Famous Last Words

by Jeremy Alford

Term-limited and retiring lawmakers in the House have been lining up for predictably amusing - and occasionally revealing - farewell speeches.

If the House of Representatives has a John F. Kennedy archetype in its midst ' that is, a cooler-than-the-underside-of-the-pillow politico with boyish charm and a weak spot for the ladies ' it's undoubtedly Democratic Rep. Troy Hebert. During his farewell speech to colleagues last week, prompted only by term limits, the self-professed "defender of the little man" embraced the playboy image, recalling how fellow Rep. Nita Hutter, a tall, platinum-coiffed GOP card-carrier from Chalmette, used to take rides with him in his 1962 Cadillac convertible.

Members of the House playfully heckled and hissed at Hutter, but Hebert, a native of Jeanerette, quickly calmed them down. "Don't y'all be hard on her," he said. "She's not the only blonde that rode in that Cadillac, I promise ya'."

Sitting alongside the House floor was Hebert's girlfriend, smiling and shaking her head. "Just hold on, baby," he told her. "I'm going to confession."

And he did. Hebert, who was an impressionable 30 when thrown into the House in 1996, talked briefly about his first and only divorce (and how much it cost), touched on the number of doctors he has dated over the years. "It's been said I like women. That is a lie," he said. "I love women. It's also been said I like blondes. That's a lie. I like brunettes and redheads, too."

The hysterical and heartfelt comments have been commonplace for a few weeks in the House, where 45 term-limited lawmakers and a handful of retirees have been given five minutes each to sign off. Across the hall in the Senate, 15 members are term-limited and planning similar remarks. Most of the farewell speeches in the lower chamber so far, however, have amounted to mini-biographies on the orators themselves.

But they have also yielded real political lessons, reflections on a bygone era and glimpses into the future of the Louisiana Legislature.

Rep. Robby Carter, a squat, country Democrat from Independence, likened his final days to the "end of summer camp" and promised his colleagues that they would "stay friends forever." He thanked a few lawmakers for their advice over the years, particularly Rep. Warren Triche, a Lafourche Parish Democrat known for his own outrageous antics. Triche taught Carter that practically any bill can be passed if positioned correctly.

For instance, if a legislator tags a bill as local, other lawmakers from outside that region will traditionally back off. "If you got a bad bill that needs to pass, somehow couch it as local and it'll get 'em every time," Carter said laughing.

A tearful Rep. Danny Martiny, a Republican from Metairie, revealed he originally ran for office to keep other candidates out of the race as a favor to someone else. Then legendary Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee unexpectedly threw his support behind Martiny. An accidental legislator, Martiny eventually learned to keep his rookie mouth shut and observe. "As much as you want to say this body is driven by issues, it isn't," Martiny said. "It's driven by people. If you figure out what makes people tick, you can get a lot done."

One hard lesson Martiny learned came at the hands of Westwego Rep. John Alario, another term-limited Democrat with a capitol hallway already named after him. Martiny recalled how he was once playing golf with Alario, and at the same time, back in a committee hearing, one of his bills was being amended beyond recognition and replaced with language from a measure Alario was pushing.

When he cornered Alario sometime later to ask what had happened, the seasoned pro replied, "The first rule of a hijacking is that you don't tell the pilot."

While Martiny also celebrated the many party opportunities afforded through serving in the Legislature, it took Rep. Romo Romero, a New Iberia Democrat, to bring church to the House. Romero isn't exactly known for his religious bent, but that might be about to change. He's known for frequent smoke breaks during committee meetings (which he often returns to still cleaning his pipe), for erupting into French during heated debates and the long stick he used for years to reach over his desk on the House floor and vote other lawmakers' machines.

But in his final and memorable farewell, Romero urged members to put faith first in their future decisions and then, in an odd tangent, referred to himself as the devil.

"We all have a tendency that we believe we are here because the people elected us and put us here. But that's not so. We're here because God chose to put us up here. And you see, Satan does not sleep. When we get here in the morning to take care of the business of the state, Satan has been in here waiting all night. In fact, I think he sits in seat 25," Romero says, motioning wildly at his own seat before moving on without explanation.

Rep. A.G. Crowe, a Slidell Republican, gave a shout out to the unofficial "Bird Caucus," which replied loudly with unidentifiable fowl cries. The all-GOP caucus, which does nothing more than caw when a fellow member is at the microphone, consists of Reps. Crowe, Gordon Dove of Houma and Carl Crane of Baton Rouge.

Of more substance, though, Crowe used his farewell speech to reflect on a near-death experience from earlier this month when a two-by-four fell off a truck and nearly flew through his car window. Visibly shaken, Crowe recommended lawmakers treasure every day. "Had the board been two seconds earlier, I would not be here," he told the House.

Meanwhile, Rep. Monica Walker, a Marksville Democrat, utilized the time to recount her humble beginnings on the Lafayette High School student council, back when Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc was president and she was a sophomore representative. Aside from her House elections, it was the only other time she ever ran for office.

In a move reminiscent of the responses given during a Miss America Pageant, Walker concluded her address by reading the lyrics from Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance."

"When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance," she gushed at lawmakers, clearly overrun with emotions.

"It's now my turn to dance," Walker added, before exiting the podium in sobs.

Dramatic flair aside, nearly every speaker in the House mentioned the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats. Rep. Mickey Frith, an Abbeville Democrat who also serves as chairman of the Acadiana Delegation, echoed the remarks of other term-limited lawmakers that party politics are taking over the process and overshadowing the needs of citizens.

Frith attempted to tell lawmakers that mirroring Washington, D.C.'s policy gridlocks and partisan fever would do nothing to move Louisiana forward. Unfortunately, he said, that's the direction the Legislature is heading after term limits take effect. "The only thing that you'll feel good about at the end of the day is taking off your shoes," Frith said.