Cover Story

Stepping into Focus

by Nathan Stubbs

Written by Nathan Stubbs
Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Poised to become the first-ever Speaker Pro Tempore with no party affiliation, Rep. Joel Robideaux is carving out a reputation as a go-to pragmatist in Baton Rouge

In typical fashion, last year's state budget didn't get approved before some 11th-hour drama in the Legislature. The final weeks of the session staged a showdown between the state Senate, the state House and the....

Written by Nathan Stubbs
Wednesday, 17 March 2010

In typical fashion, last year's state budget didn't get approved before some 11th-hour drama in the Legislature. The final weeks of the session staged a showdown between the state Senate, the state House and the governor's office on funding for higher education. The Senate had just overwhelmingly passed a budget proposal that delayed repeal of the Stelly tax in an attempt to restore much of the more than $200 million in cuts that had been levied on higher ed in the governor's proposed budget. The Senate proposal was gaining steam with the endorsements of several newspaper editorial boards, college administrators and even a unified appearance of four former governors. Jindal's office, having promised to deliver on Stelly repeal, was sweating, not wanting to get into a veto battle with the Legislature.

In the midst of the firestorm of debate came assurance from a quiet, unassuming legislator from Lafayette, who had quickly calculated that the Senate's budget proposal was going nowhere in the House. The numbers didn't add up. Rep. Joel Robideaux predicted a majority coalition of minted anti-tax conservatives and several freshmen representatives that had run on repealing Stelly would form to block the effort. A week later, it was apparent. Fifty-five of 105 House members had signed a letter stating their opposition to the proposal and followed through by voting down a bill sent back to them with the budget amendments.

Scott Angelle, the governor's legislative liaison, phoned Robideaux. "You called it," he said.

Robideaux, an independent now entering his sixth year in the Legislature, has made an unorthodox rise through the ranks of the often politically charged House of Representatives. This year, he's poised to become the first ever independent to be elected speaker pro tempore (more frequently referred to as speaker pro tem), the No. 2 position in the House and a post that would give him an inside track to being elected the next speaker of the House. The speaker pro tem's official job is to preside over House debates when the speaker is absent. However, the real benefit is being included in leadership meetings with the speaker of the House (and often the House appropriations chairman) to determine strategies and hammer out compromises with the Senate leadership and representatives of the governor's office. "If you're speaker pro tem, you're included in those leadership meetings," Robideaux says. "Whereas if you're one of the 105 [House representatives], you're waiting for leadership to tell you what went on in those meetings."

He continues, "It would be something that I think would be good for the area. For Lafayette to have somebody in those leadership meetings can't hurt. With redistricting coming up, with the budgets and [the issue of] how we're going to revamp higher ed, I think it would be great for Acadiana to have a representative in the meetings."

In Baton Rouge, Robideaux's sharp intuition, independent status and blithe demeanor have made him an easy ally among his Baton Rouge colleagues. "Joel to me is the perfect choice for a leadership role," says Lafayette state Sen. Mike Michot, a longtime friend of Robideaux's. "He can kind of see the lay of the land in the [legislative] process much earlier than many of us. He has a keen sense of where people are coming from and what their agendas might be. He also listens well and is very even and deliberate."

"He's not a guy to go caucus with 15 people to go get their opinion on something," adds state Rep. Fred Mills of Parks. "He really is truly independent. He goes to the beat of his own drum, and it's usually right."

"He's very, very calm," Mills continues. "He doesn't get real emotional about any issue. He seems at times that he's maybe not as engaged in the process, but he's always fully engaged in what's going on. I wouldn't want to play poker with him. It's hard to tell what his hand is."

In the contest for speaker pro tem, Robideaux has been coolly slow-playing his hand while the two other men seeking the position, Rep. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, and Rep. Noble Ellington, D-Winnsboro, are beginning to both talk big and encounter road blocks. The three are vying to replace former Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson, who was recently elected to the state Senate. Each of the candidates has been working behind the scenes to secure support among fellow legislators before the convening of the 2010 session on March 29. Generally, the issue never comes to a vote, sparing legislators from having to vote against a fellow member, but this year could be different.

Already, the contest has shaped up in peculiar ways, with none of the candidates hailing from the state political power bases of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. (Only two of the last 10 people to hold the pro tem position were not from one of the two cities.) Much to Gallot's protest, Speaker of the House Jim Tucker has expressed doubts that the Ruston rep, who already chairs the House and Governmental Affairs Committee that will head up reapportionment following the 2010 census, will be able to manage both jobs. Gov. Bobby Jindal's office has also expressed a preference for either Robideaux or Ellington.

Tucker, who did not return calls for comment for this article, is said to prefer Robideaux for the position. Ellington recently told the Monroe News Star as much, then slyly added, "I haven't seen speakers lose many times, but I think in this particular case there's a chance."

The chest beating hasn't fazed Robideaux. "I have a list," he says. "I can add them up, and it's more than the number that I need to get elected. Discounting that for some [legislators] that may be kind of hedging, I still think I've got the numbers. I feel pretty good about my chances. I certainly wouldn't trade places with the other two guys." Even so, the former all-state track star knows better than to assume victory before crossing the finish line. "I haven't been in the political arena that long," Robideaux adds, "but I'm not naïve enough to think that it's done before it's really done."

