Jason Redmond, the state deputy treasurer, can't help but laugh at his own jokes. "We didn't even ask for it," he says, throwing his hands in the air. "It just fell in our lap." After another hearty chuckle, he smacks his own desk, toppling a Darth Vader statue. That draws laughter as well.
His laughter is justified. Redmond's boss has enjoyed an entire week of strong press coverage, including editorials. The increased political capital and positive spin were priceless -- the kind of coverage money can't buy, that carries courthouse chatter for weeks, that defines a political campaign before it even starts.
The watershed moment came earlier this month when reporters asked Gov. Kathleen Blanco how much pork she was planning to cut from the state's $26.7 billion operating budget. Her overly simplistic answer was that Treasurer John Kennedy could drop the ax as well and shoulder some of the burden.
Kennedy didn't miss a beat. A few days before Blanco announced her limited cuts -- $3 million slashed from more than $31 million in pet legislative projects -- Kennedy gave reporters a multi-million-dollar laundry list of items he says he would have eliminated. When Blanco's actual cuts paled in comparison to Kennedy's suggested trimmings, the press was all over the story, drawing sharp comparisons between her puny cuts and his more substantial recommendations.
But it wasn't as if Kennedy plotted and schemed to generate that kind of free press. In fact, he says he still doesn't understand why the governor pulled him into the fray in the first place -- particularly when he has no authority over the state's operating budget.
"This is a strange business sometimes," Kennedy says. "It was ironic, among other things. I understand the job of a legislator is to bring home the bacon, but that is not the job of a governor. In hindsight, (Blanco) probably regrets doing it."
Kennedy says his office could offer more in the way of fiscal oversight, but Blanco and her staff have chosen to treat him differently than other administrations.
"They could actually talk to me," he says. "They could at least answer my letters."
Indeed, Kennedy has become Blanco's critic-du-jour. He blames her administration for allowing debt to skyrocket in recent years, questions the office's recovery efforts and isn't shy about handicapping Blanco's upcoming re-election bid -- his prediction isn't exactly rosy for the governor.
But don't get the wrong idea. Kennedy says he is not interested in running for Blanco's job, and he makes that statement unequivocally, without the usual political caveats. "I will not be a candidate for governor," Kennedy says.
That might be, but the treasurer isn't exactly forsaking politics, either. He is most frequently mentioned as a potential rival for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu -- and as a Republican, no less. Kennedy has been a Democrat since he first entered state politics as the executive counsel to Gov. Buddy Roemer in 1988.
Redmond tends to manage the political side of Kennedy's endeavors as well by filling in as campaign manager, a job he has held since Kennedy's first successful political contest in 1999. Redmond can easily recite how much money his boss has in the campaign war chest. It's $1.3 million, with very little active fundraising at the moment.
When pressed on the 2008 U.S. Senate race, Kennedy isn't as clear-cut as he is about not running for governor: "I don't think that far out. I'm only focused on being re-elected treasurer right now."
One wrinkle to Kennedy's re-election plans -- a curious caveat that has been well documented -- is his constant criticism of his own Democratic Party. Rumors have run rampant in recent years that Kennedy is being courted by the GOP -- and that he's encouraging those overtures more than he's shooing them away.
"I'm very lonely," Kennedy says. "I have not been supported in any race I have run in by the Democratic Party in Louisiana. That disappoints me."
Asked if he will remain a Democrat for the rest of his life in public service, Kennedy refuses to make a commitment. The likelihood of his switch is bolstered by the close alliance he holds with U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who he ran against in 2004.
Kennedy uses an interesting vernacular when describing his powerful Republican "friend": courage, brains, reformer. The two have issued joint press releases and even took strong stances together on the spending priorities of the administration. "You run against someone and you get to know them and they get to know you," Kennedy says.
And recently, it seems as if Kennedy sometimes writes his own Republican talking points, which are increasingly pointed at the governor.
He links hurricane recovery efforts and state debt, accusing Blanco of allowing the matters to complicate each other. State debt per capita has grown to $822 for every man, woman and child in Louisiana -- a five-year high, he says.
"We're not prepared for the worst," Kennedy says. "We just keep spending every nickel we have."
As for Blanco's upcoming re-election, Kennedy admits the signs aren't good for her right now -- but the future offers limitless possibilities.
"You just never know," he says. "A year and a half is a long time in a political terms."
Messages seeking comment from Blanco were not answered by press time.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Karron Clark
- Rumors have run rampant in recent years that Kennedy (center) is being courted by the GOP and that he's encouraging those overtures more than he's shooing them away.