baker among the world's 30 most influential people in investing who have "the greatest impact on your financial health."

Baker had achieved what most politicians strive for: "You fight in public life to become known," he says.

All the while, Baker did it his own way, like a Beltway Sinatra. Although he votes consistently with the Republican Party, his colleagues view him in the mold of former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, the master of the compromise. Various staffers and lawmakers interviewed for this article repeatedly refer to Baker as honest, cerebral or as a straight shooter. Yet there's another side to the man as well, says one high-ranking Democratic staffer.

"He's seen as more of a loner than as an insider," the staffer says, who asked to remain anonymous due to ties to the Baker office. "I say loner not in a negative way. Some loners don't work well with others, but he does work well with others. â?¦ He is a very effective lawmaker on his issues. Though he's somewhat quiet and unassuming, he's a brilliant public speaker when he's really wound up."

Baker says he simply takes public policy very seriously.

"If you are in this business to fill a chair, you'll be disappointed," Baker says. "If you are in this business to help a friend, you will both eventually be disappointed. If you are in this business to change public policy and do a good job, and you've got a clearly defined goal, nothing will happen unless you stay after it."

Baker's plan to create the Louisiana Recovery Corp., which would oversee an extensive rebuilding of housing in the hurricane-stricken areas, was a lifeline for Louisiana evacuees and survivors in the months following Katrina and Rita. No other plans were being put forth by elected officials and, aside from levee board consolidation, it seemed to be the only concept the public was backing.

Nationwide, the LRC bill received favorable editorial comments from all along the ideological spectrum ' the so-called liberal New York Times, left-of-center Washington Post and ultra-conservative Mobile Register. Newspapers across Louisiana praised the plan.

Seemingly overnight, the Baker bill became a policy juggernaut and was fiercely embraced by a number of community and business groups. "Without a major housing solution, there can be no recovery," says Henry Shane, chairman of GNO, Inc., a regional economic alliance in New Orleans. "How can businesses return and grow without housing for employees? Where will families live? It's the number one priority, and we will not give up on this issue."

While the issue itself is still alive, the LRC plan is starting to resemble a rallying crusade that came up short. Last year, Baker had to fight what one staffer refers to as "theoretical think-tank conservatives in D.C. who believe that government shouldn't do anything like this." And that was just in committee, from members of his own party. Then the measure stalled in the Senate, and all hopes turned to this year's congressional session.

Many of those who surround Baker on a regular basis contend he is taking the hits personally. It's not widely known that Baker's roots run deep in New Orleans; he was born there, as was his mother. The political side of the brawl has been devastating as well. Lawmakers in Louisiana's delegation say Baker has been cooperative and flexible throughout the process, with a willingness and openness to work with anyone to modify the plan. That's why it was considered so strange that the Bush administration hasn't worked closer with Baker to try and fashion something the White House could endorse. They essentially shut the door on him.

"I was very disappointed," Baker says. "I thought we were in good faith negotiations with the president's people."

In an op-ed column carried by The Washington Post last month, Donald Powell, the administration's hurricane recovery coordinator, expressed the White House's staunch opposition to the Baker plan. "State and local leaders ' not those in Washington ' must develop the recovery plan; taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely, with strong congressional oversight and accountability mechanisms in place; and, finally, markets must be able to work properly without interference from the government," he wrote.

Baker fired back with a press release: "That Mr. Powell would take out op-ed space specifically to undermine my legislation is disappointing to say the least. That he would use that column to spread gross mischaracterizations of the legislation is just disturbing."

When asked about the incident, Baker says he was surprised and had no idea the op-ed piece was going to run.

"That was a departure of expectation," Baker says.

Roughly two weeks following the op-ed piece, the White House dealt a near-death blow when President Bush announced he would request another $4.2 billion from Congress to help Louisiana repair, rebuild or buyout flood-damaged homes.

The news reverberated through Baker's offices. While it's likely the money would have never materialized without the pressure from the popularity of the Baker plan, it was certainly meant to kill the plan politically and offer the state an alternative.

Baker issued a diplomatic response to the announcement the same day and, as of last week, still had high hopes for his plan, which recently received a favorable hearing in the Senate. Top legislators from Washington are now slated to take a profile tour of the devastated areas, and Baker says his case will be made during that trip ' ultimately making or breaking his proposal.

