Stephanie Grace: Ex-governors mix it up on La. issues

Not long into Wednesday night’s panel discussion at Loyola University with Kathleen Blanco, Edwin Edwards and Buddy Roemer, it became clear that the event’s title, “One Louisiana, Three Perspectives,” didn’t quite describe it.

Sure, each of the former governors has a distinct take on governing. Each led the state through interesting times, to put it mildly. Yet, they emerged with remarkably similar thoughts on policy and on the job itself, not to mention a shared sense of freedom to speak bluntly without worrying about political ramifications.

Hence, the capacity crowd on hand for the Institute of Politics’ annual Ed Renwick lecture was treated to an entertaining, surprising and, at times, brutally honest discussion of state politics and some of the most contentious issues now facing the Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal. (The fourth surviving member of the exclusive club, the notoriously travel-averse Mike Foster, couldn’t attend because he was out of state. Like I said, the evening was full of surprises.)

Current politicians are obviously sweating over the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East’s lawsuit against the oil and gas industry over coastal damage. Jindal has removed author John Barry, the most prominent proponent of the suit, from the levee authority, and lawmakers are set to consider measures to give the governor control over the board’s makeup and to stop the lawsuit before it can go to court. But when moderator and WVUE-TV anchor Lee Zurik asked about it, these three didn’t tiptoe around the subject.

“I’m with them,” said Roemer, the sole Republican in the group. He said he doesn’t fault the industry for maximizing its profits, but argued those who “abuse the privilege and don’t pay for damaging the land and water and the air that we breathe ought to pay the cost of it.”

Edwards concurred and argued the courts should decide who’s responsible for what.

And Blanco, who strongly backed citizen groups that pushed for independent levee boards after Hurricane Katrina, said she expects the lawsuit to be a “vehicle” to bring the various interests to the table to hash out a plan to pay for wetlands restoration. Although she often called herself an “oil and gas governor,” Blanco said Wednesday that “I think that they all know it’s overdue.”

The three also were unanimous in backing Common Core, the controversial educational standards that the state adopted a few years back, which are now under fire from some conservatives, some parents and some teachers.

Edwards argued that continuing to participate “will pull us up rather than down.” Blanco endorsed the idea but said the rollout was flawed, in part because teachers weren’t given enough training and time to shift gears. She also argued that many opponents hate the idea simply because President Barack Obama is for it, based on the incorrect conclusion that it represents a federal takeover.

Roemer, whose son Chas is a key Common Core backer on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, looked to football for an analogy. When LSU is ranked No. 1 in the nation, he said, it’s meaningful because the team successfully competed against the best in the country, not just the state or the region.

Blanco’s two predecessors agreed that she was unfairly maligned for her performance after Katrina.

“I thought she did one hell of a job” under the circumstances, Roemer said. And Edwards, who came in second to Roemer in 1987, then dropped out of the runoff, only to return in the infamous 1991 election in which he and Klansman David Duke squeezed Roemer out of the runoff, quipped that “You’re going to hear me say something you’ve never heard me say before. I agree with Roemer. I’m empathetic with her.”

For her part, Blanco focused on the lessons she learned from the experience, including the importance of party in disaster response. In retrospect, she said, she would have simply become a Republican had she understood the lay of the land. Still, she said she doesn’t think President George W. Bush is personally at fault for instigating a blame game.

“He was badly managed. He had political people around him,” she said.

So you don’t blame him, Zurik asked?

“Well, I blame him for hiring political people,” she answered.

The three governors agreed that it’s too soon to handicap the contenders to succeed Jindal, although each predicted that whoever it is will inherit a big financial headache. When Zurik asked the panel to complete the sentence “The next governor will be….,” Edwards chimed in: “Very unhappy.”

One interesting note on this topic was that Roemer, who was one of the few politicians who backed David Vitter for Congress back during his swashbuckling reformist days in the Legislature, said he was reserving judgment on the now-U.S. senator’s bid for governor. Roemer’s concern, he said, is that Vitter now seems to be about politics first and results second — an assessment that Blanco and Edwards, who’ve each tangled with Vitter over the years, would surely echo. Still, Roemer added that he “won’t shut him out.”

Among the evening’s many unexpected moments was a rare disagreement in the group over the extent to which Jindal deserves blame for huge cuts to higher education.

Roemer, who got his start in politics as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in the early 1970s, and Edwards, who oversaw the creation and adoption of the new constitution, both noted that the framers tried to protect so many policy priorities that they left governors little choice but to look to health care and higher ed to balance the budget.

Blanco, who beat Jindal in 2003 but declined to run for second term, was far less forgiving. She said it’s a matter of priorities and noted that each of the governors on stage, as well as Foster, had worked to improve higher ed in the state. She contended that almost all of that work has been dismantled and said it’s been “disheartening to watch it melt down.”

“This isn’t political,” she said. “It’s real.”

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.