Business Cover

Follow the Leader

by Leslie Turk

Aiming for a prestigious position in the state Senate, Mike Michot became more of a risk-taker — and Acadiana's business community is reaping the benefits of his successful rise to power.

photo by Robin May

State Sen. Mike Michot was in the political fight of his life last fall, and he wasn’t even in the race. The three-term GOP state senator — unopposed in his last term — backed his longtime friend Page Cortez in the District 43 state rep race, even teaming up with independent state Rep. Joel Robideaux to launch an advertising campaign on behalf of the furniture dealing newcomer. The bold campaign was a stark contrast to the typically docile Michot, who’d previously stayed on the sidelines or done most of his politicking behind-the-scenes.

Michot says after state Rep. Ernie Alexander decided not to run, he initially intended to stay out of the race, but Cortez’s fellow Republican opponent’s legal troubles in a highly-publicized alleged bribery case involving a Texas sheriff convinced him otherwise. When just about every poll taken showed Lafayette businessman Pat LeBlanc leading in the race, Michot and Robideaux launched a no-holds-barred campaign. With direct mail — and more furtive online maneuvers that included posting campaign-related YouTube videos — Michot and Robideaux, through their political action committee Leadership for Louisiana, got the word out about LeBlanc’s legal troubles. Michot’s tactics astonished many political observers and even some of his closest associates and friends. He acknowledges surprising himself. “That’s typically not my nature,” Michot says.

His bet paid off. Cortez defeated fellow LeBlanc in a sound 55-45 percent victory.

LeBlanc, who died tragically in an airplane crash less than five months later, was never charged in the case, which is still under investigation by the FBI. It’s unclear what effect, if any, his death will have on the investigation.

The death of his former adversary makes talking about the bitter campaign difficult for Michot. However, he is steadfast in his belief that potential political consequences should not outweigh an obligation to take a stand. Local members of his own party do not share that mindset.

The local Republican Party Executive Committee, comprised of some staunch LeBlanc supporters and friends, was not near as taken with Michot and Robideaux’s campaign and has tried relentlessly to retaliate, even since LeBlanc’s death. In December the committee adopted a censure resolution scolding Michot for aligning himself with non-Republicans in races dating back almost five years. They chided him for having given money to Robideaux, an independent, and state Rep. Willie Mount, a Democrat, when she ran against Charles Boustany for U.S. representative in 2003. “Willie Mount was a colleague of mine. She was serving in the Legislature,” Michot says. “What they didn’t say is I gave double that amount of money to Boustany.

“It all stemmed from my active involvement in the Cortez-LeBlanc campaign,” Michot says. The censure, which carries no real weight, was little more than a blip on the radar screen for local and state media, with most outlets ignoring it altogether. Then, with Michot vying for the most powerful position in the Legislature, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a front-page story about the censure in La Gazette des’t Villages, which LeBlanc and his backers purchased and renamed the Acadiana Gazette, was anonymously mailed to legislators across the state. Unmoved by his opposition, Michot took yet another gamble while jockeying for the influential Senate finance chair. He publicly backed Democrat Joel Chaisson for the Senate presidency.

Once again, his bet paid off.

With the support of newly-elected Gov. Bobby Jindal, lone senior senator Michot (thanks to term-limits) rose to finance dean of the Upper Chamber, one of the most powerful position in the Legislature. Along with the Appropriations Committee in the House, it has a direct oversight of the state’s $30 billion budget. “As Senate finance chairman, I play a key role in the success of the governor’s agenda,” Michot says. “I also work closely with the governor’s commissioner of administration, who crafts the budget and controls funding for the state’s capital outlay projects.” Additionally, Michot has influence over budgets for all state agencies and departments, which gives him a good chance of getting favorable treatment and response to his requests.

Mike Michot has an opportunity to be at the top of his game in the state of Louisiana, where the Legislature is now comprised of numerous fresh faces thanks to term limits. The local business community has a tremendous amount of faith in his ability to lead the Acadiana delegation and the state — and it is almost unanimous in its sentiment that the very issue his own party chided him for is among his greatest attributes.

