Cover Story

The World According to Rickey

by Nathan Stubbs

State Rep. Rickey Hardy is on a maverick’s mission to bring change to Baton Rouge. Photos by Robin May

A congratulatory crowd forms outside of Bigby Hall in the State Capitol following the marathon debate over House Bill 851. The bill seeks to prevent local school boards from micromanaging any personnel decisions made by superintendents and requires a two-thirds majority from boards in hiring and firing superintendents. The controversial proposal had just elicited more than three hours of testimony before the House Education Committee voted 10-6 to approve the bill and send it to a vote on the House floor.

One former superintendent from north Louisiana is getting acquainted with the bill’s sole co-sponsor, Lafayette state Rep. Rickey Hardy, whom he thanks for taking a principled stand on the issue. “The university of hard knocks,” Hardy responds when asked where he attended college. “At Simcoe.”

Hardy hasn’t traveled the conventional road to the state House of Representatives. He isn’t about to conform now. In his second year as a state rep, Hardy has shown an independent streak that sets him apart from the majority of House freshmen, who are eager to rise up the ranks through tactful compromise and deference to party leadership. That’s not Rickey’s style.

“He is an independent guy. He really is,” says Brigitte Nieland, education lobbyist and communications director for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the principal proponents of the school board reform bill. “He votes his mind and his conscience. He can be controversial, but I don’t think anyone can ever question his sincerity or his motives. He’s a real independent thinker. He showed that today.”

During the debate over HB851, Hardy spoke only once, making his point short and sweet. He held up a framed front page of The Advocate’s Acadiana section from three years ago, featuring a story on the Lafayette Parish School Board’s buyout of Superintendent James Easton’s contract. (At the time, Easton frequently complained of micromanagement issues by the school board.) In The Advocate’s center photo, then-school board member Hardy is shown holding up another prop, a posterboard check for $310,000 from the taxpayers of Lafayette.

This, Hardy announces to the committee, is evidence of what happens as a result of school board micromanagement. “We paid $310,000 to have our superintendent go take a tan down in Mexico,” Hardy proclaims, “that’s why I’m supporting the legislation.”

The move shows Hardy’s penchant for dramatic effect, and underscores that he is one of the few former school board members now in the Legislature supporting school board reform, something that hasn’t made him popular lately with his former colleagues.

The school board lobby isn’t the only organization he’s bucked. Last year, Hardy upset many judges by criticizing their plans to build a new courthouse for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal as a waste of taxpayer money. This year, Hardy has been one of the more outspoken critics of Gov. Bobby Jindal for turning down $98 million in federal stimulus money tied to unemployment benefits.

Hardy has also butted heads with House Education Committee Chairman Austin Badon, the LHSAA and the Legislative Black Caucus by again bringing a bill to raise the minimum grade point average required to participate in high school extracurricular activities, including athletics, from a 1.5 to a 2.0 (an issue Hardy also pushed for on the Lafayette Parish School Board). Last week, Hardy says a lobbyist for the LHSAA tried to convince him to drop the bill. “I told him, ‘get ready to rumble. I’m coming with my bill.’”

Opponents of the change argue that athletics can be a positive influence for low-performing students and that increasing the GPA requirement may also lead to a rise in high school dropouts. Hardy counters the LHSAA is exploiting student-athletes, many of whom come from low-income families, for their own profit. HB 47 is scheduled to be taken up in committee this week.

“[Rickey Hardy] is not beholden to any group or any influence from any of the other factions around the Capitol,” says state Sen. Mike Michot, the dean of Lafayette’s legislative delegation. “Rickey certainly does not seem to be intimidated or hesitant to jump into any issue with both feet. He has worked to tackle some very, very controversial issues. Often times, he’s going up against the status quo or the establishment, and it’s very difficult to be successful when you have that type of opposition.”

