Cover Story

Blueprint for Change

by Nathan Stubbs

A band of prominent local businessmen is launching an ambitious statewide initiative ' dubbed Blueprint Louisiana ' in time for a historic election year.

Over the past several months, Lafayette attorney Clay Allen has been helping coordinate interviews with CEOs and presidents from many of Louisiana's top businesses. The purpose: pick their brains about the different ways Louisiana has either helped or hurt their business. In addition, he's seeking input on what the state can do to position itself as a better competitor in the new global economy.

And he wants to ask for their support.

Allen, one of the managing partners of the firm Allen & Gooch, isn't planning a run for governor. However, he's working on drafting a broad policy agenda for Louisiana's future that he hopes Louisiana's next governor will consider for his or her playbook.

Allen's operating on behalf of a new, proactive, nonpartisan political organization named Blueprint Louisiana. In addition to Allen, the other founding directors of Blueprint listed with the Louisiana Secretary of State's office are two of Lafayette's most well-known business leaders: jewelry magnate Matt Stuller, founder and CEO of Stuller Inc., and Bill Fenstermaker, CEO of C.H. Fenstermaker & Associates, one of south Louisiana's premier surveying and engineering firms.

Stuller and Fenstermaker declined comment for this article, citing the fact that the organization is still in its formative stage, and Allen did not return a phone call. While the group's roots lie in Lafayette, Blueprint Louisiana has been actively recruiting members from across the state and soon plans a public launch to announce its campaign. Sources close to the organization, who did not wish to speak publicly for the group, confirm that Blueprint now has a 20-member board of directors ' all of whom are contributing $50,000 to the effort, for a total startup commitment of $1 million. Beyond its board of directors, Blueprint is also recruiting general membership into the organization, which requires a buy-in of $5,000.

While its first mission is to develop its policy platform, Blueprint also plans to form a political action committee that will allow it to pool money and contribute to candidates who align themselves with the organization's platform. Blueprint also could seek to become a "major PAC" ' a distinction requiring it to have at least 250 donors who have all given at least $50. For state legislative races, major PACs are allowed to contribute $5,000 per election as opposed to the standard $2,500 limit.

Boasting some of the state's most influential business leaders at its core, the group is eyeing the 2007 elections ' the first in which term-limits will be enforced in the state House of Representatives and Senate ' as an auspicious time to begin its push for fundamental reforms to state government. Sources say a primary goal of Blueprint Louisiana is for the state to pass one of the strongest ethics codes in the country. Other broad issues the group is exploring for its agenda include health care reform, higher education, economic development and tort reform. Stressing itself as nonpartisan, Blueprint Louisiana intends to be a grassroots organization, with advisory committees in different communities throughout the state that will reach out to take in a wider range of citizen input.

Jim Brandt, who serves as executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana ' a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research group that puts out its own election-year agenda for the state ' says while there are several advocacy groups in the state, Blueprint is unique in its plan to link its agenda with financial backing for state candidates. Brandt was briefed by representatives from Blueprint Louisiana last year who wanted PAR's involvement in developing its agenda.

"It ties the development of a political agenda to endorsement of specific candidates, and that was something that crossed the line for us as a purely research organization," Brandt says. "We decided we could not participate."

There have been other political support groups in the past ' including businessman Jim Bob Moffett's 1987 fiscal reform group and a more recent coalition formed to push for the passage of a statewide building code ' with agendas that were fairly narrow in focus. This is the first time Brandt knows of that a nonpartisan group is attempting to tackle a swath of specific policy points and tie it to political support.

"This is much broader in scope ' it's not single issues," he says. "This I think will attempt to cover the waterfront or at least a larger portion of the waterfront. [Blueprint Louisiana] is unique in the approach that it's taking, at least for this state."

Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel, who has had general conversations about Blueprint Louisiana with some of its founders, is encouraged by the group's unorthodox approach.

"They're trying to do the right thing for Louisiana and not the right thing for a particular party," he says. "Going through the normal [political] channels probably would result in what we already have. If there's going to be some changes, I think it's going to have to be something grassroots, and I think their approach is out of the box.

"At the same time it increases their chances for success," he adds, "it probably is one of the things that's going to be a hurdle for them. But these are people who know how to be successful and have absolutely no motive other than trying to do what's right for the state."

