Quin Hillyer: Dardenne is a man of motion

Louisiana’s election for governor is still 17 months off, but Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne already seems to be everywhere, without ever going beyond his official duties. I caught up with Dardenne a few weeks ago, just before he started a weeklong, statewide tour promoting the Louisiana tourism industry in conjunction with National Tourism Week.

But before I could publish this column, Dardenne already had moved on to serving as host at the Bayou Country Superfest and at events for the June 8 Miss USA Pageant — both of which he played significant roles in attracting and/or promoting.

Covington one noontime, Alexandria that night. Shreveport one day, Avondale the next. The Warner Bros. Road Runner might have trouble keeping up.

“It was a real coup for Baton Rouge to have lured the Miss USA pageant away from Las Vegas,” Dardenne said by phone May 29 while giving copious credit to city elected officials and the city’s convention bureau. “The girls are already in town for two weeks along with family members or chaperones and several hundred people that represent the pageant working to coordinate the event. It’s the equivalent of a major convention, plus the telecast on NBC in prime time will give a lot of exposure to Baton Rouge and Louisiana.”

Three days after the culmination of that event, the Republican Dardenne will be in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center along with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat. The two are co-chairs of a project called The Big River Works, sponsored by America’s WETLAND Foundation, which promotes both the commerce and the ecology of the mighty Mississippi, and they are presenting their findings to Congress.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, he’ll be speaking, along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, at the national meeting of the Forest Landowners Association in New Orleans.

All of which is precisely his job, as the lieutenant governor is statutorily in charge of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Dardenne has gone even a step beyond the statutory, somewhat figurehead-ish role: He did not hire a “secretary” of the department, so he actually acts as the hands-on manager of the department as well as in the more traditional “ambassadorial” function.

Whether because of his work or other factors (or an ample combination of both), Louisiana’s tourism industry has been booming. In 2013, the number of visitors to the state reached a new high, 27.3 million, for the second consecutive year, exceeding 26.3 million in 2012 and supporting an estimated 152,000 direct jobs. Visitor spending, at $10.8 billion, and tax receipts from visitors, at $807 million, also reached new records last year. (Numbers come from a report from the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center, which projects continued increases in all categories through 2017.)

This — the economic potential of tourism marketing — was the message Dardenne was promoting at midsized cities throughout Louisiana from May 5-8 as part of National Tourism Week, which was why I visited his office (an hour before he started his tour) in the first place. His enthusiasm for the task was infectious — although, he admitted, “I do miss the legislative process” that allowed him in his 15 years as a state senator to handle many different issues rather than being monofocused on one area of government.

His model and mentor in the Legislature was John Hainkel, of New Orleans, the legendarily enthusiastic state House and Senate member from 1968 through his death (at a lawmaker’s retreat attended by Dardenne) in 2005. A framed letter from Hainkel, the first man ever to serve as both speaker of the state House and president of the state Senate, stands prominently on Dardenne’s office bookshelf, and the lieutenant governor says “not a day goes by” without Hainkel crossing his mind.

The one job Hainkel wanted but never attained was governor; Dardenne, who has won seven straight elections (to four different posts) since a narrow defeat for state Senate in 1987, is not shy about seeking that final promotion.

“I’ve left every job I’ve had in better shape than I’ve found it,” he said. And then Dardenne was out the door, eager to prove it on his next tour promoting Louisiana’s virtues.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is Qhillyer@theadvocate.com.