Preparedness & Recovery

'When You Come Back to Louisiana, It's Like You Have Never Left'

From catastrophic hurricanes to historic floods to man-made disasters like the Deepwater Horizon explosion and massive oil spill, the state has found itself in a nearly continual cycle of crises in recent years.

by Elizabeth Crisp, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / July 10, 2017
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(TNS) — Gov. John Bel Edwards' new chief of staff, Mark Cooper, has years of experience in something that Louisiana is highly accustomed to: disasters.

From catastrophic hurricanes to historic floods to man-made disasters like the Deepwater Horizon explosion and massive oil spill, the state has found itself in a nearly continual cycle of crises in recent years. And that's not even counting the cycle of budget emergencies.

Cooper — who previously served as head of Louisiana's disaster management agency; worked in California on response to Los Angeles riots, earthquakes and wildfires; and most recently was the senior director of global emergency management for Wal-Mart, the world's largest private employer — sees one silver lining to disasters: They bring people together across partisan lines to do what's best.

He said he hopes that translates to the increasingly volatile political climate that he's entering in Louisiana, where Edwards, a Democrat, has often butted heads with the Republicans who dominate most other aspects of state government.

"It doesn't matter to me whether you are a Republican or Democrat," Cooper said in a recent interview with The Advocate in his fourth-floor office in the State Capitol, just steps away from Edwards' office. "My goal is to help the citizens of Louisiana."

In Louisiana, the governor's chief of staff has traditionally played a powerful role in guiding the state's policies and politics.

Cooper, a Republican, is in an unusual position, working for a Democratic governor in a deep red state. Edwards is the only statewide elected Democrat, and Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate.

"I have seen this in the governor: He wants to lead from a bipartisan perspective," Cooper said. "To bring in someone with different viewpoints from him is an advantage."

It remains to be seen how Cooper's role will shape up, particularly as the governor navigates a pitfall-filled political landscape, most notably illustrated in the ongoing public feud he has engaged in with a defiant House Republican leadership.

Louisiana has traditionally given governors the unusual power of dictating their own legislative leaders. However, when Edwards took office, Republicans in the House rejected Edwards' choice and named their own House speaker. In the year and a half since then, that initial rift has widened as House Republican leaders have pushed back against Edwards' plans for shoring up the state's finances through increased revenue.

"I'm maybe not your traditional type of chief of staff, and I'm still trying to feel that out," Cooper said. "I kind of see myself as the Capitol whisperer; I'm not the one that is going to be out there to cut people down."

Cooper started his job just as the Legislature ended a special session to deal with the state's short-term budget and just before it started its regular session, which closed without much effort to plug the state's looming $1 billion-plus shortfall when a temporary sales tax hike expires next year.

Cooper has, so far, not drawn much attention publicly, though the announcement of his hiring raised some eyebrows, given that he was previously part of Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration. Edwards frequently criticizes his Republican predecessor's handling of the state's finances, in particular.

Cooper served under Jindal as executive director of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, a Cabinet-level position that placed him as a close adviser to Jindal during hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008; the BP oil spill in 2010; and other disasters and preparation needs the state experienced between 2008 and 2011, when Cooper left to take a job at Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Arkansas.

Edwards said he sees Cooper as being "an invaluable part of this team since his first day."

"Having joined the administration in the thick of a budget debate, he immediately hit the ground running — working with Republicans, Democrats and independents — to find areas of agreement to better Louisiana," Edwards said.

"Most importantly, Mark’s previous experience with the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness was a tremendous asset when Louisiana faced severe weather over the last several months. I know that, going forward, he will continue to forge the relationships this administration needs to be successful."

Cooper said he's comfortable working across party lines in his new role because Edwards, a devout Catholic and former Army Ranger, is more conservative than many Democrats. In a similar bipartisan gesture, Edwards also tapped Republican Jay Dardenne, a former lieutenant governor and GOP candidate for governor, as his commissioner of administration when he took office.

But Cooper's hiring marked a sharp departure from Edwards' previous chief of staff.