Blueprint Louisiana's membership reads like a who's-who list of business leaders throughout the state. In addition to Allen, Fenstermaker and Stuller, other Lafayette-area members include Bob Giles of Giles Nissan Volvo and Robert Daigle, developer of River Ranch and Sugar Mill Pond. Outside of Lafayette, names involved with the group's steering committee are top executives at major businesses throughout the state. They include Sean Reilly, president and CEO of Lamar Advertising in Baton Rouge, the state's only NASDAQ 100 company; Jacqui Vines, vice president and region manager of Cox Communications; Bill Oliver, president of BellSouth Louisiana, Bill Dore, recently retired founder and CEO of Global Industries Ltd.; CEO Stephen Stumpf of Durr Heavy Construction in Harahan; Mike Madison, president and CEO of CLECO; and Dennis Stine, president of Stine Lumber in Lake Charles. More recently, the group has been focusing on lining up its membership in north Louisiana.

Many of Blueprint's members have long been acquainted through business and social circles. Several are active with professional organizations ranging from various chambers of commerce and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (of which Fenstermaker was recently elected chairman of the board), to the Council of 100 and the Young President's Organization ' an exclusive club of business leaders with longtime members like Stuller, Fenstermaker and Allen.

Several Blueprint members also serve on the boards of directors of other nonprofit groups ranging from charity-based organizations like the United Way to public policy groups like PAR and even the Louisiana Recovery Authority (both Stuller and Reilly are board members). Currently, Fenstermaker and Allen both sit on the board of directors for IberiaBank and Lafayette General Medical Center.

Despite its high-powered membership, many familiar with Blueprint Louisiana say the organization is not an exclusive club, and its primary motivation is good government.

Durel became acquainted with Fenstermaker, Allen and Stuller through the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, and the three men later backed him in his bid for public office. "Those guys have all the power they need to go to bed and sleep good at night," Durel says. "They have no reason to do this other than the betterment of our state."

P.J. Naomi, owner of Paul's Jewelry and a longtime business associate of Stuller, attended one of Blueprint's meetings. "I don't see it as political," he says. "I see it as an activist group that will bring not just local but statewide issues to the forefront and keep it out there in front of the people. The people then will demand their representatives and senators to do the right thing for the state.

"I don't think there's any ulterior or personal motives behind it at all," Naomi continues. "[Stuller]'s very active in what he believes will be beneficial. He doesn't dwell on negativity at all. That has never been his style. He looks at something and always takes a positive light, and I think this is just a vehicle that's very close to him. He wants to see the best for education, the best for roads, the best for Louisiana."

Stuller, who has long taken a backseat role in politics, is now stepping out to the forefront with Blueprint Louisiana. For many involved, having Stuller in a leadership role is one of the group's biggest assets. A self-made entrepreneur, Stuller started his business at the age of 19, when he went on the road selling his line of stone mountings and findings out of a Winnebago. Today, Stuller Inc. is North America's largest jewelry manufacturer and distributor. The company employs 2,000 people in three continents, with offices in Israel and Thailand.

Stuller also helped found Stuller Place, the Lafayette nonprofit agency that aids victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault, and the Stuller Family Foundation, which provides grants to various community nonprofit organizations and projects. Additionally, he is leading fundraising efforts to build Ascension High School in Youngsville's Sugar Mill Pond development.

He has been close with Fenstermaker and Allen dating back to 1997, when the three men co-chaired UL Lafayette's Investing in our Future Centennial Campaign. At the time, the university's endowment was at a paltry $20 million. Challenged to raise it to $75 million, the three co-chairs ' who kicked off the campaign by jointly creating a $1 million endowed chair in mathematics named in honor of UL President Dr. Ray Authement ' brought the university endowment up to just under $100 million. Authement gave each man an honorary doctorate degree from the university for his efforts.

Allen, who has a dual MBA/law degree from Tulane University and a black belt in martial arts, is known for following trends in business and technology and turning around smart investments. The Secretary of State's office currently lists him as a director in half a dozen different companies, including an investment firm, the Lafayette Web development company Bizzuka and an Alexandria car dealership.

New Iberia native Fenstermaker has been at the forefront of the political scene for several years. In 2003, he considered making his own run for governor. He was one of the key people who convinced Durel to run for city-parish president and ultimately served as the finance chairman for Durel's campaign, helping bring in Stuller and Allen as key supporters.

