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The Man With the Plan 

Thanks to a recovery plan bearing his name, Congressman Richard Baker has ascended to the rank of political superstar. Where -- and how far -- can this newfound momentum take him?

The North Baton Rouge backyard had been impeccably manicured and landscaped, and all the leaves had vanished for the day's big event. The women who were hosting this gathering often invited politicians into their homes to help them and their friends decide where to throw their support at election time. Crowds often swelled to 200 or more. In their corner of the world, back in the mid-'60s, these ladies had sway. If you were running for office, and they requested an audience, you raced along smiling and kissing and flirting.

It was the neighborhood event to attend, complete with punch, cakes and trays of sandwiches -- with the crusts cut off, of course. The politician du jour, sweating in the summer heat and laughing, dabbed his brow with a handkerchief before he began stumping. In the rear, staying quiet as usual, stood 17-year-old "Little Richard" Baker, as he was called in his younger and more impressionable years. He took everything in with a blazing intensity and sense of understanding that was beyond his age.

It wasn't the words of the politician that inspired the future congressman, but rather the actions and encouragement of his mother-in-law and her band of activists who had hosted the mid-'60s event. A few years later, when Baker ran for a seat in the state Legislature, it was her team that pushed him over the top. Baker recalls the campaign fondly, and it's apparent where he cut his teeth in the world of Louisiana politics.

"It was like having a fleet of Sunday school teachers walking and knocking on doors," recalls Baker, now 58. "They were awesome."

Baker also recalls that his father, a Methodist preacher, instilled a sense of civic responsibility in him. For those who know Baker, this is no surprise.

He's the quintessential policy wonk, the kind of kid back in high school who busted the curve for everyone else -- although he now debunks that image, claiming he was just a "typical 'B' student." Today, Baker says he's "really getting into astrophysics" and casually references Russian scientists from the early 19th century in general conversation.

In Washington, Baker is viewed as introspective and sort of a loner -- but not in a negative way. He just keeps to himself, focusing on issues where he can make a real difference, dogging the details until they yield something tangible. It's that gentle tenacity that has come to define Baker.

Until now.

He's still tenacious, of course, but in the months since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated south Louisiana, Baker has stepped out of the GOP party line in a big way.

In the first few weeks after Katrina, as Louisiana's elected officials scampered to score national media interviews, Baker remained behind the scenes, working on a plan that ultimately would be heralded by some as a singular solution to Louisiana's recovery. For his part, Baker says his proposal for federally backed buyouts of flooded homes is not a cure-all. "I thought this would be one contribution in a complicated mix," Baker said earlier this month. "Probably the most surprising thing to me is not the attention it has gotten, but the lack of alternatives. I still don't have an answer to that."

Gov. Kathleen Blanco is pushing her own, more modest housing plan, but her effort lacks the drama that surrounds the Baker Plan ­ facing off against the President, twisting arms in his own party and watching the concept tick along on life support as fellow conservatives from the White House to the Cloak Room take their swipes.

Even though passage of the Baker Plan is now doubtful, Baker's tireless crusade on its behalf can confidently be credited for pressuring the White House into proposing another multibillion-dollar relief package for Louisiana's housing needs two weeks ago. Ironically, that same White House proposal may have knocked the final wind out of the Baker Plan -- and bestowed upon Blanco's proposal more credibility than anyone would have expected it to receive. The end result could be a battle of the plans between a Republican congressman and a Democratic governor, although both sides have voiced a willingness to work together.

Whatever his plan's ultimate fate, Baker says he's glad that he could offer people hope. Politically, he also has established a national presence and drawn enviable statewide praise. He speaks from the heart about his intentions -- or lack thereof -- regarding the 2007 governor's race, and he appears to be the odds-on favorite to become the next chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services, where he has spent much of his career poring over the details. Wherever his career goes from here, Baker says he is ready for the future -- largely because he knows where he has been.

Given his father's career choice, the obvious path for Baker would have led to the pulpit. In many ways, the congressman still shows all of the required skills set. He's got that preacher charm -- a slight southern drawl, motivational phrasing and an animated conversation style. Alas, the clerical life was not for him.

"I knew I couldn't be a pastor because I'm too opinionated," Baker says. "I couldn't wear that coat very well. They would run me off after the first couple of weeks."

Instead, Baker pursued a geology degree at Louisiana State University, turning down a football scholarship because he was more interested in being a student than a linebacker. While on a field trip in Texas during his junior year, chewing on limestone to determine its grain, Baker says a heavenly voice pushed him in another direction.

"God spoke to me and said, 'You've got to find something else to do,' so that's when I came back and changed my major to political science, not knowing at that point where I was going to wind up," he recalls.

