Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Scott Angelle: Born for the Job

Democrat Scott Angelle is helping the Jindal administration accomplish a Herculean task: improving relations with the Legislature.



He's in the back corner of the House Chamber, where the lobbying elite sit cramped in two rows of chairs against the rear wall (coach seating is on the other end) and the north side's long line of windows give way to the lake behind the State Capitol. It's a stretch of marbled ground reserved especially for the administration. He's pacing back and forth, fidgeting with two BlackBerry devices and participating in what appears to be simultaneous conversations with lawyers, lawmakers and colleagues from the Fourth Floor. His eyes are red, he hasn't shaved, and his thinning gray hair is damp with sweat.

  This is Scott Angelle in attack mode.

  When he speaks, he smiles, as if the battle itself is more thrilling than the end result. Lawmakers from the Baton Rouge area are playing pirates on the House floor, trying to raid $300 million in surplus cash Gov. Bobby Jindal set aside for coastal needs. They want the loot for road projects around the state. It's Angelle's charge, as Jindal's new legislative liaison, to block the move. Although the administration had known the contentious amendment was coming for at least 48 hours, most of the work had to be done on foot and face-to-face.

  Angelle has the House floor organized into grids, with a captain selected from each row of desks. Captains work their particular row for Angelle during debate by tallying votes, ferreting out objections and reporting back to him. A few of his floor leaders fit the Cajun archetype that Angelle himself embodies, like Reps. Robert Billiot of Waggaman and Fred Mills of Parks. Like Angelle, they're also Democrats. Along with Angelle's other troops, they explain to the opposition that the money is needed for a federal match and it isn't pork that can be moved around.

  Word trickles back to Angelle that his counteroffensive is working. "It's shut down," Angelle says.

  About a week later, Angelle agrees to an interview in his office at the Department of Natural Resources, where he serves as department secretary — appointed first by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, and then reappointed last year by Jindal, a Republican. He still has the DNR gig and still receives a salary for that post; it's the job of legislative liaison that he's doing for free, although it normally pays quite well.

  It's 6:30 a.m. Angelle's DNR staff is already hopping, and he is looking as worn as he did on the House floor a week earlier. "The number of hours can really get to you. It's like running a marathon," Angelle says. "And I'm still driving home to Breaux Bridge. That's an hour there and an hour back."

  The decision by Timmy Teepell, Jindal's chief of staff, to bring Angelle into the legislative mix was surprising but appropriate. For starters, it's a tough job; conspiracy theorists initially wondered if Angelle was being thrown under the bus, a hypothesis that practically everyone interviewed for this story now rejects. On the other hand, the position is no steppingstone. Most legislative liaisons are fired, or sacrificed, while others leave out of frustration. That was the case with Tommie Williams, a respected veteran lobbyist and Angelle's predecessor. Williams says the position is enough to drive any sane man crazy, but admits that Angelle's boundless energy and enthusiasm make him a perfect fit: "You are literally interfacing with 144 members of the House and Senate on a daily basis, and you're trying to work for the administration and work with lawmakers. It's simply a volume issue. And I don't care who you are, at some point it becomes overwhelming."

  Still, Angelle seems born for the job. His father was a state legislator, and he grew up in and around Baton Rouge's political process. He later was elected St. Martin Parish president, which gives him added credibility among lawmakers. Not only does he understand the game of remaining electable, but he also comes from local government, which is where many lawmakers got their start. "He's been through the same things we have," says Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville. "That goes a long way."

  Angelle likewise knows how to work the floor, having led a few initiatives for Blanco, such as the so-called legacy law that brought environmentalists and oil companies to the same table. In the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike last year, Jindal tapped Angelle to direct a program that eventually distributed nearly 400 generators to power-essential service providers, including pharmacies, gas stations and grocery stores. Rather than having a staffer take on the task, Jindal said at the time he needed a rainmaker, someone who could get phone calls returned.

  Angelle's party affiliation shouldn't be taken for granted, either. Democrats now have a safe place to turn in Jindal's administration. Moreover, the hire helps Jindal keep his campaign promise of assembling a bipartisan staff. But Angelle's most important bargaining chip may be his position as DNR secretary, where he can approve or accelerate key projects. Even before he became legislative liaison, lawmakers would stop Angelle in the hallways and ask for assistance. "That was a really smart move by the administration," says Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans. "He can reach out to people in ways they can't."

  The only embarrassing moment for Angelle and his team, which operates out of a conference room with tall walls known as both the "War Room" and "Room 4.5" (it's on the governor's Fourth Floor, but stretches into the floor above as well), was passage of an amendment that Jindal has opposed since the beginning of the year. Rep. Avon Honey, D-Baton Rouge, slipped in an amendment allowing the state to accept $98 million in unemployment assistance from the federal stimulus package. Jindal opposes taking the cash because he says Louisiana would have to rewrite its unemployment laws and eventually would be saddled with higher costs when the stimulus money runs out.

  The vote was embarrassing for the entire House; Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, admits it wasn't the chamber's "finest hour." Many lawmakers opposed to the concept voted in favor of Honey's amendment because it was late at night and vaguely worded. Angelle says there was nothing his team could do about the vote. "We knew the bill was coming up, and we were prepared," he says. "Sometimes the people inside the rail don't know what the people outside the rail do. But there has to be an element of trust in the process. It was unfair, and it happened. But it won't happen again."

  It was also the stuff that builds experience and, in some instances, character, and it won't be the last time Angelle will have to rely on his people skills. "That's why I love the legislative branch, that interaction," Angelle says. "My passion for public service has always overflowed. That's why I know I'm going to die a broke man."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at

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