Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

John Kennedy, enigma wrapped in a treasurer

All the recent headlines about state Treasurer John Kennedy have revealed neither the man behind the plan nor his ultimate endgame.

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While it has been impossible to ignore the public statements of state Treasurer John Kennedy as a member of the governor's Commission on Streamlining Government, trying to peg who he is as a private citizen is more difficult. On the surface, at least, he's a country boy with wonkish tendencies. A quick glance around his office confirms as much. From his collection of letter openers to a framed arm patch once worn by the late comic actor Don Knotts as part of his Barney Fife costume on The Andy Griffith Show, Kennedy's office reflects his unique, if homespun, interests.

  Then he comes out of left field with, "I just think Meat Loaf is an unbelievably talented musician. He's getting old and his pipes are a little rusty, but the guy can really sing and perform. I knew my wife Becky really loved me when she sat through an entire Meat Loaf concert."

  He quickly transitions back to his public form, discussing the dozens of financial magazines he reads regularly. "I just think The Economist is one of the finest publications out there," he says. "I just can't get enough of it." In his spare time, Kennedy is also an adjunct professor at LSU Law School and a substitute teacher for East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, where he says he teaches at least three times each year.

  As for his real free time, Kennedy has a passion for fly-fishing, although he hasn't gone as far as tying his own flies yet. A proud penny-pincher, Kennedy says he doesn't even buy flies from retail outlets. "It's just too expensive to go out and buy a bunch of flies — and to make them, really," Kennedy says. "That's why I go on eBay. You can find flies on there for 50 cents or less sometimes." 

  Public persona aside, it's clear to everyone in and around state politics that Kennedy is positioning himself for something. But what? Does he want to run for governor? Will he jump into the GOP primary during next year's U.S. Senate race? Answers to those questions are murky, but it has been a long and winding journey that has brought Kennedy to this point in his career.

  Several months ago, it was practically unfathomable that the treasurer would already be back up on his political legs. He had, after all, lost two bids for the U.S. Senate (in 2004 and 2008) and one for attorney general in 1991. In fact, he has lost every office he has ever sought, save treasurer. (Kennedy was first elected state treasurer in 1999, unseating incumbent Ken Duncan with 55 percent of the vote. He has won re-election without opposition since.)

  When asked about his next move, Kennedy says, "I haven't looked at a poll in over a year." If that's true, then maybe it's time for him to take a peek, says Bernie Pinsonat, who heads up the Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research. In October, Pinsonat's firm released a poll that showcased Kennedy as the most popular statewide elected official after Gov. Bobby Jindal and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Pinsonat adds that Landrieu's 64 percent approval rating is offset somewhat by a 22 percent negative rating, whereas Kennedy has a nearly 61 percent approval rating and only a 15 percent negative rating. Jindal's negative rating was 32 percent.

  Such figures portend upward mobility for Kennedy, says Pinsonat. His negatives come largely from "trying to out-Democrat Chris John in 2004" and then turning around to run for the U.S. Senate in 2008 as a conservative Republican.

  "And if his opponents try to do that again, it won't resonate as much with voters. It won't be as effective," Pinsonat says. "He couldn't ask for a better turn of luck right now. When he's up on TV and in the papers talking about budget cuts, it's more like he's Gov. Kennedy than Treasurer Kennedy. It's a great image to have right now."

  Still, Pinsonat acknowledges that anyone who digs below the surface will find a guy who has been all over the map politically. Kennedy remains enigmatic, a complicated character with inscrutable motives. When viewed from the perspective of his entire career, it's hard to ascertain what he really believes.

  He's been a lawyer, a cabinet official, a campaign manager, an elected official, a Republican and a Democrat. Just a few years ago, he was allied with liberal icon Cleo Fields, a former state senator and African-American leader. Today, he's buddy-buddy with U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the conservative, family-values archetype who has more than once got in hot water with minorities for racially charged politics — not to mention his well-known prostitution scandal.

  If discerning who Kennedy is — the man behind the man — is challenging, then figuring out where he's going is downright impossible. When asked if he wants to run for governor, Kennedy flatly says, "No." When asked if he'll jump into the Senate race next year, again he says, "No." Kennedy says he's "having fun" doing his job and there's no endgame in sight. At least for now.

  "After last year's election, I decided to leave politics alone. I decided that I was done with it," he says. "I want to run for re-election as treasurer, and I can't think of a set of circumstances that would change that."

  Kennedy's latest campaign finance report shows him with more than $560,000 in the bank, and consultants interviewed agree a challenger would need at least $2 million to make Team Kennedy worry. Until his re-election bid begins, though, speculation will continue as to Kennedy's angle. When pressed, Kennedy fires back with what he says is a definitive answer. "I've made up my mind. I'm enjoying what I'm doing," he says.

  "If people want to assign different motives to me, I can't stop them. I can only look you in the eye and tell you what my plans are. But I understand that speculation and politics are sports in Louisiana."

  Kennedy insists there's no smoke, no mirrors and, more importantly, no hidden agenda. "I'm just doing my job," he says.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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