A few years later, in 1971, while still finishing up his studies at LSU, Baker was elected as a Democrat to the state House of Representatives. At the age of 22, he became one of the youngest ever to serve in the Legislature. At that time, he didn't even have an office. His small home in north Baton Rouge became the district headquarters, and pothole problems could end up on his doorstep -- literally -- any time of the day or night.

Baker's seatmate in the House was Woody Jenkins, who later made several unsuccessful yet highly publicized runs for the U.S. Senate. During those early days, they were both greener than the Capitol lawn.

"We were like two kids in kindergarten," Baker recalls. "He was only a year older, and we had to look out of place. When the bell rang (to vote), we jumped like Pavlov's dogs. We didn't know what to do. We were scared to leave the House Chamber."

Jenkins, who now runs a newspaper in the Baton Rouge suburb of Central, says his seatmate wasn't the kind of politician who got involved in every fight that came along. But when Baker did latch onto an issue, "he became a bulldog."

Jenkins also remembers Baker for "always being a straight arrow. He was tall and handsome and articulate, a completely honest person with a lot of integrity."

Upon meeting Baker, one might also notice his eyes -- the distinctive pupils that are not round, but elongated and somewhat angular. It's a birth defect that can cause problems for Baker any time he is in bright light, forcing him to squint painfully during outside interviews. Of course, that also means he can -- at least in theory -- see better in the dark, an attribute Baker jokingly flaunts. "I always thought it was a neat asset to be a Louisiana politician and to be able to see in the dark better than the other guys," he says.

C.B. Forgotston, who worked as a staff attorney for the Legislature and as chief counsel for the House Appropriations Committee during those years, noticed something else. He says Baker was a quick learner and among the best orators to move through the Capitol.

"What he did to distinguish himself when he got in the Legislature as a rookie is he dug in like no other legislator since and started looking into the Department of Highways," Forgotston says. "I worked with him and admired his tenacity. He didn't ask the staff to do anything. He learned everything himself. He got in and got his hands dirty, learning everything from the administration down."

Baker's battle was a "David and Goliath" fight against the old Louisiana system of approving highway projects purely on the basis of political stroke instead of regional or statewide impact and need. Whistleblowers inside the department often stopped by his house to pass along information.

During one televised debate with the agency head, Baker dropped a bombshell by uncovering an annual expenditure of $2.3 million for snow removal. Baker won instant credibility -- and the opportunity to chair the House Transportation Committee.

The old Highway Department, now known as the Department of Transportation and Development, was reformed in the process, trimmed down to a manageable size and made accountable for spending taxpayers' money.

"That's when I gained great appreciation for doing your homework, learning your subject, not opening your mouth until you're sure, and then once you get it in view, don't stop until you get there," Baker says.

With that attitude, and a newly open seat in the Baton Rouge area congressional district, there was only one more move Baker could make. He switched to the GOP and won his first election to Congress in 1986. He recalls being as timid during his first days there as he was in the Legislature.

"I just thought how this was a really big place," Baker says of Congress. "There were a lot of rooms. I was totally intimidated. But what was worse was finding where things were. I had a phone that rang, but wouldn't dial out. I had stacks of mail, but no employees to open it. It was really depressing."

It didn't take Baker long to learn the ropes. As he did in Louisiana, Baker followed his own path and focused intently on one topic, this time financial institutions. In time, he became the House banking committee's resident expert on the issue of systemic risk.

Starting in 1999, Baker was ahead of the curve when he started alerting the nation, and the Federal Reserve, about the systemic dangers posed by long-term capital management. Months later, regulators took action to prop up the markets when hedge funds started to collapse. A year later, long before any accounting irregularities at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were revealed, Baker fought for major regulatory reforms in the mortgage-finance industry.

As a result of those highly publicized fights, Baker grabbed headlines and collected valuable political capital. He got his own subcommittee and convened hearings on the Enron scandal and mutual-fund reform. In 2001, Smart Money magazine named Baker among the world's 30 most influential people who have "the greatest impact on your financial health."

Flying mostly below the political radar, Baker nonetheless had achieved Beltway Zen. "You fight in public life to become known," he says, even though he did it in his own quiet way.

That includes Baker's approach to party loyalty. Although he is considered a GOP loyalist, colleagues view him in the mold of former Louisiana U.S. Sen. John Breaux, who mastered the art of legislative compromise. Staffers and lawmakers consistently describe him as "honest" or "cerebral" or "a straight shooter." But there's another side to Baker, says one high-ranking Democratic staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"He's seen as more of a loner than as an insider," the staffer says. "I say 'loner' not in a negative way. Some loners don't work well with others, but he does work well with others. ... He is a very effective lawmaker on his issues. Though he's somewhat quiet and unassuming, he's a brilliant public speaker when he's really wound up."