“In past years, key players did not have the extensive supporting cast,” LEDA Chief Executive Officer Gregg Gothreaux says. “All of the stars are aligning for key issues to win over politics. Mike is Lafayette and Acadiana focused, but he understands Louisiana has to set the table. It’s going to take a real consensus builder, someone who can get along with everyone and who people can trust as they get to know him.”

State Rep. Joel Robideaux

photo by Robin May

Lafayette’s business community has reason to be optimistic. In addition to passing sweeping ethics reform, the Legislature accelerated the elimination of taxes on capital investment (debt), as well as on manufacturing machinery/equipment and eliminated the burdensome tax on business utilities — all of which made the state less competitive. While there are a number of issues the business community would like to see addressed in the near-term, the two most pressing are related to transportation — primarily I-49 funding and the Lafayette Regional Xpressway (the proposed loop around Lafayette Parish) — and workforce development. There has been limited progress on both of those fronts as well.

Only a few months into their term, the local delegation banded together to deliver a vital $20 million road project for Lafayette.

With Michot at the helm, the Lafayette delegation secured funding for the six-laning of U.S. Hwy. 90 from Pinhook Road to Albertson Parkway in Broussard. In calling his second special session in March, Jindal asked the delegation if it could come together on a single road project that would help Lafayette’s traffic problems, promising to earmark funding from the $1 billion state surplus.

Other projects considered were the widening of Verot School and Kaliste Saloom roads, but both of those improvements are in a waiting pattern for various reasons (underground sewage on Verot and ongoing negotiations with the state on Kaliste Saloom). “They’re not ready for extra funding right now,” Michot says. So the decision was made to support the Hwy. 90 widening, which was funded in the special session. Had the lawmakers not been on the same page, they likely would not have received those surplus dollars, Michot says. “Not every part of the state got dollars toward a specific project.”

Last year Michot and Robideaux tried to get motor vehicles sales taxes redirected to local governments to fund road and drainage projects. That measure failed in 2007, but a portion of it was passed in this year’s special session. The funds will be phased in over five years. “It’s going into the Department of Transportation’s budget for roads, and it will be used for roads,” Robideaux says, “but each parish getting its actual share [the amount it pays into the fund] failed. It failed fairly significantly.” Legislators from rural parishes killed the measure, fearing they would be left out.

The Jindal administration is a major factor is the Acadiana business community’s renewed optimism that vital infrastructure improvements will be made, Robideaux says. “The administration showing its commitment to transportation has been huge in shifting sentiment.”

Among the most critical measures is the legislative push to begin funneling monies into the Mobility Fund — the structure which was created by the Legislature in 2004 for major infrastructure projects like toll roads and loops. But it has yet to receive any monies. The local delegation is pushing hard to move transportation related monies (Texas funds its with DUI, speeding fines and trucker licensing fees) into the Mobility Fund.

If successful, as little as $250 million a year into that fund could result in the construction of just about every major road project on the books across the state, including I-49, maintains Lafayette attorney Mickey Mangham, chairman of the Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway Commission, which is pushing the local toll road. The Mobility Fund is set up for recurring monies that can be bonded, he says. “You build them now with bonded money and you pay them off in 30 years. If you get the Mobility Fund, you could build I-49 as toll if you wanted to.”

Right now, however, there is a potential roadblock, Robideaux says. “Baton Rouge’s delegation isn’t all together on that. It’s now a hurdle. There is a segment opposed to the proposed Baton Rouge loop. The Baton Rouge guys are arguing about the route for their loop. It’s a lot easier when you have those two delegations [Acadiana and Baton Rouge] working together.”

In the past, the local delegation has been criticized for not securing its fair share of the gasoline sales tax the federal government returns to the state for road projects, especially when Lafayette Parish generates a large portion of those taxes compared to other parishes. Per capita, in fact, the state Department of Transportation and Development has been spending less on Lafayette Parish projects than anywhere else since 1980, according to a Lafayette Consolidated Government analysis. Michot says the criticism has not been entirely fair. “You have to look at other funding we’ve received from the state, the LITE Center, the Convention Center expansion, UL, the Cajundome, projects downtown, the Acadiana Center for the Arts, the PHI expansion, Stuller’s expansion because of tax equalization [a state tax incentive to keep the company from relocating],” he says. “Yes, we’re a donor parish just like East Baton Rouge [second to last in DOTD projects] is a donor parish because we generate so much tax revenues,” he says. “But the inequity is being addressed.”

