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Time to Cut Bait 

Blueprint Louisiana is busy pushing contracts for reform on statewide and legislative candidates, but its real work begins when the elections end.

It was 12 years ago that Mike Walsworth first decided to make a run for the state House of Representatives. Facing a two-term incumbent under fire from the local newspaper for his awarding of Tulane scholarships, the West Monroe Republican pushed a platform of aggressive ethics reform and captured the seat. Since then, Walsworth has filed hundreds of legislative measures, crafted important policy and participated in thousands of debates. Now he is running for the Senate -- making the same promises he made in 1995, only this time with a touch of irony.

"We cannot allow the good old boy network to run things anymore," says Walsworth, an established member of the lower chamber who is being forced out of the system by term limits.

To be sure, Walsworth has sided with improving ethics laws more times than not, which is why it was no surprise that earlier this month he became the first legislative candidate to officially endorse the agenda of Blueprint Louisiana. The statewide advocacy group promises to have more bite than the traditional watchdogs standing guard in Baton Rouge. Many of the familiar reform names seem to be chained to the tree out of fear of confrontation.

Following a monthlong, $415,000 media buy that ended last week, Blueprint still has $1.2 million in the bank. Its leadership is planning another aggressive round of advertising in September to single out candidates not supporting their far-reaching reform agenda, which includes education, economic development, health care and transportation. Ethics, however, remains the top priority.

If you want to know the other House and Senate candidates who are drinking Blueprint's Kool-Aid, you'll have to wait until after Labor Day -- the traditional kickoff of election season and the time campaign pros contend the average voter actually starts paying attention. Qualifying begins Sept. 4 and stays open for three days. "We're going to let everyone qualify and give them enough time to get in their contracts," says Brad Lambert, Blueprint's spokesperson and an issues-management specialist with the communications firm of Harris, DeVille and Associates Inc., which has offices in Baton Rouge and Mobile, Ala.

While potential lawmakers are free to release the info on their own (as Walsworth did) Lambert would only divulge that Blueprint thus far has received 27 from House candidates and 10 from Senate hopefuls. Meanwhile, state Rep. Mike Strain, a Covington Republican gunning for agriculture commissioner, is the only candidate from the second tier of statewide races to join Blueprint's team.

In the governor's race -- the contest Blueprint's leadership doesn't mind discussing -- Republican businessman John Georges of Metairie and St. Tammany Parish independent Anthony "Tony G" Gentile, a supervisor at ExxonMobil, are the only contenders to sign the agenda so far. Libertarian T. Lee Horne III of Bunkie, however, is officially a member of the group (anyone can join via the Internet). Staying quiet, for now, are GOP Congressman Bobby Jindal of Metairie, the front-runner who has his own 31-point ethics plan, and state Sen. Walter Boasso of Chalmette, a Democrat.

Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Elm Grove and Rev. Raymond Brown of New Orleans, two Democrats who say they can't back the agenda in its entirety, will not get special treatment for their piecemeal approaches. It's an "all or nothing deal," says steering committee member Sean Reilly. Fence-sitters like Campbell and Brown will not have asterisks by their names in the coming media campaign. While supporters of the agenda will enjoy shelter from the ads, Blueprint is stopping short of direct contributions and endorsements this election season; its pronouncements will be limited to letting voters know who's on board and who isn't.

After Labor Day, Blueprint will air television commercials and radio spots that push the brand more than anything else and direct the audience to the Web site, where names of the endorsers and nonsigners will be listed and comparisons drawn. The print advertisements, however, will target specific races and names, says Lambert.

The real action will start after the elections, because Blueprint plans to make supporters stick to their word. In addition to the financial power to go back on the air, the organization has retained two high-powered lobbyists from Baton Rouge who have 60 years of combined experience dealing with Louisiana lawmakers. They're charged with helping to draft the reform policies and serving as a hub for lawmakers in step with the program. On the payroll are Jim Harris of Harris, DeVille and Associates, whose other clients include Anheuser-Busch and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, and Randy Haynie of Haynie and Associates, who also represents General Electric and General Motors, to name a few. "We'll be following through on all aspects," says Reilly.

Reilly, in fact, is the perfect face for the group. He's a former state representative, a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and president of the outdoor division of Lamar Advertising Company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana's only NASDAQ 100 company. While Blueprint Louisiana has 2,000 official members and more than 300 financial contributors, the steering committee, board and founding partners are largely white males. Practically all are also influential and well above Louisiana's median income. It's "citizen-driven," for sure, but not by your average blokes. For example, 20 board members personally paid $50,000 each to generate the needed start-up capital.

According to records on file with the Secretary of State's Office, Blueprint was formed by a Lafayette trio: attorney Clay Allen, jewelry magnate Matt Stuller and Bill Fenstermaker, president of the engineering firm of C.H. Fenstermaker and Associates. Other members include Jacqui Vines, vice president of Cox Communications; Bill Oliver, president of AT&T Louisiana; Mike Madison, president of CLECO and other heavyweights.

It's this select group that set Blueprint's five guiding goals:

• Adopt the nation's best ethics laws;

• Prepare students for a lifetime of success;

• Develop the skilled workforce Louisiana needs;

• Provide first-class access to health care; and

• Build a superior transportation system.

More than six months of research was directed by SSA Consultants, a Baton Rouge development and management firm that has staff expertise in everything from chemistry and experimental psychology to finance and information systems. It also has experience in creating communications matrices for Louisiana's executive branch and profit strategies for private companies. SSA oversaw nine regional workshops with 750 citizens statewide, met individually with 50 subject-matter experts, participated in a public-opinion poll and reviewed some 400 reports on a wide array of subjects.

The prep work was not taken lightly, but noticeably absent from the five-point agenda is anything regarding hurricane protection, coastal restoration and flood control. That much is recognized in the preamble of Blueprint's plan, but it does little to address the concerns of coastal parishes, where the workshops identified coastal work as a top priority.

Chet Morrison, president of Chet Morrison Contractors in Houma and a member of Blueprint's steering committee, says there was "a lot of debate that went on to have the topic included." The agenda, which also overlooks the state's uniform building code and school accountability, apparently was becoming packed with major challenges. Besides, he adds, the five points that made the cut will eventually have a ripple effect if lawmakers keep their vows for reform. "Once we take care of these key elements, everything else will fall in line," he says.

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

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