“Moderate” may not be the right word to describe Louisiana’s Senate, but its members are saving us from some of Jeff Landry’s worst impulses

Robert Mann

Sometimes, a governor or president is so extreme that politicians we once saw as radicals appear, by comparison, to be moderates. 

For example, because they have denounced Donald Trump, Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney now appear to many as moderates. However, there is little evidence that either person’s ideology has changed that much. They support much of Trump’s agenda but share none of his hatred for democracy.

The same dynamic occurs with Gov. Jeff Landry and the Louisiana Senate, especially Senate President Cameron Henry. Because Henry and some of his GOP colleagues are not toadies for our new governor, they look like sensible moderates.

A few weeks ago, Baton Rouge Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace called the state Senate president “Senator Speedbump.” She explained: “In a Capitol now led by an aggressive conservative administration and a legislative supermajority of the governor’s own party, Henry has emerged as pretty much the only obstacle on the road to rapid, massively disruptive change, some in the name of long-standing right-wing goals and some in pursuit of Landry’s personal political agenda.”

Among the bills or ideas senators have rejected, ignored, slow-walked, or watered down: Landry’s plan for closed primaries, his push for a constitutional convention, his effort to gut the state’s public records laws, his desire to appoint the officers of all state boards and commissions, his appointment of a questionable former corrections official to run the state’s juvenile justice system, and his plan to undermine public education by acquiring a blank check to fund a private school voucher program.

In some cases, Landry hasn’t left the Senate empty-handed. But even when he declares victory, the fact is that he often only gets part of what he wants.

Louisiana Senate President Cameron Henry

The latest example is the voucher scheme, the so-called Education Savings Accounts (ESA) program. The House-passed ESA bill was a blank check on the state’s fisc, threatening to quickly cost the state upwards of $500 million a year. (Remember the days when lawmakers expressed alarm over the “excessive” $300 million price tag of the TOPS college tuition-support program?)

When the ESA bill reached the Senate, Landry lobbied hard and declared victory after senators approved it. Still, Henry and his colleagues voted for a watered-down version of the original plan. There is no blank check. Lawmakers must still decide whether to fund—next year and beyond—whatever plan state education leaders develop. 

The Senate’s enthusiasm for burying, slowing, or watering down some of Landry’s worst ideas and his most extreme plans shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s watched the Senate over the years. On average, members of the Senate have been around the Legislature longer than House members.

And the inexperience of House members is magnified on the Republican side, giving Landry more sway in that body. 

Almost four of every ten (38%) Republican House members are freshmen, compared to the 19 percent of freshman House Democrats. In the 39-member Senate, meanwhile, only Republicans Robert Allain of Franklin and Adam Bass of Bossier City have never served in the Legislature. The rest are veterans of one or both bodies.

Because of their experience and seniority, senators are less likely to be pushed around by a governor. They are less likely to believe everything a governor’s staffer or a lobbyist tells them. They know what threats they can make good on or promises they can keep. They know which difficult votes they can explain to their constituents. 

To use a metaphor, this is not their first rodeo. They are not intimidated by that bucking bronco in the pen. They know how to ride it without breaking their back.

Unlike House members, senators have larger, more diverse constituencies. They must strike a balance in ways that House members do not. Because of their seniority, many also have stronger ties with political leaders in their district than freshmen House members.

All that adds up to better judgment and more independence from the governor. That’s not to say senators are immune from gubernatorial pressure or public opinion. But they are more aware of their power and persuasion’s extent (and limits).

The recent statewide poll by the Advocate provided evidence of this. Among other things, the public does not support Landry’s constitutional convention, does not like some of his pro-gun legislation, and opposes his so-called homeowners insurance “reforms.” Landry is also out of step with voters on reproductive rights.

Senators who bury or amend Landry’s bills are not only making a powerful statement of legislative independence. They also show they recognize that Landry and his House allies are estranged from the mainstream of Louisiana’s electorate on some critical issues.

As Henry told the Advocate’s Tyler Bridges in an excellent story on Sunday about the Senate president’s troublesome independence, “I lived through the [Gov. Bobby] Jindal years where he came in and tried to bully everyone to make all the changes he wanted in a short period of time. We then spent the next two years trying to unwind them and make them work. I want to make sure this governor doesn’t make the same mistake, and we have to spend the next three years fixing them. We all have greater expectations for this governor.”

That’s a diplomatic way of saying that he believes Landry’s out of step with the public on some issues — and Henry’s right.

Landry’s out of touch for several reasons.

  1. He misinterpreted his relatively unimpressive vote last October as a mandate (he got a pitiful 18% of registered voters).
  2. He’s surrounded by greedy business leaders, shady characters, and outright sycophants.
  3. He’s not that smart or self-aware.

To use another metaphor, Landry has gotten over his skis a few times, and senators have forced him to pull it a bit to prevent him (and them) from crashing. 

At some point, Landry will learn that he’s not a House member representing a deep-red district in Terrebonne Parish. He represents the whole state. That’s not to say he cannot be a conservative or even a very conservative leader.

Indulge me with one more metaphor: Voters don’t want their governor to drive the car of state into the ditch, off the cliff, or into Lake Ponchartrain. Most want a conservative government but don’t like Bobby Jindal’s fiscal recklessness. They don’t want Huey Long-style autocracy. And they aren’t looking for Edwin Edwards-style corruption. 

Louisiana might have a conservative electorate, but any state that elected a Democratic governor in 2015 and 2019 is not a place that has fully embraced the most conservative and radical ideas of Landry and his pals.

Thank goodness for Cameron Henry (a very conservative ally of U.S. Majority Leader Steve Scalise) and his sensible colleagues, who tapped the brakes here and there and forced Landy to keep the car in the middle of the right lane as much as possible.

As a former state senator observed last week, “I always said if half the Senate knew what kind of power they have, they would be truly independent.” Maybe, under Henry’s leadership, members of that body are waking up to this realization. 

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