Acadiana business leaders are hoping for an overhaul in the way the state funds long-term projects, according to Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce Chairman Robbie Bush.

“I will be disappointed if the Legislature does not stand up and form a structure that allows for continued growth and change,” says Bush. “We are pushing for support to change the way we fund long-term projects, like the Mobility Fund, which benefits all communities in the state, rather than continuing to approach funding on a per request basis,” he adds.

“The Legislature hasn’t realized collectively that you can accomplish more with less effort when you have a sensible platform, be it roads, education, health care or taxes,” Bush says. “I’m less interested in whether a kid has to wear a certain type of clothing rather than setting up recurring funding for road projects at an immediate level that can be bonded out now rather than to have to ask every year for money and wait five years to start that process or to not support sensible reform in education to allow the achievement gap to be eradicated now at a pace that supports workforce needs. If we do not do this, we are missing another opportunity to create the framework for success.”

Chairman of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce Robbie Bush

photo by Robin May

Continues Bush, “What I am really excited about is that for the first time the Legislature, LEDA, the Chamber, LCVC, all the organizations that often duplicate requests, are working with legislators, getting on the same page to get things done.” He says at Michot’s request all of these groups met recently for lunch (the Acadiana delegation now meets every other week) and came together on a comprehensive plan for pushing key issues. “We were able to explain and talk about the Mobility Fund and I-49 completion and combining the loop with I-49’s development so it can be done faster. What I have seen is a true consensus that’s multi-parish,” Bush says. “I would say it’s Mike’s personality and that the ones who have been there have worked very hard in pulling in the new legislators and the organizations.”

“Mike has brought unity to that delegation, the likes of which have not been seen since the late 1970s,” says former chamber Chairman Tyron Picard, recalling how his late father Cecil Picard, then a state senator, and the rest of the Acadiana delegation, among which were Armand Brinkhaus, Allen Bares and John Saunders worked to secure $60 million for the Cajundome to be built. “That’s the equivalent of a $600 million project now,” Picard says. “Of course, they were all Democrats,” he says, “but we were under a Republican governor, [Dave] Treen.

“They banded together for what Lafayette needed, for what Acadiana needed. I think the lesson was they could bring big, big things back to Acadiana. I think we could see a renaissance of that era.”

That spirit of cooperation is extending beyond the boundary lines of Acadiana, Bush notes. “It’s a continued effort toward true regional development where the needs of many outweigh the needs of one,” he says. “It really is refreshing.”

Robideaux, who is in his second term, points to Michot’s demeanor as well as term limits for the success of that cohesiveness. “He’s so approachable,” the state rep says. “It’s not like those guys who have been there for 30 years and finally got chairman of finance. Last term there was just no chance of that. For those of us who were new to go meet with the finance chair who had been there 27 years, well I guess we could have met but would we have been heard? Term limits had a really significant effect. Everyone feels like they can participate. It’s not just a select few making a decision for the whole.”

Robideaux says every legislator, regardless of party affiliation, is able to get Michot’s ear. He doesn’t see that changing. “Four years is a long time [to keep that pace], but he’s done it so far. He’s very organized,” Robideaux says.

Some of Acadiana’s business leaders say workforce problems are even more immediate than its infrastructure deficiencies.

Addressing the community at a recent Chamber of Commerce-sponsored breakfast, Louisiana Secretary of Labor Tim Barfield Jr. said the primary roadblock to Acadiana’s continued economic prosperity is its unskilled labor force. Economic developers say thousands of Louisianians remain too unskilled to fill an estimated 100,000 jobs in the state.

“The severe labor shortage is causing significant overtime for everyone,” says Picard, executive vice president of governmental affairs at Acadian Ambulance. “We have 100 openings for paramedics and EMTs. We’ve been paying a $20,000 sign-on bonus. We’re putting managers and vice presidents on Ambulances in New Orleans. That’s how desperate we’ve been for labor,” he continues. “It’s so grim that we’ve hired recruiters in Ohio and Michigan, where the economies are in really poor shape, trying to get people to come to work for us.”

