In most of Louisiana's major cities and in all of its rural areas, moving from a local council seat to a seat in the state Legislature is a big political promotion. After all, you can't rub shoulders with lobbyists, newspaper editors, the occasional celebrity, statewide elected officials (especially the governor), visiting dignitaries and special interest groups while reviewing zoning ordinances back home in Shongaloo or Bayou Blue. Nor can you latch on to significant, far-reaching policy issues or directly participate in the most important statewide political debates of the day.
For Louisiana politicians, the Capitol is the mecca of power players. It's where success is measured in committee chairmanships and budget earmarks, and where legacies are sometimes literally etched in stone. Except, of course, for politicians from New Orleans, a place that branded its own style of politics long before Huey Long built a monument to himself in Baton Rouge.
In New Orleans, lawmakers with higher ambitions have historically set their sights on City Hall, and many have gladly exchanged their legislative lapel pins for a City Council parking spot.
Right now at least three Democratic lawmakers from New Orleans are contemplating just such a move. Rep. Austin Badon has announced that he is running for the council in District E, where voters will choose a successor to disgraced former Councilman Jon Johnson, who pleaded guilty in federal court to misusing FEMA money.
Badon lost a nasty race to Johnson (himself a former state senator) two years ago. His appearance on the November ballot gives voters a do-over of sorts — unless they choose to back one of the other contenders, one of whom could be state Rep. Wesley Bishop, also of eastern New Orleans. Bishop couldn't be reached for comment for this story, but he indicated last month that he had an "interest" in pursuing the council seat.
Badon says he wants to move to City Hall to serve a community that he cares about. It's certainly not about better pay or perks, he says. "I really don't even know what the City Council makes. That wasn't part of my decision. In the Legislature, you deal with issues statewide. On the council, here, you get to deal with local matters, things that are in your neighborhood and backyard. It's all about servant leadership to me."
(Just in case Badon becomes curious: City Council members earn $87,000 a year.)
Badon drew a salary of $31,101 as a state representative last year. If he's elected to the council, Badon's public-sector income would increase by almost $56,000. But that's just the beginning. City Council members share a security pool and have drivers chauffeur them to and from their many local appearances. They also get to hire several full-time staffers. By comparison, state lawmakers who aren't committee chairs typically get one underpaid assistant — and most assistants work in district offices while their bosses are in Baton Rouge flying solo.
Meanwhile, in Council District B, Rep. Helena Moreno says she is being encouraged to run. That's the district seat Stacy Head vacated when she won her current at-large post in April.
"I don't really see it as a step up or a step down," Moreno says. "It's where I can serve best. It might be more beneficial for me to stay put in the legislature."
Sometimes, even former legislators wind up on the council. Johnson is one example. He lost his state Senate seat in 2003, and failed to win it back in 2007. Then he won the City Council seat in 2010 over Badon. And the person who took Johnson's Senate seat away from him, Ann Duplessis, gave up that seat two years ago to become a deputy mayor in Mitch Landrieu's administration.
Still further proof that legislators are uniquely positioned to land at City Hall is Landrieu's appointment of former state Sen. Diana Bajoie as the interim District B council member in June.
Political consultant Greg Buisson says New Orleanians who leave to work elsewhere are often drawn back home, and that few can ever stay away for long.
"City politics are parochial in nature," says Buisson, a one-time writer for The Times-Picayune and press flack for former Lt. Gov. James E. Fitzmorris Jr. "People care dearly about these districts and their families have been here for generations."
Exposure comes into play as well, he adds. Consider that the state House of Representatives has 105 members and the Senate 39, whereas the City Council has only seven members. Legislative term limits also play a role. "There's a political mortality with those state seats now," Buisson says. "So they watch for when these City Council seats come up, whether they're more likely to win them now or later, and when the seat might come up again."
There's certainly no shortage of examples of that last observation. Former state Rep. Cynthia Willard-Lewis served in the House for seven years before moving to the New Orleans City Council in 2000. Council term limits pushed her to run at-large — three times, each time unsuccessfully. She returned to the legislature in a special Senate election in 2010, but lost that when redistricting put her in the same district as Sen. J.P. Morrell, who defeated her in a hotly contested race last year.
Then there's Renee Gill Pratt, who held a House seat for 11 years before her council stint from District B began in 2002. She was convicted in federal court on racketeering charges after she was defeated by Head in 2006.
Even Council president Jackie Clarkson made the move from the Legislature to the council. That was in 2002, although she was on the council prior to that as the District C councilwoman from 1990 to 1994.
And let's not forget Troy Carter, who only needed two years in the House (1992-1994) before he decided the City Council was more attractive. He defeated Clarkson for a council seat in 1994, then lost a bid for mayor in 2002. Coincidentally, Clarkson took Carter's legislative seat after he beat her in the '94 council race. When term limits pushed Carter off the council, Clarkson returned to her old District C seat on the council.
The allure of going home again, politically, can be found in Jefferson Parish as well, and for the same reasons. The pay is better on the parish council, administrative resources are richer and districts are larger. Former state Sen. Julie Quinn lost a high-profile bid for the Jefferson Parish Council three years ago (although she did go on to snag Parish President John Young as a fiance — no wedding date has been set), while former state Rep. Ricky Templet won a council seat last year after just one term in the Legislature.
Elsewhere in Jefferson, then-state Rep. Jennifer Sneed (now Mrs. Fred Heebe) traded her House seat for a parish council seat in 2003.
But New Orleans stands alone when it comes to attracting state lawmakers back home in droves — and when it comes to garnering the national spotlight. Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster proved that point. "There's no denying that the New Orleans City Council stage is a very big stage," Buisson says.
If there's a common thread among legislators who look to City Hall for professional advancement, it's that most of them come from the House of Representatives, says state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson. "You don't see it much in the Senate because there are larger districts there. The Council districts, especially the at-large seats, offer larger populations," she says.
Peterson, who also chairs the Louisiana Democratic Party, adds that while the jobs overlap on certain levels, they're ultimately as different as night and day. "It's still a legislative role on the City Council. You're still going to be doing the same kind of work on some levels," she says. "But it's a very different role. The issues are very different. You're dealing with zoning and sewers and utilities and a wide variety of things [on the council]."
Mundane municipal issues aren't likely to dissuade lawmakers from chasing their dreams at City Hall, says Dr. Silas Lee, a Democratic consultant with offices in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Consider that a long line of mayors also got their starts in the state legislature. They include, in chronological order, Mayors Chep Morrison, Moon Landrieu, Dutch Morial, Sidney Barthelemy, Marc Morial and Mitch Landrieu — six of the city's last eight mayors.
"The legislature is a good place to cut your teeth and prepare yourself for New Orleans politics," Lee says. "But they quickly realize that the City Council and City Hall offer more opportunities to achieve visibility and to grab hold of power."
Once the special elections are decided this fall — qualifying starts next Wednesday, Aug. 15 — we'll see if the pattern holds. No matter what happens in November, qualifying for the regularly scheduled citywide elections (set for March 2014) will come just 13 months later, in December 2013, and another cycle of crossovers will inevitably begin.
"I don't think that's going to end anytime soon," Lee says.
Nor, apparently, do a number of state lawmakers.