Will Gov.-elect Jeff Landry help pick the next Louisiana House speaker?

By: - October 27, 2023 5:01 am

Photo by Matthew Perschall

With the governor’s race finished up early, the state’s political attention has started to turn to who will lead the Louisiana Legislature.

The Senate has essentially settled on Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, as its incoming president, but the House speaker’s race is still up in the air. 

Legislators can’t officially vote on their new leadership until Jan. 8 when the members are sworn into office for the new term. But Republicans, who are likely to have supermajorities in both chambers, want the selections sorted out before Christmas. 

The field is crowded, with as many as 12 candidates expressing an interest in the House’s top position, but Reps. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice; Daryl Deshotel, R-Marksville; and Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro have emerged as the current frontrunners. 

Other people under consideration include Republicans Tony Bacala of Prairieville, Julie Emerson of Carencro, and Brett Geymann of Lake Charles. 

What will Landry do? 

The biggest factor in the race might be the opinion of Gov.-elect Jeff Landry.

Until 2016, Louisiana governors had a heavy hand in picking the state legislative leadership, a tradition that was unconventional and unique to this state. Lawmakers in Congress and other state legislatures around the country typically manage themselves separately from the executive branch. 

Louisiana lawmakers started making overtures toward asserting their own “independence” when Gov. John Bel Edwards first took office eight years ago. Republicans controlled the legislature and resented that Edwards, a Democrat, expected to have a say over who ran the body.

At the time, some legislators also had a hangover from the end of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure, when Jindal pushed lawmakers to approve budget cuts and other measures that ultimately proved unpopular and created a massive deficit. 

Jindal, who preceded Edwards as governor, controlled legislative leadership so tightly that he removed House members from powerful committees when they publicly criticized his proposals.

The question is to what extent Landry wants to revert to the old system, where the governor oversees the lawmakers, or how comfortable he is with a more liberated legislature.

“I think we have tasted independence and I think we like it. But I think independence is going to be a bit more challenging,” said Geymann, one of the House Speaker candidates who served from 2004 to 2016 and returned to the body in 2020. 

“Obviously, we are going to move the governor’s agenda. That’s expected,” Geymann said.

All three frontrunners for House speaker said earlier this week they did not expect Landry to intervene in the speaker’s race.

“I had good conversations with [the governor-elect],” Deshotel said in an interview Monday. “He’s staying out of the race.”

“As of now, I don’t think he is going to get too involved with it,” DeVillier said Tuesday.

By Thursday though, six of the candidates in the speaker’s race — the three frontrunners plus Emerson, Bacala and Geymann — were meeting together with Landry at the governor-elect’s transition headquarters

One of them is also particularly close to the incoming governor. DeVillier and Landry are both from the Lafayette area, and Landry was a friend of DeVillier’s older brothers growing up.

DeVillier was also the first speaker candidate to show up at Landry’s election victory party Oct. 14 and spent part of the night bear-hugging and high-fiving members of Landry’s campaign team.

Bacala, Deshotel and Emerson also attended the party later on in the evening.

Decision time in December

The speaker candidates said Landry, at the very least, is asking the House Republican delegation to come up with a clear process for picking their nominee for the position. With the GOP having such a large advantage in both chambers, the House Republican Caucus’ nominee for speaker will almost certainly get the job. 

Speaker candidates expect the Republican House Caucus to take votes on the speaker during their delegation meetings on Dec. 4. It’s not clear whether the votes will be made in front of the rest of the GOP delegation or through a secret ballot. Speaker candidates have been meeting all week to try to work out the details of the election process ahead of time. 

Of the major candidates, McFarland considers himself the “most qualified” for the job, he said in an interview Thursday. The Jonesboro Republican started the 40-plus-person House Conservative Caucus in the legislature’s previous term. The owner of a timber business, he’s also the chairman of the House agriculture committee.

Deshotel, who is finishing up his first term in office, started his successful computer and technology company while attending LSU.

“I think the speaker needs to be a CEO helping the House move in a new direction,” he said.

If elected speaker, Deshotel said he wants to change some of the operations of the House. He thinks more resources need to go toward bill drafting and getting new House members up to speed on legislative processes.

Deshotel also said he would be able to operate independently from “outside influences” and lobbyists because he is wealthy enough not to rely on others to pay for his political campaigns.

“I don’t need to raise money,” he said. “I can insulate myself from the financial pressures of the job.”

DeVillier is the well-liked chairman of the House Retirement Committee and known for proposing massive tax breaks, particularly for the oil and gas industry. In an interview this week, he said he is also interested in pushing more public funding for private school options in the upcoming session.

“We don’t want a division in the body like we’ve seen in the past,” he said.

Democrats are out

For the first time in the modern history of the state, Democrats are also expected to be largely left out of the selection process for House speaker.

Republicans are expected to have a 70-plus supermajority after the November runoff elections, meaning a GOP candidate can easily get the 53 votes needed to win the speaker’s race without seeking support from the Democratic Caucus. 

Though Democrats lost control of Legislature over a decade ago, they still played an important role in the selection of the speaker in the two most recent terms.

In 2016, Edwards had tried to force a Democratic candidate, former New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger, for speaker on the Republican body without success. But Democrats still had enough control to keep a more conservative candidate for speaker, then-Rep. Cameron Henry, from getting elected.

In the end, they settled for the more moderate option, former New Iberia Rep. Taylor Barras, who had been initially elected to the House as a conservative Democrat and switched to the Republican Party a few years before taking the speaker’s job.

In 2020, House Democrats again struck a deal with more moderate Republicans to again elect a centrist GOP candidate, Clay Schexnayder of Ascension Parish, over the more conservative candidate, Sherman Mack of Livingston Parish. In exchange for their votes, Schexnayder gave a few committee chair positions to the Democrats, at least initially. 

“I don’t think the Democratic Caucus will be able to pull off what we did last term,” said former Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, who left the legislature in 2021 to join President Joe Biden’s administration. 

“Clay got criticized for working with us, and over time you saw that he was not as willing to work with us,” James said.

James believes Landry would likely intervene if he thought any Republicans were trying to strike a deal with the Democratic Caucus over something as significant as the speaker’s election.

“I don’t see Gov.-elect Landry allowing them to be independent,” he said.

Correction: This article has been changed to reflect that six candidates for House speaker — not just two candidates — met with Gov.-elect Landry Thursday. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.