Says LEDA’s Gothreaux, “The main issue is not enough work force, and the workforce we do have is not up the jobs of the future.” Gothreaux points to this as the state’s best chance at reversing the trend of out-migration of companies and workers and making the state a place where talented individuals will remain — and companies will find an attractive place to relocate.

At press time, bills seeking to restructure the way Louisiana’s workforce development service delivery system operates appeared headed for approval. According to the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry, which identifies this as its major 2008 initiative (the Lafayette chamber has taken an equally strong position supporting it), the duplicate bills would integrate all of the workforce service and training programs scattered throughout the state government while delegating needs assessment, decision-making and problem solving from the state level to local Workforce Investment Boards. These WIBs would work to ensure that outcomes are relevant to local economies’ needs.

Additionally, the hope is that specific curriculums that require more technological or in-depth training will get higher levels of funding, the chamber’s Bush says. “The funding will be based on the needs of a curriculum that might require more expertise to deliver,” he adds, noting that the use of existing facilities like LITE may fall into some of that training.

The measure is actually Jindal’s proposal to overhaul the Louisiana Department of Labor to better align training programs and services to meet the needs of companies and get people into those vacant jobs. The revamp will integrate services by setting up regional centers where people looking for work can find out about jobs openings in a specific area, skills training and literacy programs, child care and transportation services, and other general services they may need to get to work.

Mike Michot’s been around politics for as long as he can remember. One of Patricia and Louis Michot’s eight living children, he was born in 1963 while his father was on the road campaigning for governor. Now 85, his father is a former Democratic state rep and superintendent of education who once owned a chain of more than 40 Burger Chef restaurants, having purchased the rights to develop Louisiana and Texas for a meager $15,000.

The 44-year-old durable medical equipment supplier says he’s been fascinated by politics since he was 10 or 11 years old, when his father, as superintendent of education, took him to the Capitol. “I’ll never forget walking into the back door of the Capitol and thinking, ‘Wow, this looks like an exciting place to be.’”

Michot says he got involved in the District 43 race last year for a number of reasons. For him, newcomer Cortez is a known commodity, someone he can work with to build consensus, and Michot minces no words about his own aspirations. “I was working to secure a very important position for myself,” he says.

“To Mike’s credit he saw a void that had to be filled and he has stepped up big time to fill that void,” notes Gothreaux.

“It was passing the torch with Jerry Luke [LeBlanc] leaving not only the Legislature but the government, where Jerry had been the leader of all things significant to Lafayette,” Picard says. “Mike realized this was going to be his time for leadership. He is not a lone ranger; he likes working in a group setting, working with a team — all pulling on the same project together. I think he saw that potential greater with Rep. Cortez.”

Picard admits he was a bit surprised at how aggressive his friend of 25 years was in the race and realized that there could be some political fallout for Michot’s future. He says Michot didn’t seem concerned about that. “You hear a lot of sound bites, a lot of slogans, but he is genuinely passionate about seeing Louisiana reach its potential and seeing Acadiana and Lafayette be the best it can be,” Picard says, “and he’s willing to sacrifice whatever political capital he has to for the greater good. He’s not worried about the next campaign; he has not once told me what the next race was going to be or if there is going to be a next race.”

Picard believes the local Republican Executive Committee’s censure backfired on Michot’s detractors. “I told Mike I thought it was his finest hour, and a lot of other people said the same thing. Anytime anybody attacks you for working with people and building consensus, you should wear that [like a] badge of honor.”

For his part, Michot calls the censure and those behind it “insignificant.” When he sits down with a group of legislators he insists that he doesn’t know who is Republican, Democrat or independent. “And I don’t care,” he says. “Why should that matter?”

Adds Michot, “I think the public is getting more and more fed up with it. More and more of the voter registrations are independents, because they are fed up with the party fights. I think it’s definitely having an impact. We are elected to represent all of the people, regardless of their party affiliation.”

Term limited in four years, Michot does not know what he’ll do next — perhaps lieutenant governor, he says. He seriously considered Secretary of State in 2006 after Fox McKeithen’s death.

And while it is certainly a long shot, he truly believes that Gov. Jindal would not accept an invitation as Sen. John McCain’s running mate. But in the off chance something like that happens and the ambitious Jindal seizes the opportunity, Michot could be launching yet another campaign as early as this year — this time as a candidate.