The way Rep. Bubba Chaney tells it, he was "ambushed" by the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) in late April when he presented legislation to modify the process for selecting public school textbooks. Schoolbooks are a hot-button topic for Christian conservatives, especially when it comes to evolution and biological sciences.
Heavy hitters such as LFF co-founder Darrell White, a former judge, and law professor Michelle Ghetti were lined up to address the House Education Committee. Chaney, D-Rayville, who filed House Bill 50 several weeks earlier, had no idea his bill had opposition. "If we had an opportunity to talk to these folks, we could have worked it out," he said afterward.
Whether or not LFF intended to "ambush" the bill, several committee members (but not Chaney) were contacted by the group beforehand. The bill died in committee that day.
LFF Executive Director Gene Mills, a familiar face around the Capitol during legislative sessions, commented in May that politics can be like war. "And you don't go to a gunfight with a knife in your hand," he said.
So far this session, LFF has successfully pushed legislation requiring ultrasounds before abortions and a "Preservation of Religious Freedoms Act." But that's just the beginning. LFF is beginning to weigh in on fiscal policy, opposing the use of the so-called rainy day fund to balance the current year's budget.
The group also worked against what its members dubbed the "Stranger Adoption Bill." Authored by Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans, the measure would have allowed two unrelated adults to adopt a child. LFF labeled the measure a vehicle for same-sex couples to adopt, for which LaFonta made no excuses in defending his failed bill.
Unlike Chaney, LaFonta was unfazed by the defeat, perhaps because he faces off against LFF on more issues than some other lawmakers. He expects to see more of the group in coming years. "They're very professional," he says. "I've never had a concern with them. Seriously. And it's not just these kinds of bills. Family Forum is beginning to get involved in other issues, too."
As a 501(c)(3), LFF was not originally created to lobby the Legislature. That's why another related entity — Louisiana Family Forum Action, a 501(c)(4) — was formed in 2004. According to records on file with the state Board of Ethics, Mills is the only lobbyist representing LFFA, which has spent nearly $29,000 since January 2009 hosting, entertaining, educating, meeting with and otherwise influencing lawmakers.
As for where LFF and LFFA get their money, Mills says only that individuals, churches and businesses give to the groups as they would any nonprofit.
The groups' real strength may come in the form of another currency, says one veteran lobbyist. Over the years, LFF has built up a massive list of supporters who are ready to go to war on a moment's notice in the name of religion.
"They've carefully branded themselves and wrapped themselves in the American flag," says the lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They're a subset of the Republican Party and are in close with [Gov. Bobby] Jindal and [U.S. Sen. David] Vitter. Some people may have not taken Family Forum seriously in the beginning, but they better now. They've got stroke."
Mills laughs off the notion that LFF serves as a puppet for the state GOP. When asked if he were a registered Republican, however, Mills did not hesitate. "I am," he says. "For now." He adds that pressure has been building in recent years for LFF to join other Louisiana Republicans under a big tent, something Mills says he has resisted. "I get criticized a lot," Mills says. "But I don't want to be a surrogate for the party."
Mills quickly adds that LFFA has found itself sitting beside an unlikely partner this year, a pairing that either means hell is freezing over or the bill the group opposes is a real stinker: As lawmakers consider withdrawing from a national ID card program, Mills has aligned himself with the American Civil Liberties Union to support the move.
House Bill 870 is about protecting privacy, Mills says, but his supporters shouldn't read too much into his newfound — and no doubt temporary — alliance with the ACLU. "Even a broken clock gets the time right twice a day," he says, smiling.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.