In May 2008, Louisiana's new Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal stood in front of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where America's biggest newsmaker of the week is customarily invited to pitch his cause — or himself. On this occasion, Jindal made sure that Louisiana's House speaker, a fellow Republican, and Senate president, a Democrat, were seated nearby. Longtime political observers say Jindal used Rep. Jim Tucker and Sen. Joel Chaisson as props to show the national press he could bridge the political chasm between parties in his own state.
In an interview last week, Chaisson laughed off that interpretation and offered his own version of history — and a glimpse into what life is like atop the legislative ladder these days. "That was more about promoting Louisiana than it was about any personal agenda," he says, recalling Jindal's brief but illustrious flirtation with the GOP's veep spot. "The politics then were different than they are now. Whether I would go now if invited is something else. Probably not."
That statement speaks volumes about how much things have changed since then.
Tucker says he didn't feel like a pawn either at the 2008 press club event and would likely attend another national media opportunity with Jindal if invited. "Those issues, the strides in ethics that we made and talked about, are worth promoting on any level," Tucker says.
Still, recent history suggests that Tucker and Chaisson, who won their leadership positions with at least the blessing of the newly elected governor, have gone AWOL from Camp Jindal. Relations between Jindal and lawmakers, including the leadership, started to unravel within two months of the D.C. presentation, when Jindal vetoed lawmakers' controversial pay raise — after initially promising that he would not do so, particularly if they passed his school voucher bill. Jindal reneged in the face of public pressure and left lawmakers twisting in the wind — and scorched by ridicule from reporters, bloggers and citizens. Jindal scored points, belatedly, with voters, but that veto changed the game.
"I expended a great deal of political capital on that because I thought it was the right thing to do for the future of this body, not because I needed the money," Tucker recalls. "And it may very well keep me from doing something else in politics in the future, but I stood my ground." (Base legislative pay is $16,800 for what has become a near-full-time job.)
With the right kind of eyes, as the late Hunter S. Thompson once noted, you could just about see the high-water mark at that point — the exact place and time where the wave broke and then rolled back. In response, some predicted a full-scale legislative revolt this year during the recently completed legislative session. That didn't happen, but the pay raise veto was a constant undertow, and it foreshadowed the independent streaks that Chaisson and Tucker have shown this year.
Ironically, while Tucker and Chaisson distanced themselves from Jindal this year and challenged him on several fronts, they chose very different issues on which to stake their independence. Sometimes, they worked at cross-purposes, such as their open feud over the state budget. Chaisson made that his gauntlet, but it was Tucker, not Jindal, who picked it up and championed the governor's cause. Conversely, Tucker broke ranks with the administration on Jindal's controversial (and, many say, Orwellian) "transparency" bill, offering an amendment that the governor's allies only narrowly defeated. The same bill sailed through the Senate, with Chaisson voting against every amendment opposed by Jindal.
In another ironic twist, Jindal line-item vetoed $500,000 worth of economic development funds in Tucker's district, even though the speaker toed the administration line on the budget. Many suspect the veto was retribution for Tucker's attempt to amend Jindal's transparency measure.
In the end, the only thing consistent about their defiance is that they've both been trying it. Despite their different approaches, and their differences, these two guys pose real challenges to Jindal going forward.
Chaisson, for his part, showed an early independent bent by not waiting for the governor's traditional endorsement for Senate president. He locked up 15 of the 20 votes he needed on his own, then paired them with another six corralled by Lafayette Sen. Mike Michot, a Republican who got the Senate Finance Committee gavel in return. Together, they took over the Senate before Jindal's feet were wet.
Perhaps not wanting to look politically impotent, Jindal generated a great deal of media attention by calling a press conference to recognize Chaisson's frontrunner status before the Senate election — even though Jindal had promised voters he would stay clear of the leadership selection process. Jindal's move was just a lot of noise, Chaisson says today, as the deal was done by the time Jindal got involved. "That's accurate," he adds, again chuckling, "but with just one caveat: the governor probably would have chosen someone else if he had the chance."
Despite his tough rhetoric these days — and his opposing party affiliation — Chaisson in many ways is more aligned with the Jindal administration than is Republican Tucker. The speaker pushed himself to the brink in opposing Jindal's "transparency" bill. He lost that round, but good government groups agreed that the bill (now Act 495 of the 2009 session) gave citizens precious little "sunshine." Noting that Chaisson stood with the administration on that one, Michot says, "I think we've seen more independence from Speaker Tucker during these past two years than we have from the president."
