One of the few agreements across ideological lines last week in the Louisiana Legislature was that the “tone” of discourse had become mean and partisan.
Democratic state Sen. Karen Peterson, of New Orleans, took the Senate floor to complain that “strong-arm tactics” — such as derogatory mailers sent to constituents, and personal attacks on lawmakers by partisan columnists — were being used to stifle debate and rush through Gov. Bobby Jindal’s overhaul that greatly expands privatization in public education.
“We all represent 39 constituencies that may vary in opinion and needs, but the executive branch is trying to intimidate senators not to debate,” Peterson said.
Republican State Sen. Norby Chabert, of Houma, complained that as a Jindal-backer, he was being attacked in phone calls to his district’s voters that claimed he supports Muslims getting tax dollars for schools.
Please pass over Chabert’s apparent belief that being associated with Muslim parents wanting to educate their children is somehow slanderous. His point was that “outside special interests” were trying to influence Louisiana lawmakers by going straight to the people who vote for them, a decidedly partisan tactic.
“People try to implement their wills on our constituents by telling half-truths,” Chabert said.
State Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville, pointed the finger at Jindal. “He has divided this House into Democrats and Republicans, and that’s not right,” Armes said.
Timmy Teepell, the architect of Jindal’s conservative battleship, disagrees.
Robocalls and nasty mailers have long been tools in Louisiana politics, said Teepell, who now works as a political consultant. Plus, about half the Democrats in the GOP-dominated state Senate backed the governor on education, while a considerable number of otherwise faithful Republicans voted against it. Perhaps off-base in their content, the parade of legislative complaints does represent notice of a historic shift in Louisiana politics.
Teepell says the change is ideological, not partisan. It’s the result of a shift that began shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when Louisiana voters moved to correct a government that failed to provide services, he said.
“We used to laugh at the stories of corruption and incompetence in government. Katrina showed us that there are real consequences,” he said.
An urgency to move right accelerated in some voters with the election of President Barack Obama, Teepell said.
Many Louisiana voters, according to Teepell, mobilized with concerns that the federal government was expanding too fast. Those voters questioned Obama’s policies, including the use of taxpayer dollars to fund failing banks, invest heavily in the automobile industry and stabilize Wall Street.
“The average Louisiana voter is saying, ‘Whoa! That’s taking government in the wrong direction,’” Teepell said.
The 2011 legislative campaigns, into which Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La. poured money, also helped create a Legislature that is far more conservative, Teepell said.
Political scholar Pearson Cross agreed that a visceral dislike of Obama has mobilized some Southern voters. Redistricting also played a role, he said, by redrawing the lines from which politicians are elected in a way that grouped like-minded voters.
Secure in districts whose homogenous constituencies are politically all one way or the other, lawmakers no longer need to work with opponents, he said. The side with the most representatives and senators wins, said Cross, of the University of Louisiana Lafayette.
State government historically has focused on pragmatic solutions, he said.
“The working majority now is conservative Republicans,” Cross said. “The focus is now on their ideology.”
Even while Louisiana legislators were hustling through a massive education overhaul, despite hundreds of schoolteachers chanting their opposition on the State Capitol steps, they were also advancing other measures — over loud objections.
One bill that eventually could allow firearms to be carried just about anywhere was opposed by prosecutors, police and higher education officials, but passed out of committee easily. Another bill aimed at removing “special protections” against discrimination government agencies have given gay people.
“We’re seeing what was rhetoric for national politics really make inroads at the state level and there hasn’t been much pushback,” Cross said. “At least for the near future, through the end of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s terms, that is the direction this state is headed.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com.