Gumbo and Gumption

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Gumbo and gumption, Gov. John Bel Edwards said during his inaugural address Monday, are two things Louisiana will never run out of, and we tend to agree.

It has appeared, however, that the latter has been in short supply for many years.

During the divisive last term of Edwards’ predecessor, the state has foundered in partisan groupthink, in many instances fearing the hard-right tone set by that administration, at many times rooted in loyalty to forces outside the state’s borders, that were more in step with Bobby Jindal’s wild presidential ambitions than what is ultimately good for the state and its people.

Edwards’ statement of priorities, making clear a desire to address Louisiana’s rampant poverty and poor educational rankings, with the subtopics of inequality in women’s wages, tax credit giveaways to business and a substandard public health care system, will be dismissed by many as a promise of bread and circuses rather than a blueprint for realistic action.

The immediate action being taken by Edwards in making acceptance of Medicaid expansion is likely to particularly rankle some.

Those in particular who tried to marry Edwards’ candidacy with President Barack Obama’s programs and policies during a rocky, contentious gubernatorial campaign will be finding fault with inaugural statements short on business and industry cheerleading but long on social welfare concerns.

Before Edwards ever placed his hand on a family Bible for Monday’s ceremony, battle lines were already drawn. The Republican-dominated House clearly broke with Edwards’ desires by selecting – in a narrow vote – recently converted Republican Taylor Barras of New Iberia rather than the new chief executive’s choice, New Orleans Democrat Walt Leger.

But what for years has been business as usual in Baton Rouge, posturing to business interests rather than realistically working on compromise between the needs of Louisiana’s people and the desire of its industries, has resulted in no workable solutions. This is why Edwards inherits a $1.9 billion deficit, from a predecessor who took office eight years ago with a $1 billion surplus.

Fearing the power of the governor’s office, state representatives and senators, rather than acknowledge the emperor’s nakedness, have stripped themselves bare and declared that everyone was clothed. Fearing the worst politically, they chose to follow rather than lead, partaking of economic hemlock and declaring it Kool-Aid, rather than calling it out for what it truly was.

An administration that dared not speak openly about Louisiana’s shortcomings, which muzzled key employees in key departments, that shrank rather than expanded or left alone the access to documents and records that could show for Louisianans what was truly happening in Baton Rouge, has come to an end.

That Edwards lost a key appointment battle before ever taking office is not a bad thing. That the new governor is moving on without pausing to lament the choice of the speaker is an indication – for now – that his promise of a bipartisan mindset in the Capitol is more than lip service.

His choice to address social problems, knowing that to the powerbrokers and kingmakers such talk is not welcome, evinces courage and commitment, no matter anyone’s individual feelings and opinions on the subject.

When one side of the political and economic spectrum fights with a winner-take-all approach against the other, most of the people in the middle lose.

Edwards’ speech is an indication that for the first time in years there will be real discussion and debate rather than acquiescence and political pandering in the state’s government.

Rather than take a “sky is falling” stance, our business leaders need to look toward how they and the new administration can compromise, how all of us can share in a search for solutions to Louisiana’s woes, and recognizing that not all budget and legislative hills require dying upon.

Any type of recovery must begin with an admission of truth, and Edwards supplied that during his address. Monday was a day for speeches. Now the real work, with the help of all sides looking toward Louisiana’s good, will begin for real. •