When Jeff Arnold was elected to represent Algiers in the Louisiana House of Representatives four years ago, he knew exactly where he wanted to sit on the House floor. In fact, one of Arnold's first official actions after being elected was to land that seat. It might sound odd or even eccentric, unless you know his reasons.
Arnold had found out there was an open seat next to former Rep. Bryant Hammett, a fellow Democrat and chairman of the almighty Ways and Means Committee, the premier tax-writing panel. The seat in question was also surrounded by the chairmen of the Appropriations and Education committees, as well as a former House Speaker. "Obviously, your seatmate can be really important, so I called Bryant to ask about getting that seat," Arnold says. "But he never returned my call."
Arnold says he felt snubbed, but in the ensuing weeks several people told him that Hammett had been calling around with questions of his own. In short, Hammett was doing his research on Arnold, just because of interest in a seat. "And you know, he never did call me back," Arnold says, laughing. "But I did get the seat, and we became quick friends. When Katrina blew us out, he offered my entire family his hunting camp. The man has a huge heart, but he can be calculating. He likes to know the outcome before going into battle."
Some might say that's Hammett in a nutshell, but in truth, his cautious nature is just one side of a complicated man. Yet there's little doubt he's perfect for his new job as secretary of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. If you've spent any significant amount of time in rural Louisiana, then you already know Hammett, 50, or at least his archetype. He says he has spent a lifetime chasing frogs, sitting in trees, hiding in blinds and riding on water. His four-wheel-drive pickup truck even shows perpetual evidence of mud -- and has a Jerry Jeff Walker CD in the truck's player.
Hammett has a folksy sense of humor as well, such as his desire to put up deer stands around the wooded area surrounding the department's headquarters in Baton Rouge. As a proud resident of Ferriday, he also claims to know all three of the city's legends Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. "In fact, my dad taught 'em. ... They were double-first cousins," Hammett says. He pauses, then adds, "I guess there are a lot of jokes you can make about that, huh?"
Really get to know Hammett and you discover the country veneer doesn't stick long. He totes around two different BlackBerrys -- the insanely popular and addictive hand-held devices he calls his "CrackBerrys" -- in an effort to separate his civil engineering business and government responsibilities from his personal life. For more than 22 years he has operated a private engineering firm from his home parish of Concordia, sometimes benefiting from government contracts.
In fact, the company has been about the only constant in Hammett's life over the past six months. Term limited in the House for next year's elections, Hammett stepped down in July to become the infrastructure manager for the governor's Disaster Recovery Unit. When the Wildlife job came open, Hammett was offered the gig by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and took it without hesitation. He originally was considered for the job when Blanco first took office.
Hammett's new $116,500 annual salary represents a $23,500 pay cut from the recovery position, but it's only one of the sacrifices he's having to make for his dream job. He has leased an apartment in Baton Rouge far from his home, and his engineering firm won't be able to do work for the department any longer because of obvious conflicts. "We won't be able to do the boundary lines for the department like we've done in the past," he says. But he will continue to operate the firm full time while he fulfills his duties as secretary, a formula he argues will work. "I'll do whatever I have to do," he says.
When peppered with questions about some of the longtime issues facing the department -- the internal animosity between biology and enforcement, the feuding between commercial and recreational interests -- Hammett could only address them anecdotally. That's no surprise, as he doesn't officially take office until Dec. 4. As for fee increases and related taxes, Hammett says he wouldn't shy away from them if there's a real need, as officials have recently argued, but he wasn't fully prepared to discuss that topic, either. "I have a learning curve to get through, and I am very anxious to do that," he says. "I've been going through a lot of briefings and learning as much as possible. I do know that I want the department and its policies to keep working like they always have. I want to be visible and plan on spending a lot of time in the field."
Todd Masson, who has served as editor of Louisiana Sportsman magazine for the past 11 years, says Hammett might want to focus on the relationship the secretary traditionally has with everyday hunters and anglers. "I think the average outdoorsman doesn't pay a lot of attention to the secretary's position," he says. "I don't even think most of them could tell you the name of the secretary. But they are familiar with what's coming down the pipe and what the (Wildlife and Fisheries) Commission is making decisions about. They seem to have the real power."
Hammett says he wants to build relationships, which may be his calling card as secretary. Whether that means partnering with corporations for conservation efforts or teaming up with hunters for an informational forum, Hammett says he plans to take a big-tent approach to the job. "This department is the focal point of our sportsman's paradise, and we need to be there for the public," he says. Hammett adds he also is interested in exploring partnerships with nonprofit groups to expand public hunting lands in southeast Louisiana and finding federal money for construction of new public boat launches destroyed by Katrina and Rita. "The more partners at the table," he says, "the more you can accomplish."
When asked about Louisiana's fledgling fisheries, Hammett says he's aware of problems, ranging from charter boat captains losing their livelihoods during last year's storms to commercial fishermen losing their longtime battle to benefit from direct payments put up by importers. But he couldn't offer specific solutions. Jeff Angers, chairman of the Louisiana chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, says that shouldn't draw concern from recreational or commercial interests. While Hammett has always been a solid vote for recreational fishermen, Angers says his love for the land and natural resources will always prevail when he's forced to make a big decision. "He is a huge sportsman, and that is going to carry him far in this job," Angers says. "Bryant lives and breathes the outdoors, and you better believe he's always going to do what is right."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Karron Clark
- Bryant Hammett, a Ferriday native, in the wooded area surrounding the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' headquarters in Baton Rouge. On Dec. 4, he takes over the department as its new secretary, at which time he jokingly says deer stands will be added to the tree line.