Tucker, who likewise orchestrated his leadership election sans Jindal, says some of his flights of independent fancy are the result of the process of herding cats — shepherding 105 House members as opposed to only 39 senators. He says his biggest challenge is trying to serve them all, which involves making decisions that may not be in synch with his fellow Republicans (Tucker previously chaired the GOP caucus) or the administration. "I try to govern from the middle, but that's easier said than done," he admits. "When you have that many people, there are going to be differences, but I'm going to continue striving for that balance."
Particularly in his native New Orleans, Tucker has championed causes Jindal wouldn't touch, from hospital services to expanding the local port's authority and capacity. "What stands out about Jim Tucker is that he's driven by issues and is pushing policy that the administration doesn't want to deal with," says one longtime lobbyist. "He's not scared to get bloodied and beat up. He's really a brawler. In the House, there are hard rights and hard lefts, and it's pretty amazing that he survived this session with many relationships intact."
Tucker, a self-professed policy wonk, says he's just as surprised. "I had a rough session with a few vocal Republicans," he says. "It was a constant struggle, but we found ways to compromise."
If you ask the guys who preceded Tucker and Chaisson about their recent stands against Jindal, you'll be inundated with war stories of previous governors and treated to a brief history lesson about legislative independence, a term that's been more fantasy than fact in recent administrations. "I didn't have Bobby Jindal, I had a governor who was involved in every single aspect of the process," says one former legislative leader. "So when we decided to take a stance that was in direct conflict with administration, it mattered."
Randy Ewing, a Democrat from Quitman who served as Senate president from 1996 to 2000 under former Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican, says what Chaisson and Tucker do with their independence matters more than the fact that they're acting independently. He also believes Jindal's hands-off approach to legislative matters has done more to boost Tucker and Chaisson's political profiles than anything else.
Ewing, who studied history under the late UNO historian Stephen Ambrose, says the media might be blowing the current situation out of proportion. "We had enormous independence in my time in the Senate as well," he says. "There's always going to be differences of opinion, and that's all you're seeing. There have been streaks of independence in the past. [Former House Speaker] Bubba Henry wasn't the choice of [then-Gov. Edwin] Edwards for House speaker, and I wasn't Foster's choice, either. As for the way things are right now, I don't know if the governor is less connected or is giving them more independence. It's hard to tell from this perspective."
After a little more thought, Ewing says one aspect stands out: "The difference as it appears to me is there's not the same communications between the branches that we enjoyed when we were there. There was a time when we sat down and chartered our big picture goals, something the leadership seems to be doing on their own today. Our plans wouldn't always go smooth, but we never saw the governor just throw the ball up in the air, causing everyone to scramble to find players for first and third."
Former House Speaker Hunt Downer, a Houma Republican, knows the ups and downs of legislative leadership well. Foster removed him as speaker after one term, or four years, of rocking the boat. Downer made sure most meetings were recorded and archived; he moved the legislative process into a digital arena, making lawmakers less reliant upon the administration — or the speaker — for guidance on policy; and basically set his own agendas. Downer even had separate teams of floor leaders for the House's legislative priorities and for Foster's package. "I was treading in some tough waters, and I guess you can say I took the fall," recalls Downer. "But I was continuing a trend of independence seen from Bubba Henry and through [state Sen.] John Alario and [the late] John Hainkel and others. I think Speaker Tucker and President Chaisson are just building off a natural evolution of those leadership roles."
Chaisson's independence peaked during the recent legislation session when senators bucked Jindal on his proposed budget cuts by pushing a bill that would postpone scheduled state income tax breaks. They voted to freeze the amount of federal excess itemized deductions individual filers can deduct, keeping them at their present levels until 2012 instead of allowing them to increase until they reach 100 percent. Senate Bill 335 by Sen. Lydia Jackson, a Shreveport Democrat, would have provided higher education, among other budget items, with about $381 million over the next three years, with $118 million becoming available almost immediately.
Opponents, including Jindal, labeled Jackson's bill a tax increase — but it had the support of Chaisson, Michot and others who viewed it as a more palatable alternative to the huge cuts the administration was pushing. The policy debate also revealed that Chaisson, who generally is laid back, can be tenacious when defending his fellow senators. When House members tried to torpedo Jackson's bill by co-signing a letter promising it would never make it out of the House, Chaisson became infuriated, and his colleagues answered in kind.
