Democrat Walt Leger III did not lose the election for House Speaker last week. Gov. John Bel Edwards did.
The new governor dug in his heels when the Republican Caucus sent word that it wanted one of its own in the House speaker's chair. Yes, it was a gauntlet thrown at Edwards' feet, but it was also a trap — one into which he quickly walked.
Don't get me wrong. I think Leger would have been a great speaker, but trying to force any Democrat on a Republican-controlled House was, for a governor who loves military references, a bridge too far. Had Edwards succeeded, Leger would have had to walk a perpetual tightrope. A motion to elect a new speaker is always in order — and probably would have been inevitable given the tough decisions Edwards will ask leges to make.
The smarter move for Edwards would have been to disarm House Republicans by backing one of their own who would work with him (How could they complain when the governor was backing a Republican for speaker?) and letting Leger chair the House Appropriations Committee. Sure, Edwards would have had to compromise at times, but at least he would have had a speaker who owes his election to the governor instead of one who owes him nothing.
Newly elected Speaker Taylor Barras, a banker from New Iberia, is hailed on both sides of the aisle as a congenial lawmaker who carries no grudges. An early potential candidate for the post, he re-emerged late in the game as an alternative to state Rep. Cameron Henry, who was the rumored choice of failed GOP gubernatorial candidate David Vitter. Henry isn't scandalized like Vitter, but he does emulate the senator's highly partisan style. That made him unacceptable to enough of his fellow Republicans that an alternative had to be found — or else Leger would have won.
Henry waged a scorched-earth campaign against Leger (with help from U.S. Rep Steve Scalise and many GOP operatives) but ultimately came up short. Barras was the perfect alternative. It will be interesting to see how he and Edwards get along.
There's more at stake than political chatter. Now that the Republicans own the speaker's chair, they also own what happens next. If they dig in against Edwards on every front, they also will own the ensuing gridlock — and give Edwards an opening to blame them for continuing the policies of Bobby Jindal.
In the absence of a close working relationship with House Republicans, Edwards is likely to put forth his promised "menu" of options for fiscal reform — and tell the House to pick the ones they like ... or come up with something better.
If — and this is a big if — Barras and Edwards find common ground and cobble together enough votes to pass real fiscal reform, losing the speaker's race might turn out to be a godsend for Edwards. Having to scale back his agenda to work with a Republican Legislature won't make Edwards a better Democrat, but it just might make him a better governor.