Greene joins candidates for speaker of La. House

Though nobody has yet signed up to run for a new legislative term, candidates already are jockeying to lead the Louisiana House in 2012. State Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, became the fifth representative to throw his hat into the ring when he announced his hopes Tuesday of becoming the first speaker of the House from Baton Rouge.

State Reps. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans; Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles; Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge; and Joel Robideaux, No Party-Lafayette, also say they are vying for the presiding officer position.

Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, has to leave the House at the end of the year because of the term limits law, which limits the number of years a lawmaker can serve.

“They have to get re-elected first,” said Democratic state Rep. Jim Fannin, of Jonesboro, who is chairman of the House Appropriations committee.

Candidate sign-up begins Sept. 6 for the Oct. 22 primary election of the next four-year legislative term.

“It’s early yet. But this is Louisiana politics and folks enjoy it, so they crank it up as soon as possible,” Fannin said. When asked if he would run, Fannin said: “I’m on the sideline. That’s all I’m going to say.”

State Rep. Jane Smith, R-Bossier City, who heads the House Republican delegation, said politicking for leadership positions has evolved into campaigns not unlike the ones waged for elective office, with a lot of travel and personal visits.

“People know they have to get started early, if they are going to secure their votes,” said Smith, who is running for the state Senate and won’t get to vote for the House speaker in 2012.

The five contenders already

have started meeting with the various caucuses and coalitions.

“We’ve met with everybody who has their name in the hat so far,” said Democratic state Rep. Patricia Smith, of Baton Rouge and chairwoman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus.

“We are asking for independence. We’re asking for better communication” between House members and the governor, said Smith, adding that no commitments will be made until after the elections.

Greene, who grew up in north Louisiana but has lived his adult life in Baton Rouge, said he can bring together representatives from different regions. And living in Baton Rouge, Greene said, means he would be more accessible to legislators and better able to attend functions and hearings.

“I don’t think that what defines me is the letter behind my name,” Greene said. He was first elected in 2005 and chairs the House Ways and Means committee, which oversees tax policies.

Robideaux, who as speaker pro tem is second in House leadership today, said the lower chamber is a mixture of different interests joined together by geography or philosophy. The next speaker will be the candidate who best can cobble together coalitions among the various interest groups and do so on a regular basis, he said.

“If the race becomes partisan, that’s an indication that the body is going to be more partisan over the next four years,” said Robideaux, who has no party affiliation and was first elected in 2004.

Kleckley said bringing together the different factions would enable the next speaker to focus energies on policies and programs.

“There are several different groups within the House. But we’re not far apart on differences and we can come to some sort of agreement on issues,” Kleckley said. He was elected in 2005 and chairs the House insurance committee.

“Independence in the House doesn’t mean that we don’t work with the governor, that we don’t work with the Senate,” said Arnold, the only Democrat vying for the job. “It means that we represent our constituents first.”

Arnold, who was first elected in 2002, is a longtime friend of the current speaker, whom Tucker singled out for praise during his farewell address. Arnold said he helped the Republican Tucker get elected speaker of a House that at the time was majority Democratic.

Ponti was elected in 2007 and is chairman of the House Labor and Industrial Relations committee. He was on vacation Tuesday and was unavailable for comment.