The Baton Rouge Morning Advocate posed this question to Jindal’s press secretary recently. Her response was, “the Governor remains the Governor wherever he is.” Apparently, her mindset is that the governor is always available by phone or email, so he never really is “away.” Not so, says the Louisiana Constitution, where clear language states: “When the governor is temporarily absent from the state, the lieutenant governor shall act as governor.” I know a good bit about this issue both as one who helped put this provision in the constitution, and as a statewide official who has held the title of “Governor” on several occasions when the line of succession came to me.
The most recent constitutional convention which was held in 1973 was called by the Louisiana legislature to update and rewrite the state’s founding document. I was an author of the legislation creating the convention, and I also served as an elected delegate for the one year undertaking to draft a new constitution. With little controversy, the convention overwhelming adopted the provisions that transfer authority to the lieutenant governor when the governor is out of state. The intentions of the delegates were quite clear.
In 1973 there were no cell phones, but landlines, of course, were abundant. However, Louisiana had experienced numerous blackout problems during hurricanes. Phone lines went dead during the storms and the delegates to the constitutional convention wanted provisions that under emergency conditions someone on the state level would be in charge. They had the savvy and the foresight to see that regardless of the state of communication systems that the citizenship of Louisiana would be best served by an onsite governor during an emergency.
Granted, communication systems have become much more sophisticated today, but the importance of the provisions still applies. No better example can be found than the Katrina experience. Cell phone and internet service failed, and local television and radio stations were off the air during Katrina. An out of state governor would not have been able to communicate to first responders, the state police or the National Guard. No matter how electronically “tuned in” an out of state governor might be, the delegates had felt that a major emergency needs “hands on” leadership. And they were right.
Was another statewide official ever called on the issue of an executive order from the Governor’s office? Yes. On three occasions, I filled the role as Governor to deal with an anticipated emergency. I was elected Secretary of State in 1979. The office is second in line to the governorship behind the Lieutenant Governor. On three occasions, both then serving Governor Dave Treen and Lieutenant Governor Bobby Freeman were out of the state and I got the call.
The first time was in the fall of 1980. I had been in office for a little less than a year, and I was attending a national convention of Secretaries of State in Atlantic City. My wife was along, and we had tickets for one of the final concerts of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. This was a big event back then, and an event my wife and I did not want to miss.
Late in the afternoon before the concert, the phone rang. The Governor’s executive counsel, Sonny Mouton was on the phone along with then Commissioner of Administration, Bubba Henry. They quickly told me that both the governor and the lieutenant governor were out of the country, and that they needed me to get to Louisiana immediately to call a much needed special session of the legislature. “I’d be glad to,” I told them, “first thing in the morning.”
No, they told me -- the call had to be signed by midnight. What a dilemma. Either Frank, Dean and me hangin’ out (well, sort of), or back to Louisiana on a late flight. I reluctantly opted to skip the concert, and fly back to New Orleans. A State Police helicopter met me on the Delta runway, and I signed the needed document minutes before midnight.
A year later, as New Orleans weathered a bus strike, some drivers were threatening violence if substitute drivers were hired. Mayor Dutch Moriel asked the Governor to call out the National Guard to both drive and protect the buses. Again, both the Governor and the Lt. Governor were out of the country. I was spending the weekend at my home in Ferriday. Dave Treen’s Executive Assistant, Billy Nungesser, called to put me on notice that I may be needed to come to New Orleans and call out the National Guard. He dispatched the state plane to fly to Ferriday and be available if the need should arise. The two state pilots hung out at my house watching football and I received regular updates on the approaching strike deadline. As the stalemate continued, Nungesser suggested that I head to New Orleans where the order would await my signature. Off we went, and the strike was averted shortly after we landed in the Crescent City.
Yes, I did get one more notice that I was the top dog in the state. No crisis took place, but I felt that as “acting Governor,” I should do something. I had just published my cookbook titled “Secretary of State Jim Brown’s World Famous Squirrel Stew and other County Recipes, which was bound to be a best seller. So I cooked up a pot of my stew, and invited the state capitol press corps to come up and give it a try for lunch. I received great press, and my cookbook still sells well today.
Should the law be changed to have the governor in charge at all times? There are pros and cons, particularly in a state that is as disaster prone as Louisiana is. Right now, a succession in command is the law. So when Governor Jindal continues his travels around the country, he needs to know that there is someone back home looking over his shoulder. Whether he likes it or not.
“A governor kind of looses the opportunity of symbolic leadership of being on the front lines when he is out of the state.” Joseph Marbach, Seton Hall University
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.