An Interview with Governor Mike Foster
The former governor reflects on his time in office
As part of The Louisiana Governors Project, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities interviewed past governors about their time in office and their reflections on the roles and responsibilities of that office. LEH’s Brian Boyles sat down with former Governor Mike Foster at his home in Franklin. Video by Chris Robert.
How did you decide to enter politics?
Foster: Let me simply tell you that I was apolitical for many years. I really was not politically involved. I was 57 years old before I got any interest in running for office. I ran for office for the state senate because my state senator wouldn’t return my phone calls. If you’re in the senate and you don’t return people’s calls or if you’re governor and you don’t return people’s calls, it may be a good way to get someone to run against you.
That’s how, basically, I got involved. I was in the construction business, had been in the farming business, had been a farm bureau president and went from farming into construction. Had a heavy construction company working about 300 people. There were a lot of things the government was doing, not the least of which was some of the legal ramifications of the way things were done in this state, that I didn’t like. Some of it was being addressed at the state level and I wanted to talk to my senator and he wouldn’t answer my phone calls. That’s the story of how I got into politics at 57.
As a businessman what kind of expectations did you have of your state senator and your state government? What did you think the role of government should be?
Foster: Obviously the role of government is to interact with the people and address those things that are important. At the state level even. At the federal level you’re talking about protecting the country, but at the state level you’re talking about having a good state police, having a good national guard. Being involved in the laws that sort of regulate things, that’s where I got involved. There were things that happened that I didn’t think were being regulated properly. A lot of tort issues that I got involved in early on. Government’s just a big business. That’s really what it is.
You had served for eight years in the State Senate. What were some of the big surprises once you became governor about the responsibility and the power of the office?
Foster: Just how difficult it is to move government. When I got to be governor, serving in the state senate had been an extremely good thing to do because actually when I was elected governor we had… Because of some constitutional changes we had a very short time to get staff. You can’t think about staff to run government when you’re running a campaign. So you’re not prepared. You have 30 days. I was fortunate enough to be able to take my senate staff with me. That made a big, big difference. I feel sorry for governors that I see go in and go with people that are green, don’t understand the legislature, don’t understand the way government works. Having been in government is a big, big advantage. Had I not, I’d have been lost.
As far as putting together that team, how did you go about attracting the right people, especially knowing that you did want to do some reforms and you did want to change the way the government worked?
Foster: Again, we had a very short time to do it. We put together a method. Actually, I had a good enough Chief of Staff that he put together a system by which we very quickly interviewed people, took recommendations and were able to get a good staff. We knew a lot of people. One of the problems in government, and this is interesting, one of the problems in getting a good, young staff, or good staff to help you run departments is that there is a restriction in the ethics law that says once you’ve held one of those jobs, you’ve got to wait two years before you go back into business. It really limits the people that are interested in stopping what they’re doing for awhile and coming back and being involved.
I was fortunate [that] a lot of my department heads were older people that didn’t really want to go back. They, obviously, were very experienced. That’s one of the things that made it difficult to do. That and the time constraints.
Once those people get into positions, how do you enable them to succeed in those jobs?
Foster: First off, you pick somebody that knows the subject matter. You don’t put somebody running transportation that’s never had any experience with road building. You put somebody into the Department of Health & Hospitals that knows a lot about it. That’s sort of where I found Bobby Jindal. He’d been involved at the federal level and some policy for the congress. You try to find people with that experience. That’s very difficult to do quick. One of them, the guy that ran the department that really is the business end of it, was Mark Drennan, who had spent his time criticizing government. I called him and I said “Mark, why don’t you come run the Division of Administration? This would give you a chance to fix some of the things you’ve complained about for years.” He took the challenge and was tough for him to do that. He did a very good job. Without Mark we’d have never built all of those building in downtown Baton Rouge. I wanted to do it, he figured out how to do it.
It appears you had a real belief in updating infrastructure of government and investing in government in that way.
Foster: I don’t know whether we updated anything. I had things I wanted to do. I wanted to do tort reform, we did it. I thought education had gotten underfunded and we spent a lot of time… Actually, one of the things I noticed was that the buildings were falling down on the campuses. During the campaign I saw that. I wanted to put more money into education. Actually I gave the K-12 teachers bigger raises then they ever had and they never even supported [me]. Even after I supported them, they didn’t support me. I’m sure a lot of the teachers did, but the unions didn’t.
