Stephanie Grace: La. treasurer candidates take a page directly from the John Kennedy playbook

Tuesday, 10 October 2017, 07:51:28 PM. Voter turnout is expected to be extraordinarily low this weekend, which is just one reason why the only statewide contest for public office is hard to call.

Voter turnout is expected to be extraordinarily low this weekend, which is just one reason why the only statewide contest for public office is hard to call.

This much isn't, though: Whoever becomes Louisiana's next state treasurer will inherit an office that was dramatically redefined — not in official duties but in public expectations — by its most recent inhabitant, now-U.S. Sen. John Kennedy.

None of the three best-known Republicans vying to replace Kennedy — former Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, of Baton Rouge; state Sen. Neil Riser, of Columbia; and former state Rep. John Schroder, of Covington — can match his glibness. An attorney with impeccable academic credentials, Kennedy reinvented himself as a down-home bumpkin whose most memorable line during his Senate campaign was that he'd rather drink weedkiller than support Obamacare. (There's one Democrat on the ballot, lawyer Derrick Edwards, but he's barely running a campaign).

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It has all sounded like a bad joke.

But the three candidates most likely to succeed Kennedy are all campaigning not just to fulfill the technocratic functions of the office. They're also trying to show voters how they'd use its bully pulpit, how they'd fill Kennedy's shoes as a public, and sometimes harshly ideological, critic of others in state government.

Kennedy wasn't the first treasurer with higher ambitions. Mary Landrieu held the job for eight years before running for governor and then Senate, and pointed to her record as evidence that she was a responsible financial steward.

It was Kennedy, though, who used the job to build a brand as an advocate for voters and a watchdog over state government, even if he didn't have to make the same tough budget choices that the governor and legislators did.

It was Kennedy who turned the state's unclaimed property program from a back-office function into a popular, high-profile institution that allows the treasurer to hand out checks to regular people. All three lead candidates have suggested they wouldn't make changes.

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It was also Kennedy who regularly second-guessed other politicians, be they fellow Republicans or Democrats like current Gov. John Bel Edwards. He was among the first to criticize former Gov. Bobby Jindal's use of one-time money to meet recurring expenses. And he insisted during the grueling 2016 fiscal showdown that there was plenty of money available to close the gap, although a closer look undermined his claim of easy solutions.

He may not have been a central player in the budget debates, but he was certainly popular, and his possible successors are suggesting they too would use their voice to push the conservative line.

Davis has aggressively linked herself to President Donald Trump. Schroder is running an ad casting himself as the hard-nosed defender of the public purse against partying, spendthrift Louisiana politicians. Riser boasts that he's the only candidate to have voted against the temporary penny sales tax adopted by the Legislature in 2016, which is set to expire next summer. He leaves out the part where his vote wasn't needed to pass the measure in the Senate, while Schroder and other hard-line conservatives in the House reluctantly voted yes to avert massive cuts.

Now that the fiscal cliff lawmakers set up is rapidly approaching, none of these candidates is offering much more in the way of concrete ideas than Kennedy did.

Asked at a recent Baton Rouge Press Club debate whether they'd support either extending those taxes or raising the state's debt limit in order to guarantee that new construction projects can be, all three basically sidestepped the question and insisted that the state should prioritize and learn to live within its limits.

The rub is always where to cut, of course, but that's not the treasurer's problem. In other words, John Kennedy couldn't have handled that question better himself.

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