By John Maginnis
In an effort to ramp up the excitement over the secretary of state debate held last week, Jean Armstrong, of the sponsoring League of Women Voters of Louisiana, reminded the audience that the occupant of the office “is only two heartbeats away from being governor.” She tried, anyway.
The candidates themselves, incumbent Tom Schedler and Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, did their best to espouse how each would make more of a difference. But of their views concerning the most important duty of the office, conducting fair and honest elections, it was difficult to tell the difference.
They agreed that Louisiana elections are run well, though we could do with fewer of them each year, that the 14-hour polling day, longest in the nation, should be shortened, while the locations for early voting should be increased and that the time for Internet voting has not yet come.
That left state museums and corporate records, eight percent of the office, budget-wise, for the two to argue over, plus “Ol’ Reliable,” the character issue.
You could not feel the electricity in the air as the two agreed that the office needs to keep open all 17 musuems overseen by the secretary of state and to restore their operating hours that have been shortened by this year’s budget cuts.
They further agreed that the corporations division, through its web site, should do more to connect new businesses to other state agencies and programs that might help them prosper.
They only differed on how they would go pursue their goals. Schedler said he can only work with what the governor and Legislature appropriate, thus shifting some of the responsibility, or blame, to Speaker Tucker. Tucker vowed to “scrub the budget”-—to re-coin Buddy Roemer’s old phrase—-to find the needed money.
A last point on which they agreed is that neither would hire the other to be first assistant, nor would they take the job that won’t be offered.
It was only when the candidates were allowed to ask each other questions did the debate get down to where these exchanges often end, on the relative unfitness of the other to hold this office.
Both knew exactly what was coming and were well-rehearsed on their defenses.
Schedler asked if Tucker felt any regrets for having “led that charge” for the 2008 legislative pay raise, which, after a storm of public protest, the governor vetoed. Schedler nicely painted the visual image as he reminded Tucker, “You said you prayed over it,” and, after it passed, “you were seen high-fiving with colleagues.”
Tucker responded that he was only trying to make legislative service feasible for more ordinary citizens, unlike himself, who was prepared to donate his raise to charity. The Legislature’s error, he said, was in accepting the pay increase in the same term it was approved, which chastened lawmakers later corrected by offering a constitutional amendment to prevent such from happening again.
In his turn as inquisitor, Tucker asked why Schedler accepted homestead exemptions on two separate properties for three years. “How do you tell people to pay their taxes when you have not paid yours?” pressed Tucker.
More errors. “The parish assessor admitted it was her error,” Schedler answered. “My error was I didn’t catch it.” He added that he has since paid all taxes, interest and penalties.
The character test then proceeded to the ambition round.
Schedler promised that his sole ambition is to continue serving as secretary of state and that he will not use the office as a stepping stone, inferring that Tucker will. He may well, for the speaker has made no secret of his interest in running for treasurer were John Kennedy not in the way, and he might not be by 2015.
But since he only has to make promises one term at a time, Tucker stated that “my only ambition” is to make the office the best it can be.
That leaves the voters a choice of what they seek in a secretary of state: one who wants to do that job very well and none other, and one who wants to do the job so well that he might earn another. Either motivation is fine for the next four years, and two heartbeats.