Stephanie Grace: The governor’s big surprises of 2013

If I had to choose one word to sum up Louisiana politics in 2013, it would be “surprising.”

Who would have predicted, for instance, that journalists across the state would have not one but two reasons to delve into the politics of “Duck Dynasty”? Or that reality TV in general, and A&E’s offerings in particular, would be so newsworthy; remember “The Governor’s Wife,” the painfully forgettable show that cast octogenarian ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards, his much younger prison pen pal-turned-third wife and their various kids as a sort of postmodern Brady Bunch? For that matter, who would have guessed that the Silver Fox would turn out to be such a dud of a leading man?

And who, besides author and ousted Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East vice president John Barry, could have foreseen that the state’s historic coziness with the oil and gas industry — and its willingness to overlook decades of industry-caused environmental damage to the state’s endangered coastal wetlands — would come under unprecedented scrutiny?

Barry, who spearheaded the levee authority’s sweeping lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies, was promptly replaced by Gov. Bobby Jindal, an adamant critic of the approach. The suit itself faces considerable hurdles, including what’s sure to be a muscular effort in next year’s legislative session to derail it.

Still, it will be hard for the industry and its friends to shut down what has became an active conversation about the political class’ relationship with oil and gas interests, government’s role in providing reasonable regulation and the industry’s obligations to a state that has been an exceedingly friendly host. Although they haven’t gotten as much press, one clear sign of the times is that two conservative parishes, Jefferson and Plaquemines, have filed their own suits, and others are said to be considering similar actions. These parish suits are more limited in scope and don’t include the same plaintiff lawyer contingency fees, a key target of Jindal and other levee authority critics. The parish suits are far less susceptible to legislative interference.

It’s not really a surprise that U.S. Sen. David Vitter appears ready to jump back into state politics after 14 years in Congress. The unexpected development is that he plans to declare his intentions for the 2015 governor’s race next month, nearly two years before election day, rather than wait until the 2014 elections determine control of the Senate.

You know how they talk about a permanent campaign up in Washington? Vitter and his likely opponents — Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards and Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne so far, with perhaps more to come — are about to show us what that looks like up close.

But the biggest political surprise of 2013, I’d argue, was Jindal’s absolute bust of a tax reform proposal. While he talked about making Louisiana competitive with places like Texas, Jindal’s underlying motive for attempting to eliminate state income tax was utterly transparent. While Jindal derailed a legislative move to do pretty much the same during far flusher times during his first term, his focus has now clearly shifted to playing to national, ideologically purist circles.

Still, given that proposed the radical restructuring of the state’s tax code, you’d think he would have had a plan to make it happen.

No matter what you think of the substance or legal problems with Jindal’s 2012 education overhaul, you’ve got to admit that he did a masterful job of boxing out critics and getting his four bills through the Legislature largely intact. This time, though, his tax proposal died on the session’s opening day — even though the Legislature is dominated by conservatives who presumably hate taxes as much as the governor does.

The State Capitol wasn’t the only place where Jindal had a bad year. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he went all out to help Ken Cuccinelli win the Virginia statehouse but came up short against a badly flawed Democratic opponent. The governor who did win reelection this year, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, didn’t need Jindal’s help and now gets to take over the organization and show the world what he can do.

Jindal also came up short in his effort set up an ally, state Sen. Neil Riser, as the favorite to replace his new Veterans Affairs secretary Rodney Alexander in Congress.

Jindal was officially neutral, but his fingerprints were all over Alexander’s sudden resignation and the special election’s expedited schedule. His political team also worked on Riser’s campaign. Yet Riser proved no match for newcomer Vance McAllister, who had in his corner none other than “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson — the same Phil Robertson whom Jindal ended the year defending over his stunningly insensitive comments about gay people and African-Americans.

In retrospect, maybe that election was a sign of things to come.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.