Donald Trump's upending of the presidential election wasn't the only political surprise of 2016. We had plenty of shockers here in Louisiana, starting with the Louisiana House's declaration of independence from the governor in January to Mike Yenni's sexting scandal breaking open in September — with lots more in between and since. Herewith our annual list of the top 10 political stories:
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Gov. John Bel Edwards has lost some key legislative battles.
1. No honeymoon for John Bel Edwards
John Bel Edwards may have won the 2015 governor's race by a wide margin, but stalwart Republicans in the House are determined to undercut him at every turn. So far they have won some key battles. It started early, on Inauguration Day, when state Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, beat Democrat Walt Leger III (who was Edwards' choice) to become House speaker — a setback that haunts Edwards to this day and will continue to haunt him in 2017. Other partisan fights have erupted over budgets and taxes, culture wars over immigration and LGBT rights, and the ambitions of new state Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is emerging as a potential rival to Edwards in 2019.
2. Never-ending fiscal crises
Call it Bobby Jindal's toxic legacy. State government is mired in structural deficits, the popular TOPS college scholarship program tumbles headlong toward extinction, health care and higher education remain perennially underfunded, and partisan lawmakers cannot agree on a rational, responsible path forward. On top of all that, voters this fall rejected constitutional amendments to give public universities tuition autonomy and to institute corporate tax reform. Three special sessions produced mostly gridlock and not-quite-enough temporary revenue measures that left the state more than $300 million short this fiscal year, which means more mid-year cuts to hospitals and higher ed. Contrast that debacle with Jefferson Parish voters renewing property and sales taxes and New Orleans voters renewing a Sewerage and Water Board millage while also approving a new 2.5-mill property tax for fire protection. The lesson here: If you show voters a direct connection between taxes and quality of life, they will say "yes."
- Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni's sexting scandal prompted a recall petition.
3. Mike Yenni's
A year ago, Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni was a rising star. Now he's a pariah in his own parish, thanks to a series of sexually explicit texts he sent to a 17-year-old high school student. A recall petition has been filed but seems stuck on stuck. No matter. In the long run, Yenni has no political future. Meanwhile, Jefferson Parish government is a rudderless ship.
4. Gun violence
There was a time when violent crime was seen as a New Orleans issue. Now it's everybody's problem. The shooting of Alton Sterling by cops in Baton Rouge, followed by the deadly rampage of Gavin Long, a Missouri man who shot six Baton Rouge officers — three of them fatally — showed that gun violence happens everywhere. Locally, the carnage continued with the gun deaths of former New Orleans Saints player Will Smith and former NFL player Joe McKnight — both of whom died in road-rage incidents — and the Bourbon Street shooting last month during Bayou Classic weekend, and another Dec. 18.
At some point during 2016, the vast majority of Louisiana's 64 parishes were federally declared disaster areas. The deluges tested the resilience of Louisiana businesses and residents — and the leadership of Gov. John Bel Edwards. So far, all have responded well.
6. John Kennedy elected senator
This year marked a return to political normalcy after Republican David Vitter's spectacular loss to Democrat John Bel Edwards in last year's race for governor. For Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy, the third time was the charm. Kennedy won the race for Vitter's U.S. Senate seat by defeating Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell in the December runoff.
7. Louisiana's changing D.C. clout
The Bayou State will lose some Beltway veterans after this year's elections: David Vitter in the Senate and Charles Boustany and John Fleming in the House. That's a lot of clout. Offsetting that, many hope, will be Cedric Richmond's election as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and Steve Scalise's re-election as House Majority Whip.
- Rep. Helena Moreno launched two initiatives to raise awareness of women's issues.
8. Domestic violence, sex trafficking and women's issues
State Sen. Troy Brown was arrested on domestic violence charges after lawmakers passed stronger domestic violence laws, and a bipartisan band of House male chauvinists made a frat-house "joke" out of a bill to fight sex trafficking. The bill, which ultimately passed, set a minimum age of 21 to work in a strip club. The joke backfired as female House members called out their errant male colleagues and Rep. Helena Moreno launched #ItsNoJoke, an online campaign to raise awareness of women's issues. Moreno expanded her efforts in December by launching the bipartisan campaign Ignite for Change, whose goal is to make Louisiana a better place for women and children.
9. The fight for control of public education
Forces aligned for and against charter schools and vouchers locked horns on several fronts, particularly during the legislative session and in the fall elections for Orleans Parish School Board. Generally, pro-charter forces prevailed, but this fight is far from over.
10. The short-term rentals war — The New Orleans City Council, at the urging of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, legalized and took the first step toward regulating short-term rentals (STRs) in the city. Starting in April, online sites such as Airbnb will begin providing City Hall with information about local hosts, who will be liable for licensing fees and taxes. The final council ordinance was pitched as a compromise, but anti-STR forces say it was a capitulation to Airbnb. We'll see soon enough.
These stories likely will continue to make headlines in 2017. Happy New Year!