Opening of session ignites race for House speaker

by Jeremy Alford, LaPolitics

Although the governor has traditionally enjoyed tremendous influence over whom the House selects as its leader — and even though the gubernatorial contest is far from being decided — there are already 10 representatives who tell LaPolitics they are either running for speaker or are considering the internal race.

The race for speaker of the Louisiana House, sixth in the line of gubernatorial succession, is kicking off alongside this year’s heated regular session. The internal election will not take place until January, but lawmakers are having to position now, ahead of their fall re-elections.

They’re also having to do so with no knowledge of who will be the state’s next governor.

Of the 10 representatives who say they are in the hunt so far, six are already raising money or collecting pledges for PACs, or political action committees. The rush is on in a real way, thanks in no small part to term limits, which will block 47 representatives from seeking reelection in 2019 and is lighting a fire underneath their ambitions.

The next governor’s influence

The four declared candidates were asked if they would prefer to have a Democrat or a Republican as speaker.

Rep. John Bel Edwards and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said they would defer to the body, as did Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, adding a preference for a “bold conservative.”

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, meanwhile, said he hasn’t given the topic any thought, although his conservative ideology is well known to the body.

As for whether they’ll get involved, Angelle said he would “cross that bridge when we get there,” based on whether lawmakers approach him first.

Dardenne, saying he looks forward to the discussion, and Edwards, saying he wouldn’t go as far as demanding committee assignments, said they expected to be part of the early dialogue.

Vitter did not provide a direct answer, although lawmakers say they have been told privately by the senator that he is not committed to anyone in the race.

Of course, not every candidate runs to become speaker. If history is any indication, some reps in the field want to keep their chairmanship or move up the ladder. It’s often said there’s no second place in politics, but many lawmakers will tell you that chairmanships can come with dropping out.

That’s why many in the body are keeping an eye on the PACs.

“If you see someone with a PAC not spending all of it on the fall elections, then it’s a good bet that they’re gunning for something else,” said a representative.

Who wants the gavel

There are some new names in the race. Like Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, who recently registering Kirk PAC with the Secretary of State’s Office.

“We definitely need to have an independent House with an independent leader that will represent the members,” Talbot said, confirming he would be in the running for the January vote.

In separate interviews, both Reps. Taylor Barras and Stuart Bishop said they’re thinking about running. They’re Republicans from Acadiana, where supporters say they could build off of the framework Ways and Means Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, used in his bid for speaker in 2011-12. Bishop, in particular, could see a heightened profile this year as he works with LABI to take on the unions over the paycheck protection issue.

But the most notable entry to the field arrived earlier this month with the announcement by House Education Chair Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, that he will be a candidate and that his Leadership Next PAC is operational. Carter was the original architect of the Capital Region Legislative Delegation, creating a formal coalition that rarely communicated before. The numbers alone make him a dark horse contender to watch.

The longest-running candidate is Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, whose Cameron PAC benefitted from seed money from House Majority Whip Steve Scalise that has been put to use already. Several lawmakers say they’ve been visited in their districts by Henry.

Most said that personal touch goes a long way, while two lawmakers suggested they were uncomfortable with the early campaigning, even though they like Henry and may back him. Aggressive is the key term, and he’s actively meeting with the gubernatorial candidates.

Should Vitter be elected governor, Henry’s quest may be questioned, since he would complete a Jefferson Parish trifecta with Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, expected to coast to re-election.

That outlook on regional influence may very well extend to Orleans as well, touching on the lone Democrat in the field, Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, whose Third Coast Leadership PAC has kept his name in the running in recent years.

“I’m not asking for firm commitments,” Leger said. “The session should be the focus. I don’t want anything like a political leadership race to be a distraction when people have to deal with things for their districts.”

Others in the developing field include GOP Reps. Chris Broadwater of Hammond, Thomas Carmody of Shreveport, Joe Lopinto of Metairie and John Schroder of Covington. While Lopinto and Schroder are taking a wait-and-see approach, Broadwater and Carmody say they plan on campaigning as consensus builders.

“I’m a Republican through and through, but I’m also a big believer in how we have operated historically,” said Broadwater. “Even though parties are important in terms of votes, I do not think Democrats should be shut out. We’ve always worked well together. All of us. That’s what unites the House.”

For his part, Carmody said with a laugh, “The last speaker from Caddo was right before Reconstruction, when Louisiana was facing similar financial constraints. But I think what I can show the House is a leader who is working for the state and the body as well as the administration.”