Baker says only that he takes public policy very seriously.

"If you are in this business to fill a chair, you'll be disappointed," Baker says. "If you are in this business to help a friend, you will both eventually be disappointed. If you are in this business to change public policy and do a good job, and you've got a clearly defined goal, nothing will happen unless you stay after it."

Slaying bureaucratic and policy dragons quickly became Baker's hallmark on the banking committee, but his most daunting fight was still ahead.

Baker's plan to create the Louisiana Recovery Corporation, which would oversee the extensive rebuilding of homes in hurricane-stricken areas, was chicken soup for Louisiana's soul in the months following Katrina and Rita. No other plans were being put forth by elected officials and, aside from levee board consolidation, it seemed to be the only idea that everyone in Louisiana embraced.

Baker says the entire plan was generated in-house, that is, not in concert with special interests. The need for a plan alone was the catalyst, he adds.

Nationwide, the Baker Bill received favorable editorial comments from across the ideological spectrum -- the so-called liberal New York Times, the left-of-center Washington Post and the conservative Mobile Register, to name just a few. Closer to home, papers across the state joined in a chorus of support for the Baker Plan.

Almost overnight, the Baker Plan became a policy juggernaut. Even community and business groups fell into line.

"Without a major housing solution, there can be no recovery," says Henry Shane, chairman of GNO, Inc. "How can businesses return and grow without housing for employees? Where will families live? It's the number one priority in my opinion, and we will not give up on this issue."

While the housing issue is still very much alive, Baker's LRC is starting to resemble a closed chapter in the hurricane history book, a rallying crusade that came up short. Many of those close to Baker worry that he is taking the hits personally.

For example, it's not widely known that Baker's roots run deep in New Orleans -- he was born here, as was his mother. The political side of the brawl has taken a toll as well.

Last year, during the early stages of the plan's development, Baker had to fight off what one staffer called "theoretical think-tank conservatives in D.C. who believe that government shouldn't do anything like this." And that was just in committee, from members of Baker's own party. Still, he got the plan out of the House a week before Christmas. When the measure stalled in the Senate, all hopes turned to this year's congressional session -- amid news that the White House had serious doubts about the plan's viability.

Lawmakers in Louisiana's delegation say Baker has been cooperative and flexible throughout the plan's difficult march, expressing a willingness and openness to work with anyone to modify it when necessary. That's why it was so strange to see the Bush administration refusing to work more closely with Baker to fashion something they could support. Instead, the White House -- and the president in particular -- slammed the door on him when administration officials openly opposed the plan in late January.

"I was very disappointed," Baker says. "I thought we were in good faith negotiations with the president's people."

In an op-ed column carried by The Washington Post on Feb. 2, Donald Powell, the administration's hurricane recovery coordinator, articulated the White House's staunch opposition to the Baker plan:

"State and local leaders -- not those in Washington -- must develop the recovery plan; taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely, with strong congressional oversight and accountability mechanisms in place; and, finally, markets must be able to work properly without interference from the government."

Baker issued a press release firing back: "That Mr. Powell would take out op-ed space specifically to undermine my legislation is disappointing to say the least. That he would use that column to spread gross mischaracterizations of the legislation is just disturbing."

When asked about the incident later, Baker said he was "surprised" and had no idea the op-ed piece was going to run. In a classic, yet characteristic, example of understatement, Baker said, "That was a departure of expectation."

What was also a "departure of expectation" was Baker's strong response to the White House's rejection and Powell's article. "There is a price to pay for blind neglect," Baker said of the White House opposition to his plan. "The [president's] current plan would be a death blow to the state's economy."

Roughly two weeks following the op-ed piece, the White House dealt a blow to the Baker Plan when President Bush announced he would request another $4.2 billion from Congress to help Louisiana repair, rebuild or buy out flood-damaged homes -- effectively pulling an end-run around Baker's plan.

The news reverberated through Baker's offices. He had to respond, but how? It was tricky. On one hand, the extra money would have never materialized without the momentum behind the Baker plan -- even without the White House's support. On the other hand, Bush's announcement certainly appeared as though it were meant to kill the Baker Plan once and for all -- by offering the state a smaller, but definite, alternative.

Baker issued a diplomatic response and, as of last week, continued to express high hopes for his own plan. There will soon be a high-profile tour of devastated areas by "people" Baker refused to identify. He says he will make his case during that trip, and that could ultimately make or break his proposal.

"At that point, it will be open or shut," Baker says, adding his legislation recently received a favorable hearing in the Senate and is still in play.

