Ex-Jindal aide to head LABI

Advocate file photo by Travis Spradling --  Stephen Waguespack, left, then  chief of staff to Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Rina Thomas, center, a governor's staff policy advisor, congratulate state Rep. Kevin Pearson, right, after the Louisiana House in May 2012 approved a key part of Jindal's pension system revamp. Show caption
Advocate file photo by Travis Spradling -- Stephen Waguespack, left, then chief of staff to Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Rina Thomas, center, a governor's staff policy advisor, congratulate state Rep. Kevin Pearson, right, after the Louisiana House in May 2012 approved a key part of Jindal's pension system revamp.

The state’s largest business lobby named one of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s former top aides as its new leader Friday.

Stephen Waguespack, who worked as the governor’s chief of staff, will become president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, or LABI, on Sept. 16. He left the Jindal administration last year to work as a lawyer for the Jones Walker law firm. He said Friday that he plans to resign from his role as a gubernatorial appointee on the state’s top school board.

Waguespack’s appointment comes just months after LABI dealt the governor a heavy blow by opposing his tax package. The governor wanted to eliminate the state’s income taxes in favor of higher state sales taxes. LABI said the plan would shift too high of a tax burden on businesses. The criticism was crippling because most legislators strive to maintain strong ties with the business community. The governor abandoned his tax package on the first day of the legislative session.

LABI represents businesses across the state and employs 10 full-time lobbyists. The group’s headquarters are in Baton Rouge.

The fact that Waguespack was in the running to replace Dan Juneau, who is retiring, was no secret in State Capitol circles and sparked speculation that Jindal exerted pressure to shore up his influence with LABI. Waguespack worked on Jindal’s 2007 gubernatorial campaign and served as the governor’s executive counsel and chief of staff.

Waguespack, 39, said Friday that the speculation was nonsense. “I don’t think people buy into that,” he said.

State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville and a former LABI chairman, agreed, adding that he hoped Waguespack’s relationship with Jindal would allow greater gubernatorial access to discuss issues important to LABI. “Steven is a hard-nosed negotiator. He’s well respected by legislators and savvy about the process,” Donahue said.

“What I know of Stephen, he seems to be a pretty independent thinker, and he seems to be his own man,” said Patrick Mulhearn, director of studio operations at Raleigh Studios in Baton Rouge.

In a prepared statement, LABI search committee member John Finan Jr. said the selection process was “objective and comprehensive.” Finan, who is president and CEO of Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, did not return a call for comment. His assistant said search committee members agreed not to speak to the media.

Former House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, also interviewed to run LABI. Tucker said Friday that the selection was handled professionally. “It was an honor for them to call me. I didn’t apply,” he said.

Tucker said his real estate development business caused complications with his possible hiring because he has several projects that will not be finished until next year. Tucker recently bought a hotel in Ponchatoula and a shopping center.

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said Waguespack still needs to work at dispelling any perception that he is joined at the hip with the governor. Erwin said people will watch closely to see how LABI responds when its agenda conflicts with the governor’s policies.

“I’m sure people will be eyeballing (Waguespack) very closely for a long time,” Erwin said.

One tie that Waguespack plans to sever is his role as one of the governor’s appointees on the state’s top school board. Waguespack said he will resign from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, in order to fully focus on his new job.

Chas Roemer, president of BESE, praised Waguespack’s selection as LABI’s president.

“I think he will do a great job,” Roemer said. “I find Stephen to be a good listener and a good thinker.”

However, Roemer said he was concerned that Waguespack will be leaving BESE, which he joined in March as one of Jindal’s three appointees.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers, a union that represents public school employees, and LABI have had a rough relationship over the past few sessions, said Steve Monaghan, president of LFT.

Though Waguespack always carried water for the governor, Monaghan said he always showed a willingness to discuss and debate ideas. Though unions and businesses often pursue conflicting goals, Monaghan said he thinks LFT and LABI can build on Waguespack’s willingness to listen to opposing points of view.

“There’s a possibility we can look for common ground, rather than outright rejection because of the union label. We’re looking for opportunities to make improvements rather than be in constant war,” Monaghan said.

Waguespack said his first task will be to meet with as many LABI members as possible. He said any decision on whether to back the governor’s agenda will hinge on whether the policy is right for LABI.

“My main goal is to unite the business community. If we can unite that community behind a strong, reform-minded agenda, that would be pretty powerful,” he said.

Mark Ballard and Will Sentell of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau, and Ted Griggs of The Advocate Business desk contributed to this report.