Cover Story

Power Shift

by Jeremy Alford

Acadiana's stock in state government has plummeted in recent months with the loss of major offices and appointments, but the tradeoff is the legislative delegation's increased influence. Cars paraded down East Devalcourt Street and into the parking lot aside UL Lafayette’s LITE Center before releasing a few hundred people who streamed into the building’s auditorium. Mist from the air mingled with the sound of shuffling feet and hushed conversations, all of which soberly underscored the loss of one of Vermilion Parish’s favorite sons, Cecil J. Picard. He was many things to many people — teacher, coach, principal, family man — but he’s largely remembered for his public service as a state representative and, more recently, superintendent of education. It was Dec. 14, 2007, and more than 250 people had arrived to pay a final tribute to Picard, who died in early 2007 of Lou Gehrig’s disease. A $7.2 million educational complex was being named in Picard’s honor.

His son, Tyron Picard, recalls more than one person commenting that his father’s passing was a milestone in the history of Acadiana politics. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was in attendance as well, serving out her final days as governor. In retrospect, the symbolic curtain call was profound. Blanco’s then-commissioner of administration, Jerry Luke LeBlanc, was there, too, as was Elizabeth Guglielmo, Tyron Picard’s wife and Blanco’s chosen chair for the Louisiana Tax Commission. While the day itself was about the legacy of one man, it was also emblematic of the coming shift in the region’s politics.

During her four years in office, Democrat Blanco built a cabinet and staff consisting largely of folks from her home base of Acadiana. No other region before had enjoyed such a stronghold; it’s no wonder the upper layer of state government from 2003 to 2007 was jokingly called the “Cajun Cartel.”

When Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal was inaugurated in January, most of Blanco’s Acadiana hires and appointees came off the rolls. Jindal was predictably lambasted for not providing the region with proper representation (north Louisiana lawmakers lodged the same complaint). Behind the scenes, though, lawmakers from Lafayette and the surrounding parishes immediately went to work securing new leadership roles that had proved elusive under Blanco.

The power shift is starting to play out in spades for the region. While statewide offices and high-profile appointments might be a thing of the past, at least for now, Acadiana’s legislative delegation couldn’t be better positioned for growth and prosperity.

During the minutes before Jindal opened his special session on ethics reform roughly two weeks ago, lawmakers congregated outside of the House chamber visiting with lobbyists and reporters, dishing on the Blanco-Jindal transition. Sophomore Rep. Joel Robideaux, a Lafayette independent, mingled comfortably among them, hands stuffed firmly in his pockets. Although he can be wonkish at times, Robideaux is astute enough to know who holds the political cards. Asked directly who has the juice these days, Robideaux laughs, pulls a hand out his pocket and waves a set of fingers in the air. “I have two words for you,” he says. “Mike Michot.”

Robideaux is slightly biased, having long ago formed a coalition with Michot, the Republican state senator from Lafayette, on both policy and political fronts. But the strength of Michot’s current position is undeniable. A few months ago, he played a pivotal role in convincing some Republicans to back Joel Chaisson, a Democrat from Destrehan, for Senate president. In return for his loyalty, Michot was awarded the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, one of the Legislature’s powerful money panels, and a seat on the state Bond Commission, another coveted position. Michot also spearheads Leadership for Louisiana, the local political machine that channels resources and money to candidates and played a part in helping freshman Rep. Page Cortez win a contentious race with fellow Republican Pat LeBlanc.

Michot isn’t the only rainmaker in the delegation. Sen. Don Cravins Jr., a Lafayette Democrat, has been tapped to serve as chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee for the coming term. Additionally, Sen. Nick Gautreaux, a fellow Democrat from Abbeville, is vice-chairman of the Coastal Restoration and Flood Control Subcommittee. In the Lower Chamber, GOP Rep. Don Trahan of Lafayette chairs the high-profile House Education Committee and rookie Rep. Rickey Hardy, a Democrat also from Lafayette, serves alongside him — meaning local matters will have some clout.

While the new titles aren’t currying political favor for anyone now, they’ll carry some weight once the regular session kicks off this spring. “These leadership positions bode well for Acadiana,” says Dr. Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at UL. “There was a perception among legislators that the Acadiana delegation was kind of ignored under Blanco and wasn’t able to come into these positions of power. But my sense is, under the Jindal administration, the delegation will have a higher percentage of success.”

In her defense, Blanco tells The Independent Weekly that Acadiana lawmakers were given opportunities to succeed during her administration as well. The capital outlay process, which controls state construction money, was made available to local legislators, she says, for unique investments in Lafayette like the LITE Center and a number of road and infrastructure projects — many of which won’t come to fruition for several more years. Blanco also cites growth at UL that the delegation helped her push, as well as money for community-level initiatives. “And we did all of this without cheating any other area of the state,” Blanco says, adding it’s “too early in the game” to start drawing accurate comparisons.

Michot’s cell phone cut in and out as he made his drive into Baton Rouge from Lafayette last week for what promised to be another contentious hearing on ethics reform, but his message was clear: the Acadiana delegation is poised to flourish over the next four years, and it’s taking extra precautions to ensure no opportunities are wasted.

The group has been criticized in the past for not meeting as a delegation on a regular basis to mold a communal agenda, or even to just communicate. The traditional divide is based on geography. The Acadiana delegation, as it’s defined and recognized by the Legislature, includes parishes as far out as West Baton Rouge and Terrebonne — a far cry from the Cajun heartland of St. Martin, St. Landry and Lafayette.

