The Midnight Speaker
03/18/2016 08:09AM ● Published by Aimee Cormier
By Erin Z. Bass
Rep. Taylor Barras grew up in Iberia Parish overhearing talk of politics in his father’s country grocery store. It was an age when candidates drove down the street and asked for votes from microphones attached to their cars and trucks. Barras remembers feeling the buzz during election season and eventually got a closer look at the political process when his father became the Iberia Parish assessor.
“I guess being around him and a lot of his public service is where I saw the example,” he says. “I probably took an interest at an earlier age than I would even realize.” It was a desire for public service that led Barras to first run for state representative, but it’s his ability to listen and communicate that’s earned him a reputation as a compromise candidate.
There were several other forerunners expected to be named as speaker of the House on Jan. 11, but Barras’s name emerged during the midnight hour as one who could get the votes. He says the election was as much a shock to him as it was to everyone else. “Shortly before we convened at 10:00 a.m., when those 61 Republicans gathered, did it come down to a strategy to maybe get me elected,” he says. “Everything it appeared to be, it was. A surprise for folks in the House, in the press and everybody else.”
The election of a Republican candidate in a Democratic governorship says a lot about Barras. He initially dipped his foot in politics while working for the old Guaranty Bank and Trust Co. in Lafayette. The bank encouraged community participation and Barras was involved with organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Acadiana.
“Through that community public service grew the desire to say maybe if more people put their names up and rolled up their sleeves, we could see some progress,” he explains. “Now that I’m in the business and dealing with issues that continue to get bigger rather than smaller, it’s just great to have good minds around the table thinking through it from all walks of life. Diversity makes it flow a lot easier in my opinion.”
He ran for Errol “Romo” Romero’s term-limited seat in 2007 and won in a runoff with 62 percent of the vote. Although the race stayed relatively clean, it wasn’t easy. “With four candidates in the race, you can’t rest,” he says. “It was a door-to-door campaign from June until November, and we never let up.” Barras’s favorite part of campaigning was visiting constituents at their homes and listening to their concerns. He was re-elected in 2011 and again in 2015.
“To hear the concerns of both sides of the aisle is to be able to understand if I’m disagreeing with you, let’s talk about where the disagreements are and, if indeed we cannot come up with a compromise, then we go on and agree that there’s just no middle ground there,” he says. “But a lot of times that discussion never happens, so you retreat to both sides and no progress is ever made, whether it’s positive or negative.”
A former Democrat — he switched parties as a result of redistricting in 2011 — Barras also knows the players on both sides and has worked with newly elected Gov. John Bel Edwards for the past eight years in the House.
“Of course we will maybe differ on legislation and issues, but to say that it’s going to be impossible for us to work together or we won’t be able to is really not a factor at all,” he says. “I consider the conversation we have to be very valuable as we go forward, particularly for our House members. If we can negotiate to move the state forward, then that’s certainly what we’re going to attempt to do.”
Barras’s first job as speaker will be cutting $1.9 billion from the state budget — a challenge for even the most experienced negotiator. He admits the task sounds “catastrophic,” mostly because of the effect it could have on critical services across the state, but he plans to tackle it with a “no shortcuts” approach.
In fact, it’s stabilizing the state’s budget that he’d like to leave as his legacy. His vision for the future of Louisiana involves a situation where lawmakers and citizens know what to expect in revenue — and have funds saved for a rainy day.
“My dad used to say put some money in a savings account first,” he remembers. “That’s not always been government’s best option and sometimes that jumps up to bite you. It’s that balance that I would say is probably the toughest part of this job. Being fiscally responsible and at the same time meeting the needs of the constituents.”
As his almost 10 years in politics have proven, Barras is ready for the challenge. He’s still getting used to the title of “Mr. Speaker,” as are his wife, Cheryl, and son, Alex, but he considers it an honor to serve in the position.
“I hope we can continue to do the things that we need to do to get our state to prosper,” he says. “I have an interesting job to get a lot of people to reach across the aisle and meet in the middle, so we’ll see how that works out. It takes a great deal of organization, but it also takes a great deal of negotiation to affect legislation in the end and that part of it is still done the old-fashioned way by word of mouth and talking eye to eye.”