Like a number of other male politicians, state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom has learned the hard way not to thumb his nose at Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- nor to underestimate her willingness to wield her considerable political clout.
Until last week, Odom was widely considered the most powerful man in the state, thanks mostly to his longevity in office and his legendary stroke with rural lawmakers. Odom's political capital grew exponentially during the past year, after he played a key role during Blanco's campaign and transition. He reportedly guided her selection of state Sen. Don Hines of Bunkie as president of the Louisiana Senate, among other top appointments.
But last week, it became clear that Odom's swagger exceeded his sway. He got his ears pinned by the Louisiana Bond Commission, which voted unanimously -- at Blanco's suggestion -- to delay state financing for a proposed $85 million sugar cane syrup mill near Bunkie that Odom had been pushing. Two years ago, when Mike Foster was governor, the commission rubber-stamped Odom's request for a similar mill in Lacassine after just 15 minutes of discussion. This time, bond commissioners voted to study the feasibility of Odom's project, knocking it off its fast track and dealing the ag commish a public slap.
Among other things, Odom failed to consult sugar growers outside the Bunkie area before trying to ram approval of the new mill through the bond commission. As it turns out, sugar mills are closing in other parts of the state, and those that remain are struggling. Why, then, should the state invest public money to build a new mill that would compete with tax-paying, private-sector mills?
The American Sugar Cane League, which represents sugar interests in Louisiana, was among those asking that very question. The League's president read a statement to the Bond Commission noting that Odom hadn't told the group about the proposed syrup mill until just a few weeks earlier. "While we support any project which enhances the efficiency of the Louisiana sugar industry and is beneficial to our members, we do not feel that we have had sufficient time or have been provided with sufficient information to reach an informed opinion on the feasibility of this proposed project," said League President John F. Gay, who, like Blanco, recommended an independent feasibility study of the project -- another thing Odom failed to get beforehand.
In addition to snubbing the larger universe of sugar growers -- a key constituent group of his -- Odom dissed The Governess when she expressed concerns about the feasibility of his proposal. When questioned by reporters about Blanco's concerns, Odom was widely quoted as saying, "I don't care what she wants."
Blanco demurred when given the opportunity to respond in kind. She's too smart -- and too gracious -- to play that game. Instead, she played a hand that only governors can play: She quietly sidetracked Odom's project.
Now Odom will have to fend off Republican lawmakers and others who are lining up to redirect millions in gambling revenues that had been more or less under his personal control. That money, formerly dedicated to boll weevil eradication, is what Odom had planned to use to finance the mill.
Meanwhile, central Louisiana sugar growers whose farms are 100 miles or more from the nearest mill still need help. Blanco has pledged her assistance. Instead of a new mill, there's talk of improved highways or a tax credit for their added transportation costs -- either of which would remove the gaming revenues from Odom's control.
Odom's fall from grace was so precipitous that even Hines, who represents the Bunkie area and was considered an Odom creation as Senate President, turned on him. Hines may have gotten an initial boost from Odom into the Senate presidency, but he knows where the real power is. When Blanco asked for a study, Hines made the motion himself as her representative on the Bond Commission -- less than a week after he told a crowd of sugar growing constituents in Bunkie that the mill would win easy commission approval. Now there's a man who knows how to treat a lady.