Hardy’s missions sometimes seem more kamikaze than commando. His bill last year to move the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal to Lafayette and his attempt this year to override the governor on the federal stimulus funds never made it out of committee. On the flip side, the one bill he’s presented that has become law — making the public display of a noose with the intent to intimidate a crime punishable by one year in prison and/or a $5,000 fine — garnered him national attention (Hardy was written up in both JET and Ebony magazines).

“In this arena in Baton Rouge, you have to be fearless,” Hardy says. Some of Hardy’s legislation this year includes a bill he is bringing on behalf of the late Luna McDaniel, the 83-year-old Ville Platte woman who died last year following a vicious attack from a pack of neighborhood pit bulls. Hardy’s bill would strengthen the law to hold the owners of violent pets accountable for negligent assault or homicide. Hardy also filed a bill to require anyone with two or more convictions for distributing drugs to pay for a bright orange license plate labeled “Controlled Substance Conviction.”

“They want a badge of honor, here it is,” Hardy says.

Local lawyer Lane Roy, a former attorney for the Lafayette Parish School Board whom Hardy still consults with, says that unlike many politicians, with Rickey Hardy, what you see is what you get.

“[Rickey Hardy] is the kind of guy who will make compromises on bills fewer times than most people will,” he says, “and therefore will pass fewer bills. But what he does pass will end up being a purer bill, something that is what he really wanted, what he thinks is necessary. That’s the difference between Rickey and many of the other politicians.”

Despite his setbacks, Hardy remains resolute. He admits he’s still learning some of the ropes in Baton Rouge, often describing the legislative process with a sports metaphor. “It’s kind of like scouting a basketball team,” he says. “You have to figure out your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and then [looking back] you figure out some things you could maybe have done better.”

“Change doesn’t happen in Baton Rouge. Change comes to Baton Rouge,” he adds. “Muhammad Ali didn’t win all his fights. Michael Jordan didn’t win all his basketball games. Rickey Hardy isn’t going to win all the time either. But I’m relentless and I just come back another day. Determination is my drive.”

“When I first got to the Louisiana House,” Hardy continues, “a lot of people said, ‘Rep. Hardy won’t be able to do this, you won’t be able to do that.’ When you tell me I can’t do something that just makes me want to do it even more. I remove the ‘t’ out of can’t and say I can and I will.”

Hardy’s charismatic style suits him well among the colorful characters who populate the Capitol. Stepping out of his GMC truck, he sports alligator and ostrich shoes. His jacket handkerchiefs match his shirt and crest out in a perfectly creased crown. “My wife coordinates my colors,” Hardy says. “Without her, it couldn’t be done.” (Aside from her fashion expertise, Marie Hardy has been by Rickey’s side through his entire political career, and in raising their four children).

Hardy’s also become a more studied speaker. When he first joined the Lafayette Parish School Board 15 years ago, he was prone to shoot from the hip, and occasionally put his foot in his mouth with a tendency for malapropisms or George W. Bush-esque verbal blunders, such as the time he announced at a board meeting: “The last thing we want is for our children to be obesity.”

Perhaps more frequently, Hardy’s shown a flair for turning brilliant and farcical catch phrases. Riffing on some of his former board members’ complaints against the school district’s ex-grants administrator, Hardy was quoted in The Advocate saying, “Their case is like a rum and Coke without the rum. And the Coke is flat. It’s weak, my friend.”

At a candidate forum during his run for state rep, Hardy offered this solution for how to handle a shortfall in funds for new roads: “We need to have a statewide boucherie with all the pigs in the pork barrel. Once the pork barrel is gone, there won’t be any shortfall. Just a lot of cracklins for everyone.” Hardy’s latest catch phrase lets people know they can take his word to the bank: “If I tell you there’s cheese on the moon, bring you some crackers.”