These distant populations are a prime example of why the delegation often failed at cohesiveness. For instance, at a recent delegation meeting, Garrett Graves, the governor’s top coastal adviser, provided an update on hurricane recovery dollars. A divide instantly formed in the room, with lawmakers from eastern parishes calling for a focus on Katrina and western legislators lobbying for Rita aid. “It’s always been so hard to agree on things because of that geographic divide,” says Michot. “And that’s why some of us have come together to form what we call ‘Core Acadiana,’ which includes legislators from Lafayette and the surrounding parishes. We’ve been meeting and will continue meeting.”

More than anything else, the delegation has been a collective of individuals in recent years, rather than an interconnected unit. During Blanco’s term in office, former Reps. Sydney Mae Durand of Parks and Wilfred Pierre of Lafayette chaired the health care and natural resources committees, respectively. The two Democrats immersed themselves in the jobs but were unable to find ways to work together — after all, oil production and Medicare rarely cross paths. Other members of last term’s core delegation just failed to participate at an aggressive level. During a memorable 85-day legislative session in 2006, former Rep. Errol “Romo” Romero, a New Iberia Democrat, filed only one bill for debate. Trahan, who remains in the delegation, only introduced two measures.

By focusing Core Acadiana on key players in the Lafayette region and communicating on a regular basis, Michot says a new approach to lawmaking and district representation has emerged for the coming four-year term. Participants are coming into the process knowing there’s a common platform, he says, and the commitment is there, as opposed to previous years. “Everyone has always looked at their own agenda, or the House couldn’t agree with the Senate, or loyalties were elsewhere with business or trial lawyers or what have you, but we’re looking to get past all that and work as a tight-knit group,” Michot says.

In the grand scheme of things, there’s never been any real incentive for Acadiana lawmakers to band together — until now. The local delegation is preparing for a potential growth in membership, due chiefly to the region’s increased population that spiked in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricanes. When the U.S. Census releases its official population estimates in 2010, other major cities around the state will also be watching for this very reason.

The redistricting work will begin in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. Democratic Freshman Rep. Taylor Barras of New Iberia serves on the committee, and the process will potentially impact every district in the state. Barras should walk away from the process with a few favors to call in, which could increase his own political capital.

Based on interviews with delegation members, there’s a commonly held belief that the region is positioned to pick up one or two seats in the House and possibly one in the Senate. By working together closely, lawmakers hope to build a strong case for the additional representation and have a framework in place to instantly capitalize on the new bodies. But it’ll take a regional approach, Michot and others say.

House Clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer, who has arguably been involved with more redistricting plans than most of today’s elected legislators, says regionalism will be vital to any delegation that wants to assume real power through the coming process, especially since recent population increases have been confined to outlying areas. For instance, the Baton Rouge region’s big bump of late can be attributed to places like Ascension and Livingston. Additionally, north shore areas like St. Tammany and Tangipahoa have more than topped their pre-Katrina statistics.

Still, all the planning in the world does little good when the situation is basically unpredictable. “There’s a lot of speculation around the state right now about who is going to gain, but it’s just that: speculation,” says Speer.

While the election of former Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1972 is heralded as the first major political stride for Cajuns, Coteau native Blanco arguably recruited and retained more people from Acadiana to work with and in her cabinet than any governor before or since Edwards. The list was astounding: her commissioner of administration (LeBlanc) was from Acadiana, as were her secretaries of natural resources (Scott Angelle), transportation (Johnny Bradberry), economic development (Michael Olivier), revenue (Cynthia Bridges), education (Picard), and wildlife and fisheries (Dwight Landreneau). Incoming UL President Dr. E. Joseph Savoie was commissioner of higher education during her administration. While not appointed but elected, the attorney general during her term, Charles Foti, is originally from St. Martinville.

The only names from Blanco’s long list that made Jindal’s cut this year were Angelle and Bridges. But she still stands by her choices. Blanco contends she never made a conscious effort to stack her cabinet with like-minded Cajuns, saying the best candidates for the job just happened to be from Acadiana. It became clear early in her tenure that Blanco would convey a gentler message of Edwards’ version of “Cajun power.”

These days, Blanco, who opted against running for re-election last year, is beginning to make public appearances again. She gave her first speech last week since leaving office at The Clinton School in Little Rock, Ark. She looked back on the 2005 storm season in an often emotional address, bringing some in the audience to tears. The former governor didn’t pull any punches, either. Blanco suggested that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina would have been drastically different had former Democratic President Bill Clinton still been in office.

As for state government, she doesn’t miss all of the tension, bartering and positioning that Jindal is dealing with in his assortment of sessions this year. “I’m just smiling ear to ear since I don’t have to be in Baton Rouge right now,” Blanco says.

The impetus in the Capitol is now on Michot, Robideaux, Trahan and the other members of the Core Acadiana delegation, who are chasing down dollars and brick-and-mortar projects for their districts. And it’s with these improvements that local lawmakers hope to differentiate themselves from bygone delegations and administrations. “For people back home, power is about what you can secure for the district,” Michot says. “That’s roads, construction money, projects for the university, drainage and so on. And I think the delegation is finally in a position to deliver it all in a major way.”

No matter what happens, Blanco says there’s one substantial factor missing from Acadiana’s political portfolio, an accomplishment that no construction project or committee assignment can match. “I think it’s kind of hard to replace the governor’s power,” she says with a laugh. “The Legislature is important, but the governor drives the traffic.”