You pick your battles. I was always offended by the fact that it was a big racket going on where people contributed to these races, then they’d rent these rattrap buildings for a lot of money to the government, and I said we’ve got to stop that. Then we built downtown Baton Rouge with buildings that were first-rate, that would last 100 years. After they’re paid off, which should be pretty soon, they’re going to generate all kinds of income for the state. Plus it helped downtown Baton Rouge develop. We built a lot of highways. […] Four-laned a lot of the state. Built two Mississippi River bridges. We built one north of Baton Rouge and we redid the Huey P. Long from scratch. You just got to pick things. Highway US 90 here was a horrible road. We finished four-lane-ing it.
How do you approach the legislature to get them to cooperate with you? At that time I think it was still a majority Democrat legislature, but you seemed to have gotten a lot done when it comes to those infrastructure projects.
Foster: If you’ve been there, you understand it. Louisiana fortunately, very fortunately, is a state that doesn’t look at the parties too much. It may be getting worse now, it looks like it is, but it was not unusual to have committee chairmen from different parties. To have speakers and presidents of the senate from different parties. It was more [on] philosophical grounds. Of course, I did one thing with my executive decree when I got in. I said we’re going to do away with affirmative action. Everybody fell over and carried on. But it was a very good reason. It offended so many people that we were taking public money and giving it to people just because of the color of their skin or, in a lot of cases, just because they were women. Probably more women using that system thanthere were minorities. So what I said was look, we’re going to continue doing things to help people, but it’ll be because of need. It’s not going to be because of color of the skin. It’s not going to be because they’re female or male.
That sort of took a big issue off the table. To the best of my knowledge, and I think you can ask any of the legislators that were there, the [black] caucus got along fine. Actually had a better voting record out of the caucus then some of my Democratic predecessors. But by taking that issue off the table it made it a lot easier. We didn’t sit there and argue about very, very confrontational, argumentative issues.
Another big landmark was the Stelly Plan. Looking back on that, that seems like an impressive change to enact. How was that accomplished?
Foster: I remember Roemer’s administration tried very hard. It was even an aim for it where they were going to try to lower sales taxes and [raise] some of the lower income taxes a little bit. But there was more than one reason in my opinion. We used to have what was called a temporary sales tax, which was there every year and if you did nothing the legislature could extort from the administration. They could just say okay, if you don’t do this A-B-C for us, we’re just not going to renew the taxes. Then the whole state gets into a complete… I wanted to do away with that too.
If you’ll look at the present big mess in the budget, if they had not immediately changed all those taxes around and done away with that, they wouldn’t be having any problems. But because they did… I think they did away with the inventory tax part of it. If you took that differential right now and added it back into the budget, you’d have an hourly budget. That’s sort of one of those bad judgment deals that the legislature and the administration brought on themselves. I think the governor just got in because he was going to lose it anyway. It wasn’t his idea. It was the legislature’s idea. Now they’ve got to live with the fruits of it.
In the most recent issue of our magazine, Tyler Bridges wrote an overview of David Duke’s time in the late eighties and early nineties. You had had a couple meetings with him. There was a controversy around purchasing these lists. Looking back on that now, what do you remember of that process and that decision?
Foster: The truth was that I had to raise a little bit of money to run for governor. I wasn’t well known. I didn’t have anybody running to help me run a campaign. I needed some mailing lists. I knew that David Duke had some good mailing lists. I used my own money. Bought [them] from him. That became just a big issue and it really wasn’t an issue, actually. At some point in all that I had called the ethics group and said look, I bought a mailing list, I’ve decided I’m not going to use it, do I have to report it? And they said no. Well, you know the rest of the story. They made a big to-do about it. There really was nothing to that other than I bought a mailing list from him.
David Duke was what he was. He was a something that happened during a period of time. The truth was that the issue he had that resonated was the whole idea of the affirmative action thing. If I’m correct, I think even the Supreme Court has pretty well said you shouldn’t do that. They’ve allowed some use of affirmative action, but not just blatant you’re going to get affirmative action because of who your ancestors were or because you’re female. I think that’s what gave him his stroke, actually, so we did away with that issue. It wasn’t an issue after that.
If you had to advise a future governor, what would be the best strategy for working with the media?
Foster: I don’t know. The media decided, for whatever reason, that I didn’t travel enough. They hounded me about that. I thought about it and I said, you know, if that’s the worst they can find on me, I’m just going to play their game. I just went along with them. But the truth was I asked my troopers one time, I said, “Did I travel as much as other governors?” They said, “For work, you did.” So I didn’t take a bunch of joy trips. But I was chairman of the Southern Governors Association for a period of time. Obviously, I traveled all over the south doing that. Got a couple of good conventions here with southern governors. Actually on 9/11, I was in one of those meetings in Kentucky.
I don’t know. I enjoyed the give and take with the media. I had a young lady who was my press secretary who got along with the media. I never had any love-hate relationships. I got along… I felt like most of them were my friends. I also realized that they were going to mess with you. They messed with me on not traveling enough.
