Like campers sitting around a fire in the dark of night, lawmakers speak of Gov. Bobby Jindal in hushed tones — mixed, to borrow from the late Hunter S. Thompson, with equal measures of fear and loathing. They say he's vengeful, petty and heavy-handed, the antithesis of the likeably wonkish, good-government persona he's hawking around the country. (Jindal was in West Virginia last week, helping GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney raise money — and, of course, promoting his alleged bona fides as a potential vice president.) Such criticisms reveal legislators' genuine disdain for Jindal, but their fear is likewise evident in the fact that few if any will criticize him publicly.
That's understandable, if lamentable — for when Jindal strikes back, he does so brutally, albeit often with little fanfare and even less candor. His vengeance typically comes via underlings who deliver the bad news and then slavishly adhere to official talking points when asked to explain. Other times it is shrouded in vaguely worded, cookie-cutter veto messages that cite burdens on the private sector, duplication of services or laws, budget constraints or other conservative touchstones — never the real reason: punishment for not toeing the governor's line.
"He's an imperial governor," says one longtime lawmaker who, predictably, asked not to be named. "We're being spoken to as children by children. The people in his nursery, his administration, have no idea how to work with the Legislature. He's about to start a very real war."
Regrettably, we doubt that.
What Jindal is doing may be loathsome, but it's hardly new. Past governors have punished legislative outliers, though not since Huey Long has a governor exacted revenge so ruthlessly, so relentlessly or so brazenly. Veteran political observer C.B. Forgotston (www.forgotston.com) has rightly dubbed him "Huey P. Jindal." The iron-fisted Long was impeached for his tyrannical ways, but he thwarted his foes and went on to rule Louisiana with an even heavier hand. Ever since, Louisiana governors have had little trouble cowing legislators.
Although Louisiana nominally has three branches of government, the concepts of "separation of powers" and "checks and balances" exist only in theory here. Our governors wield inordinate power, which is why they, not lawmakers, typically choose the House speaker and the Senate president, who dutifully carry out their marching orders.
For example, early in this year's legislative session, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, removed Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, as vice chairman of the House Insurance Committee right after Ritchie opposed one of the governor's education bills. After the session ended, Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, lost his spot as vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Kleckley cited Morris' alleged lack of participation in chairmen's meetings; Morris said it was payback for his failure to vote with the governor on key issues. And just last week, Kleckley bumped Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, from the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Harrison's district hugs the state's fragile coastline, but he introduced an alternative education package and criticized Jindal's proposed retirement reforms.
Jindal spares no one from his wrath. Shortly before the session began, he fired Martha Manuel, head of the Governor's Office of Elderly Affairs, the day after she criticized his plan to relocate her office. After Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Treasurer John Kennedy — both Republicans — criticized some of Jindal's budget proposals, he cut more than $2.5 million from their offices. A Jindal spokesman smugly noted that Kennedy's $500,000 cut would help "streamline" the treasury. Ironically, Kennedy has pushed a number of real streamlining measures which Jindal's minions have killed.
Can anyone stand up to Jindal without suffering retribution? Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, recently took a proactive step. He relinquished his spot on the House Natural Resources Committee — and gave up his apartment in the Pentagon Barracks, located across the street from the Capitol and considered a perk for favored lawmakers. Geymann, a leader of the so-called "fiscal hawks" who opposed Jindal's use — again — of one-time money to balance the budget, wrote in his resignation letter that he wants to "focus on budget reform full time in my role as a member of the Appropriations Committee." Because he was elected to that committee by his peers, Geymann cannot be removed by Jindal or his enforcer, Kleckley.
Geymann's decision is an encouraging sign, even if it bespeaks a lawmaker with nothing to lose. More legislators should make such declarations of conscience — and act upon them. Some may pay a political price, but Louisiana ultimately will pay a much higher price for Huey P. Jindal's tyranny.