"At that point, it will be open or shut," Baker says.

The other crux will be how the housing plan being pushed by Gov. Blanco develops and whether the federal government views it as a more attractive alternative to the Baker plan. Congress also has to give approval to the president's $4.2 billion aid proposal, which will have to happen through federal legislation. As a congressman, Baker will have a major say in that process, whether his own plan fails or not.

"It will be subject to amendments, and you better believe I will be involved in that," he says.

The entire debate is boiling down to a battle of the plans. Baker's proposal would form a quasi-public corporation underwritten by federal money and loan guarantees. It would address buyouts for both residential and commercial structures, acting as a middleman between homeowners and lenders.

As crafted, the plan would include a $500,000 payout cap for property owners. In some cases, homeowners could receive at least 60 percent of the value of their land, and lenders could receive up to 60 percent of what they are owed. It would cover the entire coastline and allow for certain waivers, like exempting new buyers from pre-existing environmental laws.

Blanco's plan, which failed to gain the support of the Legislature during the recent special session, is still in the preliminary stages, and the governor says it would only address residential properties. In a speech last week, Blanco told a group gathered in Lake Charles that assistance for homeowners would be capped at $150,000, and they would be able to sell their homes at 60 percent of the pre-storm value. The governor plans to address the entire coastline, but it's still unclear how lenders will be handled, if at all.

Many of the lawmakers who opposed the governor's plan during this month's session argue that the proposal was not yet specific enough to be passed into law.

"I don't know how the governor's plan helps everybody," Baker says. "Now there is an uncertainly created by the governor's plan. It will take some time to see how the governor's plan will work. We need to have more of a conversation on where the state plan will lead us, versus what I have proposed on the federal level."

Baker is also concerned that the state's proposal is not a rebuilding plan at all, since the federal money dedicated to it would be exercised under the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazardous Mitigation Program, which pulls properties out of play and turns them into green spaces or other non-habitable plots.

Denise Bottcher, Blanco's press secretary, says the governor has always been supportive of the Baker plan and was "very disappointed" when the White House took an opposing stance. The congressman was even allowed a preview, as well as editing suggestions, of Blanco's session-opening remarks regarding a state-sponsored housing plan.

In fact, Blanco is still in favor of the Baker plan today, Bottcher adds. "The governor wouldn't abandon hope until (Baker) does," she says. "She would do whatever he asked of her. But she had to continue to press upon the White House. â?¦We still want to fight for it, but Congress gave us this other mechanism," she notes, referring to the recent rash of federal housing money proposed for the state.

Baker's in the fight for the long haul ' and he's not above admitting the issue has brought him a wealth of political capital. Now the congressman has to figure out exactly how to use it. Despite the obvious boost Baker's proposal has given him, the congressman contends he is not interested in the upcoming governor's race, or any subsequent contest. Baker says he is "flattered" by those who have thrown his name in the ring but more interested in his prospects for becoming the next chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, a powerful position that could play out favorably for Louisiana.

"There is an extraordinary irony in that, if it should happen," Baker says. "When the state desperately needs help with housing, insurance, securities markets and other like issues, that I would be in a capacity to be significantly helpful with all those problems is fortunate.

"I will not be the chairman of financial services for the purposes of overseeing the demise of my state," he adds.

So Congress will remain home for him in the foreseeable future ' if he continues to be re-elected. Baker has always been an oddity of Louisiana politics. He's not a fairs-and-festivals kind of guy and doesn't go out of his way to sell himself to the public, although he does return to the district often. Baker has never lost an election, and his closest competition came in 1998 from Democrat Marjorie McKeithen, daughter of the late Secretary of State Fox McKeithen.

Jim Nickel, a Baton Rouge lobbyist who formerly served as chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, says the 6th Congressional District has never been fertile ground for Democrats.

"The hurricanes may have changed that, though," Nickel says. "You would think there has been an influx of Democratic voters, but only time will tell. It's just so hard to beat an incumbent in Louisiana. But you have got to admit that Baker has been the most vocal and proactive out of the delegation in the hurricanes' aftermath."

Baker pays all the handicapping very little attention. His name will be on the ballot in the fall, and he's shooting for a chairmanship. Beyond that, anything is possible.

"I've given up trying to predict my own behavior," Baker says. "I've learned just to take it one newspaper headline at a time."