Robideaux grew up in an apolitical family. His father, Wayne, was president of the Bank of Lafayette, and his mother, Amy, is a teacher who now works as principal of St. Mary Early Learning Center. The Robideauxs, devout Catholics, focused themselves on local community and church issues, and their kids were not raised with any fervent opinions on the policies of presidents Ford and Carter. When Robideaux went to register to vote in the mid-80s, while he was attending LSU and living in Port Allen, the registrar asked him whether he'd like to sign up as a Democrat or Republican. "Neither," he said. Surprised, the clerk responded that she didn't think you could do that. "I think I can," Joel said, and sure enough, after the clerk checked, he was registered as "No Party."

"I just didn't want to be labeled as one or the other," Robideaux says, "because I probably didn't particularly care for some aspects of both of them. And they've done nothing to change my mind so far."

In 2004, Robideaux surprised even his closest friends when he announced his intention to run for office in a special election to replace outgoing District 45 state Rep. Jerry Luke LeBlanc (who left the House to become then Gov. Kathleen Blanco's commissioner of administration). "When he first told me, I thought he was joking," says Michot. "He was my campaign treasurer, and he came to some [political] events, but he just always seemed very apolitical. He's the last person I expected to get into politics."

Not everyone saw Robideaux as an unlikely fit for Baton Rouge. Breaux Bridge Mayor Jack Dale Delhomme, who coached Robideaux on two state high school champion track teams at Fatima, was one of his former star athlete's earliest supporters. "Joel is a perfect elected official," says Delhomme. "He has a mild temperament. He doesn't get over-excited. He's always in control. That's what I liked about him. If you're going to be a quarter miler, you have to be in control because you have to know pace, and you have to know when to pick up speed, and Joel always had that. He was very focused and in control of his emotions. And as an elected official, that's very important. Take it from me, I'm an elected official: You can get a little aggravated at times, but Joel has that ability to keep control, and he's a great communicator."

In his campaign, Robideaux touted himself as a fiscal conservative intent on repealing the Stelly tax and as a small businessman and accountant - something he stressed they could use more of in Baton Rouge. He won handily, with 55 percent of the vote in a runoff over Republican attorney Stephen "Buzz" Durio.

Robideaux's political career has had its setbacks. He suffered an early one in trying to push a bill, along with Michot, to allow local governments to keep all vehicle sales taxes collected in a parish to use for local road projects. Rural lawmakers, who clearly saw how the plan would divert road funds from their own districts, promptly shot down the effort. Robideaux says it is now clear to him that Lafayette is not going to be getting an easy fix for its traffic issues from Baton Rouge, though he is anxious to see what effect new projects, including the Ambassador Caffery extension and Highway 90 and Verot School Road expansions, will have. "But at some point," he says, "either some of the existing tax dollars that are collected [in the parish] are going to have to be used on the road situation or there's going to have to be some new tax. I mean, it's one or the other."

Robideaux and Rep. Page Cortez confer on a bill.

Despite being a laissez faire independent, Robideaux has also shown he's not afraid to step into the fray. He took sides in three hotly contested state races, backing his longtime friends Page Cortez and Nancy Landry, as well as supporting Elbert Guillory in his win over Patricia Cravins for state Senate. His philosophy on endorsements is simple: "I'm going to be loyal to my friends," he says.

Landry and Cortez were among a group of local legislators who first approached Robideaux with the idea that he should consider running for the speaker pro tem position. He soon had a core group of Acadiana legislators behind him, including Republicans Landry, Cortez and Jonathan Perry, as well as Democrats Rickey Hardy, Simone Champagne, Fred Mills and Bobby Badon. Robideaux then reached out to other friends in the Legislature and found welcome support from lawmakers in the Lake Charles and Shreveport areas. From there, he decided to officially announce his candidacy and begin calling lawmakers one by one.

Because term limits brought in a slew of new legislators in 2007, and Robideaux joined the House after a special election three years earlier, he is the senior member of the Lafayette delegation and a natural leader for Acadiana area representatives. This was never more evident than in 2008 when he rallied a contingent of Acadiana House members against a proposed pay raise for legislators (an increase supported by many legislative colleagues, including Michot). The group staked out its opposition early in the debate and even went so far as to pledge that if the pay raise passed, its members would donate their pay increases to local charities.

"[Robideaux] came out and said, You know, we all ran knowing what our pay was, and it's not fair to do that right after you get elected,'" Mills recalls. "He gave guidance to a lot of the freshman class, and a lot of our delegation that Hey, this is not an issue that you want to get bloody on.' He's done that several times."

While Robideaux has often been a behind-the-scenes player at the Legislature, that may be changing. He currently chairs the House Retirement Committee, which this year will begin contentious discussions over how to possibly revamp the state retirement system amid dwindling revenue and ballooning benefit obligations.

Robideaux has also been seen as an heir apparent to Michot's state Senate seat (Michot will be prevented by term limits from seeking re-election next year). However, if Robideaux is successful in being elected speaker pro tem, he will be a clear frontrunner to become the next speaker of the House if he stays in his seat. Unlike the current speaker, and the other contenders this year for speaker pro tem, Robideaux will not be term limited out of his House seat in 2012. His term limit won't take effect until 2016.

For now, Robideaux says he's only focusing on the immediate future. "After the next two budget years, neither one of those things may seem to be anything to look forward to," he jokes, referring to the impending deficits forecasted for the state through 2012. "But I haven't done a whole lot of soul searching on what the next step would be."