Meanwhile, the governor is pushing a different housing plan, although it appears to be modeled somewhat after Baker's. Baker and others are waiting to see how the White House reacts to that proposal. Congress also has to consider the President's $4.2 billion aid bill. As a congressman, Baker enjoys the luxury of having a major say in that process, no matter what happens to his plan.

"It will be subject to amendments, and you better believe I will be involved in that," Baker says.

It could all come down to a battle of the plans. Baker's proposal would form the Louisiana Recovery Corporation, a quasi-public entity that would be underwritten by the sale of bonds and loan guarantees. It would apply to both residential and commercial properties, acting as a middleman between property owners and lenders. Part of its intent is to avert a mortgage crisis in the wake of the storms, as many property owners find themselves with property that is worth much less than their mortgages -- and not enough insurance coverage.

As crafted, the Baker Plan would include a $500,000 payout cap. In some cases, homeowners could receive at least 60 percent of the value of their property, and lenders could receive up to 60 percent of what they are owed.

Blanco's plan, which failed to gain the support of the Legislature during the recent special session, is still in the preliminary stages, but the governor says it would only address residential properties. In a speech last week, Blanco told a group in Lake Charles that assistance for homeowners would be capped at $150,000. Those who wanted "out" of their damaged homes could sell to the proposed state housing trust for 60 percent of pre-storm value. It was not clear how lenders would be affected, if at all.

Many of the lawmakers who opposed the governor's plan during this month's special session argued that the proposal was not specific enough.

"I don't know how the governor's plan helps everybody," Baker says. "I think what has happened is now there is an uncertainty created by the governor's plan. It will take some time to see how the governor's plan will work. We need to have more of a conversation on where the state plan will lead us, versus what I have proposed on the federal level."

Baker is also concerned that the state's proposal is not a rebuilding plan at all, because the federal money dedicated to it would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazardous Mitigation Program. That program, Baker says, pulls properties completely out of commerce and turns them into green spaces or other non-habitable plots.

Denise Bottcher, Blanco's press secretary, says the governor has always been supportive of the Baker Plan and was "very disappointed" when the White House opposed it. Bottcher says the congressman was even allowed a preview of, as well as the chance to offer editing suggestions to, Blanco's session-opening remarks regarding a state-sponsored housing plan. In fact, Blanco still favors the Baker plan, Bottcher says.

"The governor wouldn't abandon hope until (Baker) does. She would do whatever he asked of her. But she had to continue to press upon the White House... We still want to fight for it, but Congress gave us this other mechanism," she says, referring to the recent rash of federal housing money proposed for the state.

While Baker is fighting some long odds, he readily admits that the issue has brought him a wealth of political capital and statewide attention. All he has to do now is figure out how to use it.

Despite the boost Baker's proposal gave to his statewide name recognition, the congressman contends he is not interested in next year's race for governor -- or any other non-congressional contest. He says he is "flattered" to have his name mentioned as a statewide contender, but he's much more interested in becoming the next chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, a powerful position that could play out favorably for Louisiana.

"There is an extraordinary irony in that, if it should happen," Baker says. "When the state desperately needs help with housing, insurance, securities markets and other like issues, that I would be in a capacity to be significantly helpful with all those problems is fortunate."

He pauses, then adds, "I will not be the chairman of financial services for the purposes of overseeing the demise of my state."

While there's little doubt that Congress will remain Baker's political home for the foreseeable future -- he remains a GOP darling in staunchly conservative Baton Rouge -- Baker remains something of an oddity in Louisiana politics. He's not a fairs-and-festivals kind of guy and doesn't buy into retail politics, although he does return to his district often.

Baker has never lost an election, but he had a close call in 1998 from Democrat Marjorie McKeithen, the daughter of the late Secretary of State Fox McKeithen.

Jim Nickel, a Baton Rouge lobbyist who formerly served as chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, admits that Louisiana's 6th Congressional District has never been fertile ground for Democrats.

"The hurricanes may have changed that, though," Nickel says. "You would think there has been an influx of Democratic voters, but only time will tell. It's just so hard to beat an incumbent in Louisiana. But you have got to admit that Baker has been the most vocal and proactive out of the delegation in the hurricanes' aftermath."

According to a new report by FairVote, a Maryland-based nonprofit elections think-tank, the doubling of constituents in the Baton Rouge district could dilute Republican voting strength and make trouble for Baker. It's a bold analysis, especially when you're dealing with an incumbent coming off an unprecedented wave of national and statewide attention.

Baker pays little attention to such speculation. His name will be on the ballot in the fall and he's shooting for a chairmanship. Beyond that, anything is possible.

"I've given up trying to predict my own behavior," he says. "I've learned just to take it one newspaper headline at a time."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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