Louisiana politics for the past half-century has mostly been a struggle between the forces of modernization or "reform" and entrenched interests seeking to preserve the status quo. Before that, as A. J. Liebling famously noted, "reform" in Louisiana meant moving the fat hogs away from the trough so that the lean hogs could get their fill.
Not long after Liebling published The Earl of Louisiana, a group of business and civic leaders gathered in New Orleans to try to change the paradigm. They sought systemic, long-term changes. They were already part of an independent policy research group called PAR — the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana — but PAR was not a lobbying group, which meant its recommendations often were ignored.
As often happens in New Orleans, a decision was made over lunch. Two local businessmen, Darwin Fenner and Edgar Stern Jr., kicked around the idea of a political action group to promote PAR's agenda. Their discussion grew to include more than a dozen, and eventually almost 100, civic and business leaders across the state. The organization they formed was the Council for A Better Louisiana, or CABL (www.cabl.org).
The year was 1962, and in the five decades since, CABL has been a leading force for reform in Louisiana. Not the kind of "lean-hogs-getting-their-fill" reform so astutely observed by Liebling, but real, lasting, systemic reform.
By today's standards some of the changes adopted as a result of CABL's efforts seem quaint, but at the time each required nothing short of political warfare.
In the 1960s, CABL helped secure passage of the state's first Code of Ethics and convinced lawmakers to invest idle state funds, which previously sat in politically connected banks — earning no interest. In 1965, CABL helped lead the fight to end government-sanctioned segregation by convincing then-Gov. John McKeithen to create the state's first biracial Commission on Human Relations. It also pushed for better governance of higher education by helping establish the forerunner of today's Board of Regents.
In the 1970s and '80s (and since), CABL was a leading advocate for campaign finance legislation and tax reform, the latter of which remains a front-burner issue in Louisiana. (See Commentary, p. 12.) CABL also promoted the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. Though not a financial success for its investors, the fair rejuvenated downtown New Orleans and created the Warehouse Arts District, which remains one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods.
More recently, CABL pushed for legislation establishing term limits, ending retirement benefits for lawmakers, prohibiting candidates and elected officials from accepting contributions from gaming interests, strengthening ethics laws, calling local option elections on gambling, increasing school accountability and supporting community colleges.
The above list is far from all-inclusive, but it shows that CABL, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, has been a lifeline for reform in Louisiana.
"The history of CABL is to a large degree the history of the modern reform movement in Louisiana," says Barry Erwin, CABL's president. "CABL was not the only player, and not all of CABL's efforts have been successful. However, the story its accomplishments tell is one of generations of committed men and women [who] shared at least one thing in common — a passionate desire to make Louisiana a better place for all of its citizens."
Looking ahead to 2013, Erwin says CABL will continue to push for public education reform, which in recent years has become the group's main focus. "This means objective analysis of academic results, accountability and making changes where needed," he says.
CABL's history teaches us that "reform" is a never-ending process in Louisiana.