They had a real hissy when I went to law school. All I did was go one or two hours a week. I figured I could afford that kind of time. It was helpful. I’ve always enjoyed the law. In fact when I got out of being governor I continued going to school and got my law degree. I never will forget when I was first elected I went to both chancellors. I said, “Can I take a couple of courses?” “No, we can’t do that.” The second time I went to LSU to the chancellor, they said no. And the Chairman of Southern said, “We’re supposed to have a part-time program and…[if] you [are] going to take the LSAT and pass it, we’ll start a part-time program.” And we did! And they still have a part time program, which is one of the things I’ve gotten a lot of thanks for from students that have been there. Actually I think they also have a night school.
Then they had a little hissy when I went and learned to fly the helicopter. But I’ve been a pilot all my life. I was flying around with one pilot. One had had open heart surgery. The other had kidney stones. I thought, if he keels over, I’m dead. So I went out and about an hour or two a week learned to fly the helicopter and my answer was look, look at it this way, if one my pilots keels over I’ll save the state two million dollars for a new helicopter, I’ll save another election. Those are the kind of issues that were sort of were odd ball but I got used to them.
You’d have to go back and check with some of the press, but I think I was available. I wasn’t hard to get to. Actually, how many governors have had a radio program where they got on the air once a week and took any question? I mean, we took any question. We didn’t screen our deal. Then I got criticized because they said a lot of time you say you don’t know. I says, you can’t have the answer. I can answer them next week. I’m probably the only governor on record that I know of that sat down, turned it on, said call in, I’ll answer questions.
Since you brought it up, can you talk about the experience of 9/11? I know President Bush actually stopped here that day. What was it like leading the state at that time?
Foster: It was scary for awhile. They gathered us up in Kentucky and locked us up in our state police place. They grounded our airplane. We had a car up there. We had to drive back in that. The whole thing was, nobody really knew what was happening. Louisiana has a very good national guard and a very good state police. So I was comfortable that law enforcement was in place that could take care of what needed to happen. It was just tough days. Unusual days. Once we realized that we weren’t under a concerted carrying-on attack, it got easier to deal with.
The relationship between state government and the City of New Orleans is a very crucial one. How did you approach that?
Foster: Like anything else, I was at some place and somebody was asking me questions and I called New Orleans a “jungle,” which really was just sort of an off-the-cuff remark meaning that you could go to places in New Orleans and have big problems in a hurry if you weren’t careful. No, New Orleans is one of the biggest things you’ve got to deal with and the law is different in the way it handles New Orleans in a lot of cases. But again, you just recognize the fact that it’s important. You deal with their legislators, their mayors; we get along fine. I really wasn’t anti-New Orleans, but I got in trouble over that remark. I never filtered what I said.
If you were to take office today, what would you do to improve the state economy or make it run better?
Foster: Probably just what I did before. Identify things that needed doing. I’ll give you two examples. One example was, we were remediating 30% of our students at LSU. I said we’ve got to quit that. You can’t do that. You can’t have an entrance exam. It’s not politically possible. I said we’re going to do it. Just pick what you want to do and do it and just take the heat. Actually, nobody really complained. We quit remediating students. Somebody said, well where are they going to go? I said the community colleges. They said we don’t have any. I said, well we will. We’ll fix that. So we set up the Community College Board. We made them equal to the other boards. The community college system is a fantastic system. Any young person that wants to get a job if they’ll go to a community college and spend a couple of years they’ll get a good paying job.
My take on things was… I had a saying and I gave this to all my staff. I said, when you have a decision to make, don’t do the political thing. Don’t see what the politics says you ought to do. You see what’s good for Louisiana and do it. You’ll seldom get in trouble for it. I told my department heads that and most of them did it. I did fire one that told me that I couldn’t finish Highway 90. Of course then we did find a way to finish Highway 90. Basically, just look at the problems, forget the politics, really and truly, forget the politics, do whatever you think is right, tell your staff to do what’s right, and 99% of the time it’ll work out. If you tried to feel the wind and pick the political way, 99% of the time you’d get in trouble. That’s my advice. Pick out what needs doing and go after it, do it. If it’s good for the state and that was what you did your decision on you’re going to be in good shape.
KL: If you had fifteen minutes with the next governor on his or her first day in office, what you would tell them?
Foster: The last thing I told you was make your decisions on what you think is good for the state. Tell your department heads make their decisions on what they think is what is good for the state of Louisiana. Do not make political decisions. Don’t make decisions based on what politically seems to be the way things are blowing. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. That way you’ll do the right thing, at least as well as you know it. And so will your staff. You won’t have any regrets. You don’t have any regrets when you did it that way.