By MELINDA DESLATTE and KEVIN McGILL
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana Republicans splintered on the tumultuous first day of their legislative term as Democrats combined with a breakaway faction of the majority GOP to elect the chamber’s new speaker.
Democrats voted as a bloc for Republican Clay Schexnayder to be the new House speaker, combining with nearly two dozen Republicans to push the car repair business owner from Ascension Parish to a 60-45 victory.
The acrimonious vote is already threatening to undermine Republican power, despite victories last fall that solidified the GOP’s legislative grip.
Schexnayder defeated Republican Sherman Mack, the Livingston Parish lawmaker favored by Attorney General Jeff Landry, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and a majority of House Republicans. In his first speech as speaker, Schexnayder talked of moving ahead without Washington-style partisan politics.
“Today represents a time for all of us to begin our work together. I know we don’t always agree about policy. We don’t always agree about politics. But we will all agree that Louisiana has its best days ahead of it,” he said.
After being sworn in Monday, state senators unanimously and quickly chose Republican Page Cortez, a former high school football coach and furniture store owner from Lafayette, to be their next president. That decision had been worked out weeks earlier in behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Also without opposition, the Senate chose Republican Beth Mizell of Franklinton and the House chose Republican Tanner Magee of Houma for their No. 2 jobs, Senate president pro tem and House speaker pro tem.
Republicans won a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate, holding 27 of 39 seats. Republicans fell two seats short of a veto-proof House supermajority, gaining 68 of the 105 seats.s
But the House GOP quickly fractured for Monday’s leadership decision.
Landry, seeking to assert his political influence, tried to sideline Democrats entirely from the choice of speaker, but he and other Mack supporters were unable to rally enough support within the Republican ranks. Several GOP members suggested Schexnayder represented more independence for the chamber.
“There should be no outside influence in the decisions made to manage this body, our body,” said Rep. Stuart Bishop, a Lafayette Republican, as he nominated Schexnayder. “Only the 105 members in this room should decide what happens inside these brass rails.”
The competition grew bitter as the weeks dragged on, with a PAC overseen by Landry and Kennedy running attack ads against Bishop and other Republicans who refused to support Mack.
In the Senate, Cortez called on senators to work together and find compromises. He noted LSU’s game later Monday against Clemson for college football’s national championship, and invoked Coach Ed Orgeron’s mantra: “One team. One heartbeat.”
“I couldn’t be more impressed with the Senate that we are going to be putting together,” Cortez told his colleagues.
The Senate didn’t use its secret ballot process, instead suspending that rule before starting leadership elections because the decisions were unanimous.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards had little influence in the legislators’ leadership choices.
The House speaker and Senate president have significant sway over the fate of legislation, choosing how to assign bills and picking the leaders and members of each committee in the chamber.
The Legislature is packed with new faces, as term limits kept many lawmakers from seeking reelection. The House has 45 new members, including two former senators. The Senate seated 20 new members, 10 of them moving over from House seats.
The new term offers some historic moments.
Sen. Cameron Henry and Rep. Charles Henry, both Republicans from Jefferson Parish, are the first brothers to serve in the Legislature at the same time. And term limits ended the Huey Long family’s dynasty, with Republican Gerald Long’s exit from the Senate marking the first time in 100 years that a Long won’t be in an elected Louisiana office.
The House and Senate made history with their selections for their top administrative jobs, choosing Michelle Fontenot as House clerk and Yolanda Dixon as Senate secretary, the first time either position is held by a female. Dixon’s election also marks the first time an African American has been chosen for the job.