BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The death of popular former Gov. Mike Foster and the reminiscing that has followed provided the latest reminder of how much Louisiana Capitol politics have transformed over nearly two decades and been reshaped by partisanship.
Foster died Oct. 4 at his home in coastal St. Mary Parish from age-related illnesses. He was 90 years old. He was buried Wednesday.
Though he switched from Democrat to Republican to run for the governor’s office, Foster wasn’t driven by a party ideology in his management of state affairs. He didn’t hire staff and Cabinet leaders based on their political affiliation. And he didn’t align himself with lawmakers based on the R or D behind their names.
Instead, his eight-year administration from 1996 until 2004 had a big tent feel. He rejected ideologues.
No greater example of Foster’s bipartisan approach could have been offered than when Baton Rouge Democratic state Sen. Cleo Fields — the man Foster defeated in the 1995 election to win the governor’s job — spoke of his one-time opponent on the Senate floor last week.
“We were very, very good friends,” Fields told senators, most of whom weren’t in the Louisiana Legislature during Foster’s tenure.
Fields previously served in the Senate with Foster, who had been a Democratic state senator for eight years before running for governor. Fields described the two-term governor as “just an honorable man” and “a bridge builder.”
“When I saw Mike, I didn’t see a Republican governor. I just saw a governor,” Fields said. He declined to call Foster the state’s last bipartisan governor, but said: “I can only tell you he was a governor who worked both sides of the aisle. To him there was not an aisle.”
Foster led Louisiana in a quieter period by the state’s political standards. He followed the scandal-plagued Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards, who embraced his reputation as a rogue and later went to prison for a corruption scheme, and he came before the 2005 destruction of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which absorbed the focus of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
A millionaire businessman, Foster worked to reform the Louisiana worker’s compensation system and pushed more business-friendly provisions governing lawsuits. He also left a tremendous education legacy, championing the creation of the TOPS college tuition program, the state’s accountability system and Louisiana’s community college system.
When Foster exited office after hitting his two consecutive term limit, partisanship began to creep into the state’s politics during Blanco’s tenure. That’s not necessarily because she personally tried to cultivate it, however.
But Blanco’s successor — and ironically, Foster’s mentee and favored gubernatorial candidate, Republican Bobby Jindal, — embraced partisan politics and helped to entrench it in the halls of the Louisiana Capitol.
A former congressman, Jindal had his eyes on the White House and took advantage of the first round of legislative term limits. Those term limits wiped away many longtime lawmakers who didn’t adhere to party divisions or use them as a driving force in decision-making. They were replaced with lawmakers more attuned to national issues, ideological feuds and the party-based politics that had become the norm in Washington.
“After Mike left, we definitely started seeing more partisanship, a little bit in the Kathleen Blanco administration, and then in the Jindal administration it became the rule of thumb,” said Sen. Ronnie Johns, a Lake Charles Republican who has been in the Legislature since 1996. “I think that’s been to the detriment of the whole political process in our state. I wish it wasn’t like that.”
But 16 years after Foster exited office, partisanship appears here to stay — evident in the ongoing special legislative session and in the politics of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ two terms in office.
Edwards is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, and he’s an anomaly in his own state as the only Democrat holding statewide office. Republicans aren’t thrilled with Edwards holding that distinction in a state that in recent years has trended ruby red, and they have repeatedly clashed with the governor across legislative sessions for the past five years.
GOP lawmakers called the current special session to try to wrest some of the governor’s emergency authority from him and to possibly override all or part of the restrictions Edwards enacted to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Times at the Louisiana Capitol have changed from the Foster era.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.