PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

H.B. "Hunt" Downer 1997 HONOREE

Speaker of the House, Louisiana

Of all the legislatures in the country to which you might think of attaching the term "businesslike," Louisiana's would probably be the last. It was there, after all, that high-spirited but somewhat miffed legislators once tossed bananas at a colleague who referred to the state as a "banana republic," governors routinely treated the legislature as simply another arm of their administrations, and, within the memory of current members, lobbyists not only were allowed to roam the floor but they could quietly cast votes for absent legislators as well.

H.B. DownerAt best, the forces of reform in Baton Rouge have advanced by fits and starts over the years, beginning with the speakership of E.L. "Bubba" Henry during the 1970s. Henry got the lobbyists off of the House floor, and he opened up the committee process. But in the years since, the legislature's priorities have tended to reflect those of the governor; briefly put, when Edwin Edwards was in office, reform and modernization were not regarded with great enthusiasm.

These days, though, the term "businesslike" has come into vogue in Baton Rouge, and it is in no small part due to the efforts of H.B. "Hunt" Downer Jr. Downer took over as speaker of the Louisiana House last year at one of the legislature's low points: An FBI investigation had led to the conviction in 1995 of one state senator and the resignations of a dozen other legislators shown to have been bankrolled by the state's truck-stop casinos.

It was clear that the legislature was ripe for change. And with the election of Republican Mike Foster as governor, there wasn't much question that it would get it, since the tradition in Louisiana is for governors to decide whom they'd like to see as House speaker; once Foster tapped Downer, a conservative Democrat, everyone else--including the incumbent, John Alario--got out of the way.

Since then, Downer has pushed, in big ways and small, to bring a measure of luster to his chamber. He has moved to professionalize the legislative staff, raising salaries to match other Southern states and making sure that raises are given based on merit. He has launched an all-out effort to modernize the House; this has meant not only such steps as putting computers on legislators' desks to give them immediate access to bills and their status, but refurbishing the chamber itself. Sensitive to appearances, Downer has stripped lobbyists of their ability to stand at the back of the chamber and call members off the floor; they now must stay out in the foyer and send in a note. He launched an initiative to put legislators in closer touch with citizens and to give them a better feel for the state's problems by taking committees on the road, a move that has won plaudits around the state. And he was one of the forces behind new ethics legislation that tightened up the state's laws and, crucially, gave the state's ethics board teeth by allowing it to initiate investigations on its own.

Downer's military background--he is a lieutenant in the National Guard and served in the Persian Gulf--manifests itself in a certain straightness both of posture and of purpose, and despite a quick, clever wit, he can sometimes seem a bit out of place among his more relaxed, almost insouciant colleagues. But at the moment, those qualities are pushing the House in a direction many Louisianans believe it needs to travel. "He's very tradition-bound, and he reveres the institution as a body," says Peppi Bruneau, the speaker pro tem. "To a great extent, we've lost the collegiality that existed some years ago. He's worked very hard to try to restore that."

— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Jackson Hill/Southern Lights