Jerry Luke LeBlanc was reared by one of the greats of Acadiana politics ' his father. Now he faces an unparalleled challenge that will forever define his own career.
The first thing Jerry Luke LeBlanc does after shaking hands and offering a weak smile is grab a bottle of aspirin for his fiscal migraine. There are dark circles under his eyes, and he's moving a little slow. "I'm having an Excedrin moment," he says with a laugh, shaking the bottle and exiting his office for a moment.
It's completely understandable.
When he vacated his seat in the House of Representatives in 2004 to become Gov. Kathleen Blanco's commissioner of administration, LeBlanc already faced a boilerplate of serious challenges. As the state's new chief financial officer, LeBlanc was charged with overseeing the governor's vision for what was then a $17 billion state budget and for doling out millions in capital outlay projects ' essentially pork for lawmakers to bring back home.
With the help of his Acadiana ally Blanco, the post made LeBlanc one of the most powerful men in the state. But none of that matters now. It's Nov. 3, and the 49-year-old LeBlanc appears tired. No one in his division is getting much sleep. The November special session convenes in a few days to deal with massive budget cuts and layoffs, and LeBlanc is in the belly of the beast. He begrudgingly admits every decision he makes will help shape the new future of Louisiana.
When Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans in late August, it devastated the state's economy. Sources for tax revenues were destroyed, people were displaced, businesses crippled, and entire communities sunk. A few weeks later when Hurricane Rita entered the western coast of the state, Louisiana's fiscal picture turned damn near apocalyptic.
"The issues are so large and so profound, and peoples' lives are hanging in the balance," LeBlanc says, rubbing his head and shifting in his leather chair. "You have to keep it in perspective. I mean, no doubt you do some praying about it, and you just try to make the best decisions that you can make. Knowing that you can't wave a magic wand and solve all problems at one time, well, that's kind of the most frustrating part about it."
Depending on who you ask, the state faces a budget shortfall of up to $1.5 billion over the next year. That means essential government services will have to be cut, and people will be forced out of jobs.
As LeBlanc and the administration began making major decisions prior to the session, every step was embroiled in controversy. Their early moves were criticized by an across-the-board collection of local, state and federal observers ' Republicans and Democrats alike. The politics have turned bitter for the Lafayette native, but he has a strong stomach. After all, LeBlanc was practically raised on the floor of the House of Representatives when his father, J. Luke LeBlanc, represented Lafayette during the mid-60s and again during a second stint from 1976 to 1984.
The younger LeBlanc started out as a runt, following his father around and asking too many questions. Once he matured a bit, he cut his teeth as an unpaid legislative aide, and the battleground political lessons were priceless.
"Experiences in life lay the foundation for you to make decisions in the future," LeBlanc says, "and I was just fortunate enough that I had a vast exposure to great people who were forced to make a lot of hard decisions. I did my best to watch and learn."
Former state Sen. Edgar "Sonny" Mouton, a Lafayette Democrat, can remember a time when the younger LeBlanc was nothing more than a "little man" in a suit his father had bought for him. Mouton and the elder J. Luke LeBlanc served in the Legislature together during the 1960s, fighting for common interests and forging a close friendship.
"Jerry was just a young boy then," Mouton recalls. "He learned everything at his father's knees and in our campaigns. He would come with us on the campaign trail and would sit in the back of the car and listen to us talk about politics and government and about (former Gov. John) McKeithen."
Mouton refers to LeBlanc during that time as a "full-time apprentice to his father," attending legislative meetings, learning the process, reading bills and always asking questions. But most importantly, LeBlanc learned the art of listening. Maybe he picked it up from his father, who worked as a barber for some time before entering the real estate market. LeBlanc followed in his father's footsteps in 1980, forming a private company (the now-defunct Jerry Luke LeBlanc and Associates) and working as a real estate agent and appraiser.
"He was never forceful about anything, even at that age," Mouton says. "He wanted a complete grasp of government, really wanted to understand it, and that's probably why he has succeeded today."
In 1988, LeBlanc ran for a seat in the House ' the same district his father represented for many years. More than anything else, LeBlanc says he inherited the courage to make important decisions without fear.
"When I was first elected, my father was a great counsel," LeBlanc says. "One of the key things that he told me was, 'You got elected on your own, but I am here if you need me. Don't beat yourself up when you have to make decisions. Decide and move on. Don't try and second-guess yourself.' And you know, I think that before his passing in '96, he never played armchair quarterback. He respected the decisions I made and the reasons I made them."
Without his father to consult in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, LeBlanc remembered his dad's reaction during Hurricane Hilda, a 1964 Gulf storm that killed 37 people in Louisiana and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. From that experience, LeBlanc says he learned to take a crisis head-on.
"The house we were living in was just rattling," LeBlanc recalls. "That was a storm where a lot of folks in Erath perished because a water tower fell on their city hall. At the time, my father was on the police jury, and he ended up dealing with some of the same things we are dealing with, as far as response and flooding and those types of things."
LeBlanc also learned to take care of his constituents. During one of his last sessions as a legislator, he filed a bill to retroactively fix tickets for St. Thomas More students who had parked in handicapped spaces in the closed athletic complex. Legislature members were up in arms, and the retroactive portion of the bill never made it out of the House, but LeBlanc stuck to his guns, and the Legislature passed a bill allowing local governments to set different hours for handicapped parking space use.
He's also moved away from his father's political beliefs at times and shaped his own ideology. Unlike his dad, who was occasionally called "No Tax Luke" for his opposition to taxes, LeBlanc voted in favor of a state tax on food and utilities in 2002 and supported the Stelly Plan, which increased income taxes for certain brackets.