"As an elected official I am so fortunate," Durel says, "that the people who I had supporting me have never asked me for anything. They've never put me in a position to where I've had to feel, you know, obligated." That's a big part of why he's optimistic about their latest venture.

"How many years have we all heard, 'Louisiana, we're No. 1 in the bad things and we're No. 50 in the good things?'" asks Durel. "Thank goodness you've got people who are willing to stick their necks out there and their time and their money."

Blueprint Louisiana isn't the only organization eyeing the 2007 elections as a historic opportunity to begin fostering badly-needed state reforms.

John Diez Jr., executive director of the Committee for a Republican Majority and son of former state Rep. John "Juba" Diez, is particularly enthusiastic about the upcoming elections. Formed in February 2006, Committee for a Republican Majority is on a mission to have its party take control of the state Legislature as well as the Governor's mansion and other statewide offices.

Due to state legislative term limits that take effect for the first time this year, 48 percent of state house representatives are prevented from running for re-election in 2007 ' 70 percent of whom are Democrats. Based on preliminary polling, Diez says the Republican Party is planning to target anywhere from 27 to 31 house seats for takeover this year (a net gain of 13 seats would give them a majority). In the state Senate, 15 of 39 incumbents are prevented from seeking re-election. Add the slow hurricane recovery to the mix, and Diez says state government is ripe for a major shake-up.

"Before Hurricane Katrina," he says, "I think everybody pretty much had a good idea that government in Louisiana didn't work. And I think what Katrina did was just prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that government in Louisiana does not work ' and you had visual images of it not working. So I believe that's going to be a huge stimulus for change, and I believe Republicans at the end of the day will benefit from that."

Its 18 board members, which include New Orleans developer Joe Canizaro, shipbuilding tycoon Boysie Bollinger and Phyllis Taylor of Taylor Energy, have each committed $100,000 for the group's political action committee. The committee's goal is to raise $2.5 million by the September qualifying period for this year's state elections.

Diez says the committee reached out early on to several people who are now core members of Blueprint Louisiana ' which at this point is primarily made up of Republicans ' hoping to get them on board with their committee.

"Obviously," Diez says, "we would love to have a lot of these guys on our board just from a fund-raising standpoint, but they are very committed to being nonpartisan and have refused any request to be a part [of our committee] and we totally understand and respect that."

Diez also says that Blueprint Louisiana has already interviewed a few of his board members, including Bollinger, as part of the research for its policy platform. He says Blueprint has been seeking out CEOs of major companies to get their views on how the state could run more efficiently, and better attract and retain businesses.

"I think their whole approach is to go out there and interview people outside of government, to get a better idea of how businesses run businesses," Diez says. "And then take some of these ideas and mindsets and philosophies and actually transfer them into government policy and try to make our bureaucracy run more like a business and be more customer-driven, as opposed to just driven by history or years and years of bureaucracy."

The Council for A Better Louisiana also met with Blueprint to mutually exchange information.

"From what I understand, they're some folks who are just very interested in trying to put forward an agenda for the state during the elections," says Barry Erwin, director of CABL. "Part of the reason we've had some discussions with them is because we're planning to do the same thing. We wanted to know a little bit about what other folks are up to so that we don't have a lot of competing agendas and things out there for the state."

Erwin says CABL is already at work on a broad election-year agenda it hopes to release by May. CABL, like PAR, strictly focuses on policy issues, and does not endorse or help fund individual candidates. But Erwin says CABL is eager to meet with groups such as Louisiana Blueprint or Committee to Elect a Republican Majority, in hopes those organizations may adopt some of CABL's policy suggestions. "We would like to meet with any group that's going to be working out there on election things, and certainly [Blueprint] is one of them," Erwin says.

Blueprint hopes to have its list of reform issues finalized in the coming months. Diez, for one, is anxious to see its policy papers. "We would definitely like to take those that we agree with and run with them," he says. "I would have to think at the end of the day the issues they come forth with are going to be more likely to be leaning toward Republican issues than Democratic issues just because of the nature of reform. I would just think that since the Republicans are on the outside trying to get to the inside that they'd be more willing to take on a lot of these reform-oriented type policies."

With so many reform issues on the table, the debates promise to be heated.

"I think it's exciting times for change and systematic reform across the board in Louisiana," says Diez. "I think everybody is sick and tired."