It has been nearly a year since I was sitting across from Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, interviewing him for an episode of “Capitol Gains,” when he said something that genuinely surprised me. The show is our online video series over at LaPolitics.com, and Nungesser, a Republican, was doing his best to explain his relationship with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Like many of his predecessors, Nungesser said during his July 2018 interview that he was interested in expanding the scope of responsibilities for the position in which he serves. But in order to accomplish anything meaningful, such as brokering economic development projects or tax incentives, he added, a sitting lieutenant governor would need the enthusiastic assistance of a sitting governor.
That’s when the lieutenant governor floated a novel and ancient idea. “To get the most bang for your buck, you’ve got to have that good work relationship with the governor,” Nungesser said. “So maybe it’s time to talk about running as a ticket again.”
A nod to the so-called olden days of Louisiana politics? Back when candidates for top offices would pool their resources, promote their shared tickets to voters and either win or lose as a team?
As a political reporter, it felt like a goldmine. After all, the Brothers Long — Huey and Earl — practiced this method, which played a visible role in Louisiana politics throughout most of the last century.
“For many years, since Jimmy Fitzmorris, the lieutenant governor and the governor didn’t always have the best relationship even though they were with the same party,” Nungesser continued. “And that’s not good for Louisiana. You can’t do your job and not work with the rest of the statewide elected officials.”
Despite the issue being simply interesting, I recall reader engagement fizzling too quickly — that is, until the ongoing regular session this year came into focus. That’s when House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, filed HB 113, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have voters jointly elect the governor and lieutenant governor, starting in 2023. (As of Monday, April 29, 2019, the legislation had been approved by one House committee and was reassigned to another for a subsequent hearing.)
Leger said the previously rocky relationships between the two offices is what led him to file the constitutional amendment. “In the past, we’ve had governors and lieutenant governors, even of the same party, who were not entirely on the same page,” Leger said. “This is a more pragmatic approach to governing.”
Leger pointed out that 26 states jointly elect their governor and lieutenant governor. “Having them aligned is a smoother and more efficient way to run the state,” Leger said, adding that the lieutenant governor regularly has to preform the duties of the chief-executive when the governor is out of the state.
By all accounts, the current occupants of those top offices, Edwards and Nungesser, have an amicable relationship. Shortly after taking office, Nungesser said he even had a private meeting with Edwards to let him know he would not be seeking the office of governor in 2019.
According to Leger, Nungesser is supportive of the ticket bill, which underscores his statements from last year. Edwards, meanwhile, has no set convictions on the instrument. “The governor wouldn’t be affected by this bill because it wouldn’t take effect until after he wins re-election in October, and he doesn’t have a position on it,” said Edwards campaign spokesman Eric Holl.
There are some historical roots to Leger’s bill. Prior to 1971, almost all major candidates for statewide office ran jointly on tickets. Typically, the contenders for lower offices aligned themselves with gubernatorial candidates, and in return, received campaign donations and support.
While the guidelines of the time were political rather than enshrined in law, the vast majority of voters went with the straight ticket when casting their ballots, LaPolitics reporter Mitch Rabalais learned while interviewing former officials who knew the system intimately.
“If you were not with one of the tickets, you were not going to win,” recalled former Lt. Gov. Paul Hardy.
Despite the earlier precedent, two past occupants of the Governor’s Mansion are skeptical of the practicality of Leger’s bill. “I don’t think it would work,” former Gov. Edwin Edwards told Rabalais. “People vote for individuals now, not tickets. Times have changed.”
“I think it would be a mistake,” added former Gov. Mike Foster. “It would dilute our elections because people vote on the issues. The structure is fine where it is.”
The sentiment from the former governors was echoed by Hardy, who held the state’s number two spot from 1988 to 1992, in addition to an earlier stint as secretary of state. “The more independent a statewide elected official can be, the better off we are,” he said.
So is Nungesser ready to run on a ticket in 2019? Not exactly, he replied with a laugh during his earlier interview. “But I think you’re probably going to see a ticket run,” the lieutenant governor said, noting a moderation in the electorate, “both Republicans with Democrats.”