In many ways, LeBlanc is the man behind the curtain. If lawmakers want money for their district, they'll likely stop off for a chat with him before they will the governor. He oversees all state finances, which means LeBlanc can dangle carrots in front of agencies and boards. He's also the architect behind the executive budget.
Barry Erwin, president of Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit group that monitors the activities of state government, says the current system of checks and balances is clear when it comes to the budget and state spending ' the governor sets priorities, and the Legislature has the final say. But when it comes down to political reality, there's no second-guessing who has the real power.
"Yet surprisingly, the title of commissioner of administration, and the individual that holds the office, is not a household name," Erwin says. "But it is absolutely one of the most powerful positions in state government. To a large degree, the governor sets the stage for all fiscal matters, but you better believe she turns to her commissioner of administration to make it all happen."
This makes LeBlanc the first line of defense for certain executive decisions ' both good and bad.
Prior to the session, the Blanco administration moved around $45 million in state construction projects, some from the devastated hurricane region, to fund new projects statewide. Editorials slammed the decision as irresponsible, calling it pork and highlighting such items as a horse arena in north Louisiana.
When the bond commission met again the next week, and Democratic state Treasurer John Kennedy tried to have the members vote on the projects individually, LeBlanc adjourned the meeting. A few Republicans on the committee ' in concert with Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter ' lambasted that decision as well. Critics said it was the wrong message to send with the state asking Congress for a huge appropriation and facing a budget hole that could reach $1.5 billion.
"I don't think it serves the people of the state very well to turn things purely into a partisan agenda," LeBlanc says. "And that's real unfortunate. The governor doesn't really want to engage in that. We all have a state to rebuild, and I hope that we do not descend into what has happened in Washington."
Still, LeBlanc understands both sides of the argument, even though he feels his side of the story was never accurately told.
He calls the decision "sound cash management." There was $80 million dollars available for new bonding capacity that could have been used for such construction projects, but the state chose to keep that money and save it for other programs that could receive matching dollars from the federal government, LeBlanc says. So the state shifted around balances from existing projects that were already in the pipeline ' including in the hurricane areas ' for the $45 million statewide construction projects.
"We chose to move some other key issues forward," he says. "You have south central Louisiana, central Louisiana and north Louisiana that are still functioning. We still have an entire state to run. Many of the projects that were on the drawing board in the hurricane-affected areas are now eligible for [Federal Emergency Management Agency] reimbursements, so it would be really goofy fiscal policy to move forward on those."
LeBlanc also says there was too much made over the north Louisiana horse facility, better known as the Equine Center in Morehouse Parish. International Paper had recently announced layoffs in the area, and the center ' along with another unnamed project ' will play a major role in getting people employed, LeBlanc says.
"When you start peeling behind some of the issues that certain people have raised, you find that there's a different story," he adds. "You find that there's a reason, besides what everyone calls just pure politics. That decision was in direct correlation of what happened with International Paper."
LeBlanc reiterates that he doesn't fear making tough decisions, no matter the consequences ' a mantra that he's followed for years and one that will likely define his entire life in public service.
LeBlanc was recently named one of Governing magazine's "Public Officials of the Year" for reforming the state's budgeting process.
After serving a few years as chairman of the budget-drafting Appropriations Committee, LeBlanc says he noticed that money wasn't always tied to specific programs. It just floated around in an illogical way that did nothing more than make for curious political games.
So he spearheaded a move to make the budget more direct and to link fund monies with "performance indicators," goals agencies have to meet to secure funding. The method drew national attention and praise for LeBlanc and helped pave the way for his current position.
State Rep. Warren Triche, a Lafourche Parish Democrat, watched the entire process unfold, from beginning to end. He was LeBlanc's roommate and seatmate for several years when they served together in the Legislature ' LeBlanc as chairman of appropriations and Triche as vice-chair.
The two made an interesting pair, with LeBlanc's professional and businesslike demeanor of running the committee and Triche's down-home witticism and punchy remarks.
"I like Jerry," Triche says. "He's an intelligent guy who knows the budget better than any of his predecessors. [Former Commissioner of Administration] Mark Drennan, [Gov. Mike] Foster's choice, was knee-high to a piss-ant as far as I'm concerned, while Jerry Luke LeBlanc has always, and still does, fly high above with the eagles."
Triche, the true comic relief of the Louisiana Legislature, says LeBlanc is statesmanlike on the surface but enjoys a good chuckle behind closed doors. Still, LeBlanc was never one to hang around the water cooler; he spent most of his tenure in the Legislature crafting the performance-based funding system.
"It has had varying degrees of success with certain people," Triche says. "Thankfully, a lot of people have tried to implement it, but there are others who want to ignore it as much as possible and just get their money and have no accountability."
In his new position, LeBlanc is still answering naysayers. For instance, the administration is considering borrowing money to pay down the coming shortfall. Critics question the decision, wondering why the administration would do something that would essentially increase the debt even more.
"We're faced with only so many options," LeBlanc says. "When businesses have cash flow problems, they look to a line of credit. This is also our perspective. You have to be bold. We know we have a deficit, but we know that sometime in the future it's going to have a recovery. In the meantime, you have to bridge your deficit between this point and a point where your revenues return."
As the rebuilding of Louisiana progresses, LeBlanc knows the politics will likely get nastier, and he will be forced to justify every decision to lawmakers, lobbyists and the media. He could be leading a much different life right now; when Gov. Blanco was first elected, LeBlanc had a choice between jobs ' commissioner of administration or speaker of the House. Despite massive responsibility and challenges facing him, LeBlanc says he made the right decision. He credits two factors for his past accomplishments ' and he'll cling to them during the years ahead.
"Fate and faith," LeBlanc says. "You know, things just have a funny way of working out. I really think that this position I'm in is where I need to be."
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Dallas Morning News and other publications. Reach him through his Web site at www.jeremyalford.com.