A term-limited state senator with chairmanship status says he's putting all of his political weight behind a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow lawmakers to elect their leadership in the House and Senate confidentially — essentially squeezing out the governor's long-held influence in the process.
Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, says with the legislation, a multi-part package, he isn't attacking positions or individuals, like Gov. Bobby Jindal or Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan — a man he calls "a good friend, and fair and impartial leader." Rather, he's battling history, precedent and process.
"This would move us into the 21st century of politics," Gautreaux says. "For as long as I can remember, and I think going back to the '60s, the leadership in both the House and the Senate has been handpicked by the governor."
But the tinkering goes much deeper. "Once the governor picks his or her Senate president and House speaker, everyone gets on board or you get left at the landing," he adds. "If a legislator hopes to be chairman of a standing committee, he had better be on board."
Gautreaux, chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee, says the changes would impact the elections of the president and president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker and speaker pro tempore of the House. Within 10 days of calling an organizational session to elect leaders, nominations would be made and each lawmaker would be provided a ballot.
Completed ballots would be placed into blank envelopes, sealed, collected and then counted by the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House. When all of the votes have been tabulated, the ballots would be destroyed.
It would be a major change in statehouse politics, but Gautreaux thinks he has the votes to make it happen. "I polled the memberships of both houses a few weeks ago to see what members thought," he says. "In all, I received five negative responses. Overwhelmingly, and with a lot of dialogue, members responded that they wanted a democratic process, without the stigma left from being with the wrong candidate."
In theory, confidential ballots would allow lawmakers to vote without fear of retribution. In the past, governors have been accused of anointing someone and then doling out chairmanships and other goodies to those who fall in line early.
Gautreaux says it still works that way today. Jindal says he merely supported the Senate's choice of Chaisson and the House's selection of Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, but Gautreaux says the governor played as big a role in the process as his predecessors.
"While Gov. [Mike] Foster didn't really get too much into it, Gov. [Kathleen] Blanco was very involved, as was Gov. Jindal," Gautreaux says. "In my own case, I met with then-Gov.-elect Jindal and Sen. Chaisson during the transition (of 2007) and was asked if I would like to continue serving as chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee. Chaisson made the recommendation and Gov. Jindal made the offer."
Gautreaux admits his proposal won't solve everything. "That's politics and I don't think anyone will have much quarrel with that," he says. "With term limits, everyone being re-elected will ascend to seniority and leadership if they wish. In the old days, the same people stayed in leadership until retiring or death. Now, no one stays more than three terms. That, in my mind, is a good thing."
Despite modern reforms, nothing short of a voter revolt can change the way political power is amassed. Gautreaux says politics will always be part of the process — a process that favored him during his public career. "There have been legislative leaders who have run things with a small core of colleagues," Gautreaux says. "If you were in, things were OK, if not, ehhh. I've been fortunate to be in."
If lawmakers back Gautreaux's proposed constitutional amendment, it would face voters statewide on the Nov. 2 ballot. If they reject his proposal, they'll remain under the influence of a force that will always be bigger than they are.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.