Cooper replaced the retiring Ben Nevers, a former Democratic state senator from Bogalusa who is well known and highly respected among his former colleagues in the State Capitol, where he served in the Legislature for 15 years.

During a state Senate subcommittee hearing on the state's flood recovery, Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, joked that Nevers, a calm and fatherly figure, had been sent to represent the Governor's Office because members of the committee liked Nevers and would be more gentle in questioning him about the federal funds the state had received.

In the most recent regular legislative session, Edwards proposed a slate of large tax proposals, but none gained traction — the latest example of how he's faced pushback from conservative leaders.

Lawmakers have publicly acknowledged that they suspect the Legislature will be called into another special session before next year's regular session in March, though Edwards has recently said he will not call one if he doesn't think there is enough consensus to be productive.

The Legislature cannot take up certain tax measures in regular sessions in even-numbered years, so any action to whittle away at the shortfall would have to take place at a special session.

"I think at the end of the day, we've got to do what's right for this state," Cooper said of his approach to policy.

Cooper said he missed public service and had always yearned for a more executive-type role not strictly focused on disaster preparation and response. But disasters are, perhaps not surprisingly, what have brought Cooper and Edwards together.

Cooper and Edwards, a former state lawmaker whom Cooper didn't know during his previous stint in Louisiana government, first met at a National Governors Association meeting last year. Cooper said he found Edwards to be down-to-earth, and he later admired Edwards' leadership through the state's tumultuous year.

Just months after Edwards took office, Louisiana was under the glare of the national spotlight for a series of events that sent the governor into disaster response mode: Floods washed over much of north Louisiana in March 2016. A black man was killed in an altercation with white Baton Rouge police officers in July. Two weeks later, a Missouri man traveled to Baton Rouge and carried out an ambush attack on law enforcement, killing three officers and wounding three more. Catastrophic floods swept the capital area in August.

By the time Edwards' first year in office ended, 56 of Louisiana's 64 parishes had received federal disaster declarations at some point.

"I was very interested. You have a Democrat in a very red state," Cooper said. "What really sold me on his leadership abilities is how he responded to the floods and the shootings last year."

Cooper and his wife, Sandra, a schoolteacher from Minnesota, have three children — one son who is a sophomore at LSU, and a son and a daughter in high school.

An older daughter died suddenly in 2000 at the age of 5 because of a heart issue — something Cooper says has made his family strong.

"My wife and I have been through a lot," he said. "We're very resilient as a couple."

Cooper said they often share the story of their loss with other grieving families. "It's a terrible fraternity to be a part of," he said. "But you learn it's good to talk to others who have been through what you've been through."

Though he's had stints in California and Arkansas, Cooper considers himself a proud Louisianian and an ambassador for LSU, in particular. He was known among his Southern California friends as a long-distance cheerleader for the Tigers, talking up the school so much that a friend's child is now enrolled there.

Born in South Dakota, Cooper and his family moved to Bossier City when he was young, ironically as the state was experiencing massive flash floods.

"They felt they had found the promised land," Cooper said of his family.

His father retired from Barksdale Air Force Base but died a short time later, when Cooper was just 12.

His mother liked Louisiana and the community the family had become a part of in Bossier City so much that she decided the family would stay there, and Cooper said he thrived as a youth attending public schools, being involved in the Boys State program and eventually ending up at LSU, which felt like a world away at a time when the trip to Baton Rouge could take six hours by car.

Cooper's interest in Louisiana politics led him to work for the annual Boys State program, which encourages high schoolers from across the state to take an interest in politics. He also worked for the Legislature and even as a graduate assistant for one of the state's top economists, LSU's Jim Richardson.

He said he still has several friends in northwest Louisiana and recently attended his 35th high school reunion.

"When you come back to Louisiana, it's like you have never left," he said.

Cooper said he wants to be a part of flipping the narrative of people fleeing Louisiana for better opportunities elsewhere.

"People come from all over and fall in love with this state," he said. "You can't measure it in a ranking."

"I'm still in awe every day that I walk into this Capitol," Cooper said of the 34-story skyscraper in downtown Baton Rouge. "I hope that never changes."

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