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  • Writer's pictureStaff @ LPR

How Louisiana Republicans will pick a House speaker — and how Jeff Landry is involved

For eight years, Republicans in the Louisiana Legislature have proudly touted their independence from the governor — a dynamic that emerged after Democrat John Bel Edwards claimed the governorship and Republicans’ ranks grew. But on Thursday, Gov.-elect Jeff Landry met with six hand-picked GOP state representatives running for House speaker and charted a path with them toward uniting Republicans behind one of those candidates for that role.

Landry’s intervention yielded a new set of rules for picking speaker nominees — an attempt to leave behind the political infighting that snarled House Republicans' priorities over the past few years, lawmakers say. And it underscores a shift in Louisiana politics as a new GOP governor and likely Republican legislative supermajorities are poised to flex broader power after Edwards' two terms in the Governor’s Mansion.

“This is about unity and choosing who can bring everybody together, which is something we haven’t done real well at the past four years,” said Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville and one of the six speaker candidates who attended the meeting. Landry, currently the state’s attorney general, wrote in an email to House Republicans after the meeting that he invited candidates he believes are best equipped to lead the chamber. They are Reps. Julie Emerson of Carencro, Phillip DeVillier of Eunice, Jack McFarland of Winnfield, Brett Geymann of Lake Charles, Daryl Deshotel of Marksville and Bacala.

Several other Republican lawmakers running for speaker were not invited to the meeting, including Reps. Neil Riser of Columbia and Jerome “Zee” Zeringue of Houma. On Monday, Zeringue took himself out of the running. A memo signed during Thursday’s meeting by those six candidates and Landry, obtained by this newspaper, details the process they all agreed upon for selecting a speaker nominee.

'We as Republicans will not be divided' The rules call for state Republicans to follow the process the party uses in Washington to select a House speaker. The speaker candidates in Louisiana will be nominated by secret ballot in a Republican caucus meeting, the memo says. If no candidate receives over 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff with a second round of secret balloting.

The candidate who receives the most votes “shall be selected as our official, Republican nominee for House Speaker,” the memo says. Then the full House would vote on nominees and Democrats would have a chance to put forward their own nominee. A candidate needs at least 53 votes in the 105-member House to win the gavel. House Republicans are scheduled to cast those votes on Dec. 4, said Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, who is in line to be the House party caucus leader.

In the days before Thursday’s meeting, House Republicans circulated a different pledge promising to back the party’s eventual speaker nominee. Every Republican House member signed it.

State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, drafted that pledge and promoted it to other House Republicans. Johnson — who is not related to the new Louisianan U.S. House speaker of the same name — said the chaos that plagued Washington Republicans’ recent speaker election gave him the idea.

“I wanted to make sure that we as Republicans will not be divided,” said Johnson, who is running for speaker pro tem, the second-ranking position in the state House.

A new reality Until Edwards took power in 2016, Louisiana governors typically played a decisive role in choosing who would serve as House speaker and Senate president, a power not accorded to governors in other states.

But House Republicans rebelled at Edwards’ attempt to install a fellow Democrat as speaker that year and picked then-Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, instead.

A process for picking nominees did not exist when current Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, formed a coalition with Democrats to win the speaker’s gavel in 2020. Conservative Republicans complained afterward about Schexnayder’s decision to give Democrats several committee chairmanships as a reward, and they pushed him over the next four years to the right, over the objections of Democrats.

Now, with Landry leading the executive branch and the GOP all but sure to retain supermajorities in both the House and Senate, Republicans don’t want Democrats to have any say in picking the House leader. The speaker chooses committee chairs and members, serves as the House’s chief liaison with the governor and is spokesperson for the chamber.

Landry’s earlier-than-expected victory kicked efforts to pick the State Legislature’s new leadership into high gear in recent weeks. On the Senate side, Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, secured the upper chamber’s top job last weekafter his chief rival, Sen. Mike Reese, R-Leesville, agreed to end his bid for the job. Landry played a role in that process, too, making it clear in private that he favored Henry for the post. On the House side, many political insiders believe that DeVillier, Deshotel and McFarland are the favorites. But no one can be sure for now since no formal tally exists.

The candidates DeVillier, 47, might have an advantage because he has had the closest relationship with Landry over the years dating to before the governor-elect was attorney general. DeVillier, a real estate and business owner, says he has the conservative credentials for the job and works well with others.

Deshotel, 49, found early financial success by founding a computer company. While his politics aren’t far removed from DeVillier’s, Deshotel says he would use his business acumen to run the chamber more “like a CEO.”

McFarland, 53, touts his experience chairing the House Conservative Caucus and crafting fiscal policy on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. McFarland calls himself a staunch conservative who can still unite Republicans.

Emerson, 35, champions her conservative credentials while saying she has good relationships with all of her colleagues. A political consultant, she managed the campaign of Nancy Landry, the top vote-getter in the secretary of state’s race. Geymann, 61, made his name as a “fiscal hawk” who opposed the budget tricks employed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. A real estate developer, he took the lead during this year’s legislative session in trying to reduce the size of a massive infrastructure spending package.

Bacala, 66, worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Ascension Parish for 37 years. Bacala said he has the respect of his House colleagues and understands the true scope of the speaker’s responsibilities, which also include hiring staff and managing security.

Riser, 61, has the most experience of any candidate, having served 12 years in the Senate and four in the House. He is a banker and funeral home owner.

New Orleans Rep. Matthew Willard, the House Democratic Caucus vice-chair, said some of the candidates have reached out to House Democrats in recent weeks to discuss their vision for the role. It’s too early for the caucus to decide whether to unite behind one candidate, Willard said, adding that it’s unlikely Democrats will run a speaker candidate of their own because of the strength of Republicans’ majority. Voters would be well-served by the speaker candidates engaging with their Democratic colleagues, Willard said.

“At the end of the day, they aren’t only representing the Republican caucus, they’re representing the House as a whole,” he said.


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