On the school board, Hardy was often a lightening rod for controversy. He railed against some school closures tied to the district’s Schools of Choice initiatives. He advocated privatizing the school system’s transportation department, then called the board’s handling of the issue “chicken shit.” He faced off against fellow African-American board member Ed Sam, telling him, “you want me to be black when you want to be black but you don’t want to be black when I’m black.”

Former Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent James Easton says he was initially taken aback by Hardy. “When I first met Rickey Hardy, I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s a board member?’ Easton recalls. “And what I meant by that was his tendency was to speak before he’d collect his thoughts. But you could never question his sincerity.”

Hardy shares a light moment outside the committee room with, from left, former school superintendents Richard Hartley (Morehouse), James Easton (Lafayette) and Randy Pope (Livingston).

While few question his motives, some of Hardy’s former colleagues still question his judgment. Board member Mike Hefner says he has been disappointed in the way Hardy has advocated reining in the authority of school boards in the state Legislature. Hefner notes that Hardy was notorious for putting in voluminous, time-consuming information requests or calling up school district employees to personally express his opinion — a practice Hefner still sees Hardy engage in. “Here he is advocating a bill against micromanagement by [school] board members, but he’s engaging in that himself. Not only as a board member did he engage in it, but he’s engaging in it as a legislator. And that’s part of the hypocrisy that I sometimes see in Rickey.”

“I like Rickey personally,” Hefner adds. “I think  he’s very well meaning but sometimes he gets wrapped up in some issues and can come across hypocritical.”

Attorney Roy says he also butted heads with Hardy while they worked together on the school board, but that the two always shared a mutual respect. “He started further back in the pack than other people,” says Roy, “and struggled educationally and had to work harder than most people. And I believe that is one of the things that makes him the way he is. He is going to respect the rights of those people who maybe disagree with him. He knows what it means to have to come and persuade others even when your ideas may not be fully accepted. So I think that’s given him good ammunition.”

Hardy’s parents, his dad a laborer and his mom a cook, instilled in their seven kids a proud work ethic. “I was always an individual that liked to have money, liked to work,” Hardy says, “so I decided to utilize my time each day doing something instead of just sitting around twiddling my thumbs. And I was able to meet people by doing that.”

Straight out of high School, Hardy got at a job as a bus boy at “one of the finest restaurants in the state of Louisiana,” the Petroleum Club. “Couldn’t nobody do it better than me,” he says. Hardy worked straight eight-hour shifts at the Petroleum Club, then moonlighted as a waiter at Evangeline Downs.

At the Petroleum Club, Hardy introduced himself to many of the political players that came in, including former state Rep. Wilfred Pierre, former U.S. Sen. John Breaux and longtime Mayor Kenny Bowen. Hardy went on to work on all their campaigns. In particular, he remembers Bowen as a mentor: “He taught me how to work hard and get out there and sell my ideas, build relationships with people.”

Hardy got another lesson in politics when he decided to run for office and found none of the politicians he had helped through the years willing to stand by him in challenging incumbent June Andres. (Despite being implicated in a prostitution sting, Andres still enjoyed popular support and establishment backing). Hardy won by 211 votes. How’d he do it?

“Relentless,” Hardy recalls. “Door to door, door to door. Kiss every baby. Shake every hand. Live it, breathe it and sleep it. Talk it all day long. And claim it all in the name of Jesus, cause without him I’m nothing.”

Hardy has yet to lose an election — a feat many people attribute to the fact that he has remained grounded, putting in the extra hours to walk his district, return phone calls and listen to all of his constituents. In 2007, Hardy shocked many political pundits when he beat out four other candidates — most of whom, if not more experienced, had more impressive degrees and credentials — in winning the District 44 House seat. Hardy also had the least amount of money.

“Rickey Hardy is a political genius,” says Easton, “And he takes his responsibilities as a representative and a board member very seriously. Rickey will take on issues on behalf of people that are controversial, that a lot of representatives wouldn’t take on. He’s a true representative of little people, of the people that elected him, and he calls it like it is.”