By Kaylee Poche and Devon Sanders, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — When Rep. Paula Davis put forward a compromise Friday to resolve an epic fight over funding state government, a fellow Republican proposed an amendment that could have placed the bill in jeopardy.
As Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Shreveport, approached the podium, Davis firmly shook her head no and repeatedly told him, “Do not do this.” Several members came rushing over to support her, and Crews backed off, prompting applause from other legislators.
That dramatic moment reminded nearly everyone in the chamber of how another Republican had rushed to the microphone to stop Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, from calling for a compromise vote earlier this month.
Stokes lost then, while Davis’ bill passed Friday, breaking a logjam and setting the state on a path to greater financial stability. But the risks that both took in seeking a compromise on such a high-stakes issue also show how women are beginning to have a larger influence in a male-dominated Legislature that has not always been so hospitable to them.
“So much of what we saw this year was political gamesmanship, and most women are not that interested in that,” Stokes said in an interview. “We just want to solve problems and get our state on the right track.”
“I do think it flows naturally for women to not want to see the division,” she added. “There is a desire to bring people together.”
That seems to be the case, she said, even though some of the most liberal and most conservative House members are women who believe deeply in their issues. But when it comes to pushing for consensus, she said, “it makes sense that a woman would actually step up and fill that role.”
That role was especially crucial in the House, where Republican leaders have been at loggerheads with Gov. John Bel Edwards since he took office in early 2016.
After 10 legislative sessions and months of tense partisan debate, the House finally broke the stalemate by passing Davis’ bill to renew 0.45 of an expiring penny of state sales tax, raising at least $466 million a year for the next seven years to avoid major budget cuts. The Senate ratified the measure on Sunday.
Even though she is just in her first term in the House, Davis, who is from Baton Rouge, started the push toward a compromise with a proposal last week to extend four-tenths of a cent of the sales tax. She increased it to 0.45 Friday when Edwards, who wanted to extend half a cent, and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, agreed to split the difference.
Davis herself noted in the House that while compromise is never easy, “not budging is not an option.”
Davis and Stokes stood out in this year’s sessions, but other women also played important roles even though only about 15 percent of state legislators are women.
Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, helped lead a push to free up millions of dollars from dedicated funds to make it easier to move money around the state budget, and Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, sponsored a bill that raised $34 million in revenue.
Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, succeeded in making hazing a felony after the death of an LSU fraternity pledge, while Rep. Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, got a bill passed to require state agencies to develop sexual harassment policies and train employees on them.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, delivered a tongue-lashing after an earlier special session fell apart, calling on the representative, Alan Seabaugh, a Republican from Shreveport, who blocked Stokes’ bid for a compromise, to apologize to residents of the state.
Louisiana ranked lowest in the nation in 2015 in the percentage of female legislators, according to The Institute of Women’s Policy Research, a group based in Washington D.C. The study found that between 2005 and 2014, Louisiana saw the largest decline of female representation in the country.
Since then, the state has rebounded a bit and now ranks 45th in the percentage of female state legislators.
“It has been a good ol’ boy system for so long,” said Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge. “Women for a long time have felt that they do not have what it takes to take on the challenges of the Legislature.”
Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said that when she ran for the city council in 2008, other women also were in the race. “I kept hearing the phrase: ‘We don’t need all of those women in leadership,’” she said. “We need males in leadership.’”
When Davis ran for the House in 2015, Jerry Arbour, a former East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member, told her that “a woman’s place is in the kitchen.” He later claimed it was a joke.
Instead of ignoring the comment, Davis integrated it in her campaign. She sent out mailers to her district with the comment written alongside her accomplishments, including her role as former deputy commissioner of insurance.
The flyer also included a cake recipe and a photo of a woman wearing an apron. “For the record, I’m pretty good in the kitchen, too,” Davis wrote.
Davis won a runoff against Republican Ryan Heck with 55 percent of the vote.
Over the years, female legislators have had to endure remarks they considered demeaning.
In 2016, Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, made national headlines by proposing an amendment requiring female strippers to weigh less than 161 pounds. The underlying bill would have blocked women under the age of 21 from becoming strippers, and after women on the floor expressed outrage at his amendment, Havard said it was a joke to poke fun at government overreach.
When asked about that again Thursday, Havard said he still did not think he should apologize for them.
“I don’t feel that I owe an apology, especially because of the #MeToo thing,” Havard said. “I think it’s totally blown out of proportion. People walk around with their feelings on their shoulders, and in my opinion, they need to grow up.”
“It’s one thing to harass someone–in my opinion we should lock the guys up, not just fire them–that’s totally out of hand,” Havard added. “But it’s another thing to tell someone you look nice in that jacket or dress. That’s not necessarily sexual harassment, I don’t think. I had a guy a while ago when I went to Raising Canes tell me “nice suit.” Should I run out into the street yelling ‘#MeToo?’”
Referring to Havard and others, Smith said that “when you talk about sexual abuse, gender discrimination and those kinds of things with a mostly male environment, you are subject to have people make jokes like they did. They didn’t really give any thought to the notion that women would be insulted and actually take that a different way than a man would.”
“You have to be strong on how you feel about yourself in order to counteract what they brought forth,” she added.
Marcelle agreed, saying that she has witnessed inappropriate comments being made in the House.
“Sometimes we get into the setting where there’s a lot of men, like the House of Representatives,” Marcelle said, “and they will say things that they think are okay but are very offensive to women.”
Dr. Belinda Davis, a public policy researcher and LSU associate professor, said such remarks could discourage women from running for office.
Several organizations, like Ready to Run and Emerge America, are trying to change the status quo and encourage more women to run for political office.
Emerge America recently opened a chapter in Louisiana, and Dr. Davis was selected as a member of its inaugural campaign training class for women interested in running for office. Among the topics covered were messaging, fundraising, finance laws and organizing campaign ground games.
“Up until now, we have not had an organization dedicated to encouraging women to run and providing them with the skill sets that they need in order to be able to run for office effectively,” Davis said. “We need to reach a point where we have this critical mass of women in our Legislature that is capable of encouraging other women to run.”