Louisiana Republicans vie to take over state’s COVID-19 response

Special session called to seize power from Gov. Edwards

September 25, 2020 8:55 am
Gov. John Bel Edwards

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator).

Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has recently traveled to multiple college campuses in the South and praised the leadership of campus or state officials who she says have been helping keep the public safe. On Monday, Birx visited Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and on Tuesday she visited Texas A&M in College Station. Last week, she visited the University of Tennessee, the University of South Carolina and Virginia Tech.

That means that Birx’s visit to Louisiana State University wasn’t a one-off, and that she didn’t come to Louisiana to have Gov. John Bel Edwards’ back as he prepares for a standoff with the state’s Republican lawmakers. That doesn’t mean, though, that Birx’s decision to praise the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t politically advantageous for Edwards. It was obviously beneficial. And Edwards obviously wasn’t going to let Birx’s visit to Louisiana end without pointing out that she — and by extension, the White House — support what he’s been doing.

Next week, the Louisiana Legislature — which has a Republican majority in both chambers — will gather at the State Capitol for the second special session of the year. Unlike most special sessions, which are called by the governor, this one was called by the lawmakers themselves.  And they’ve made their intent clear: to try to wrest power away from the Democrat who serves as governor.

No one could have predicted or planned for the health, economic and natural disaster devastation that 2020 has brought to our state and citizens,” House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Republican from Gonzalez, wrote when announcing the special session. A special session is needed to address unforeseen problems related to the inperson education of our children and their return to extracurricular activities, the survival of our economy and the opening up of business, and the recovery of the areas of our state devastated by Hurricane Laura.

“A significant number of House members have also asked to address the continued proclamations issued by the Governor during the pandemic and what many see as an imbalance of power,” Schexnayder continued. “This special session will not end without a solution to this problem.”

If there is a problem with Edwards maximizing the use of his executive authority, then that’s a problem that pales in comparison with the one Louisiana was facing at the beginning of April when the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital, the number of those on ventilators and the number of those dying of the disease all peaked.

Whatever problems the state’s Republicans have, it can’t be as bad as the problems faced by people missing any one of the 5,241 Louisianians whose lives were cut short by the disease.

Though Schexnayder labels them problems, the multiple proclamations made by the governor are the decisions that, according to Birx, “saved people’s lives.”

But Birx didn’t stop at what Louisiana has done. She also said what the state should do: “It is extraordinarily important and prudent,” she said, “to maintain those restrictions and ensure mask usage and physical distancing.”

Edwards, who said that the Legislature should find Birx’s remarks “helpful,” was surely sending a signal to his Republican nemeses when he said of Birx: “She runs the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The recommendations that she’s made have been those things, by in large, that we’ve done.”

Granted, Edwards emphasizing Birx’s connection to the White House doesn’t carry as much weight as it ought to carry. President Donald Trump is way more likely to bash, belittle and heckle public officials who follow guidance from the White House Coronavirus Task Force than those who disregard it. In addition to that, as Birx was visiting Baton Rouge Wednesday CNN was quoting sources close to the doctor who said she was “distressed” because she felt Trump had stopped listening to her after bringing onto the task force another doctor whose apparent role is to tell the president exactly what he wants to hear.

Even so, an endorsement of Edwards’ coronavirus response from a Trump appointee was a bullet in the governor’s gun, and he made sure to fire it Wednesday.

The state’s last Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, was forever trying to land upon the perfectly pithy soundbite, and in pursuit of a quote that would go viral, he came up with a couple that chided his own peeps.  In 2013, he said Republicans had to “stop being the stupid party” and drop the habit of “insulting the intelligence of voters.”

Two years later, Jindal said Republicans had to stop being “The Party of No,” one that seemed only to exist to oppose Democrats as opposed to one proposing solutions of its own.

Let’s set aside the fact that Jindal — an Ivy League Rhodes Scholar — appealed to his base by running away from his education and even supporting backdoor creationism legislation that greatly disappointed a genetics professor who taught him at Brown University.

Let’s also set aside that by opposing President Barack Obama’s expansion of Medicaid and calling it too expensive that Jindal, a bonafide data geek, rejected an analysis conducted by his own administration’s Department of Health and Hospitals.

He still accurately diagnosed two of his party’s biggest problem: a professed hostility to science, education and expertise and a tendency to treat anything proposed by a Democrat — even an anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-Blue-Lives-Matter, deeply religious, military veteran Democrat — as inherently problematic. Tyrannical, even.

Gov. Edwards hasn’t responded perfectly to this coronavirus crisis. Who could have? But his mistakes — waiting too long to mandate masks, moving to Phase 3 too quickly, approving the return of games and fans at Tiger Stadium — all appear to be concessions he made to Republicans, lest they recklessly invalidate all his orders.

How many people got infected, went to the hospital or died as Edwards asked — but didn’t order — residents to wear masks? And how many more people would have gotten infected, gone to the hospital or died if Republicans lawmakers — many of whom were proudly parading around the State Capitol without masks — had been in charge and officially rejected the wearing of masks altogether?

But those hypotheticals aren’t only for the past. How bad will it get — how much of the state’s relative success fighting back against the virus will be eroded — if Republican lawmakers are able to achieve their goal of opening up the economy without restrictions?

Their argument that Louisiana’s economy is hurting because and only because Edwards shut things down, is built on the assumption that Louisianians would have kept going to the mall, kept going to restaurants, kept going to bars, kept doing everything the same — even as their friends, loved ones and neighbors were dropping dead around them. It’s an argument that presumes people don’t have the good sense to stay home.

Of course, everybody doesn’t have good sense.  Not everybody voluntarily wears seatbelts, puts their infants in car seats, wears motorcycle helmets or chooses a designated driver. Some folks do those things only because they’re afraid of getting ticketed or jailed if they don’t.

Though the above quote from Schexnayder begins by saying next week’s session is about addressing ongoing problems in the state, the biggest problem identified is that there’s a Democrat in Louisiana who has power. Lots of it.

And to the state’s Republicans, that situation is even more tragic than 5,200 dead bodies.




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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.