The Senate passed the bill anyway by a vote of 29-9, and the Senate stalled dozens of House bills in retaliation. The House letter stirred resentment between the chambers and underscored the overall inexperience of the House, which is packed with freshmen. The audacity of threatening to kill a bill before it was even heard in its original chamber didn't sit well with the Senate. "I would never dream of getting 20 senators together in this body to oppose a representative's bill before it's even come up for a vote," Chaisson says.
As the House and Senate took umbrage at each other's actions, the Senate continued to push the Jackson bill. Senators linked hundreds of millions of dollars in spending in House Bill 1 (the state budget) to passage of the tax-cut freeze. In response, Tucker moved to call the Senate's bluff. Rather than sending the budget to a conference committee, where members from each chamber traditionally hammer out compromise, Tucker encouraged the House to concur with the changes made by the Senate and send the budget directly to Jindal — who promptly exercised his line-item veto power to make the cuts he wanted.
The Senate traditionally gets the last word on the budget, which by law must originate in the House, but Tucker says he and House Appropriations Chair Jim Fannin, a Jonesboro Democrat, decided to turn the tables. "It's always been that the Senate hands us the budget, but we're not doing that this term," Tucker says. "We're taking a more conservative approach now."
Although Jackson's proposed tax-cut delay died in the House, Chaisson says it fostered budget talks with Jindal's office. For example, the Senate originally wanted to pull money out of the emergency rainy-day fund to cover some proposed cuts, but Jindal and most of the House initially rejected that idea. The threat of a fight with a united Senate, however, put the rainy-day fund back on the table near the end of the session. Lawmakers yanked $86 million — the amount Chaisson wanted — from the fund to plug part of the shortfall. "Without the [tax delay] push that we made, I don't believe we would have achieved that restoration," Chaisson says.
It brought Jindal to the table. "He didn't enter the negotiations on the rainy-day fund until the end of the session, about a week out," Chaisson adds. "Until the Senate took the position that it did, the governor was not acting as a conduit between the House and/or Senate, or as a go-between. When he did get involved, I think it was very instrumental."
Asked if Jindal's involvement could have changed the outcome had he gotten involved sooner, Tucker says, "I would think so." He adds that Jindal's inaction in the session, however, has allowed the speaker and Chaisson to develop as independent leaders. Chaisson, on the other hand, says they've worked their own fortunes. "I wouldn't cut either of us short like that," he says.
A complex political formula keeps Tucker and Chaisson on their respective precipices — and potentially threatens both. Democrats hold a majority in each chamber, but the balance is almost even in the House. Senate Democrats want Chaisson to lead the anti-Jindal charge, whereas House Republicans are pushing Tucker to move right from center. Those countervailing forces may again pit the two men against each other.
Both admit that the House and Senate were at loggerheads during the recent session, but they also note that a compromise was eventually reached. Tucker calls Chaisson a "personal friend" and says a lasting impasse is not likely to occur. Chaisson agrees. "I just don't look at it as me versus Tucker," Chaisson says. "I do think the Senate is more progressive, but there is always an open line of communications."
Nonetheless, some argue there's a lot of room for improvement. Sen. Ed Murray, a New Orleans Democrat, says he hopes the administration better communicates its plans for anticipated shortfalls in the coming years and that the two chambers react quickly to pick up the ball from there. "I hope going forward," Murray says, "that the administration and the House and all of us can work more closely together in advance of the session to have a plan in place everyone can work with."
For their parts, Tucker and Chaisson are playing major roles in that future planning. On the House side, Tucker has created a commission that's looking at cuts in higher education without gutting the system. He filed the legislation after critics attacked Jindal for not offering solutions (the panel is now referred to as the Tucker Commission). On the Senate side, Chaisson's staff has become the backbone for Jindal's Commission on Streamlining Government, which is charged with charting a course for Louisiana as it faces back-to-back billion-dollar shortfalls.
If there were ever a time for two mavericks to offer a new vision for the state, it's now. In that vein, there is hope that Tucker and Chaisson and Tucker will have cause to continue their independent ways, whatever the consequences. Time is short; both men are term-limited and must leave their respective seats in 2012.
"I think there's an urgency in what we're trying to do because of that," says Tucker. "I don't have 25 years to build a career in the House. I only have two years left, like Joel, and I feel like we're up at bat. And let me tell you, while I'm at bat, I'm going to swing."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com..