You might remember the thing I wrote the other day about the Louisiana legislature trying to change the name of my high school alma mater from the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts to the Jimmy D. Long Sr. Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. The late state Rep. Long was a key founder of the school, one of the nation’s first public high schools for gifted kids, back in the early 1980s. His name is held with honor and affection by the school’s alumni.
Two state legislators who were close to him — State Sen. Francis Thompson, and State Sen. Gerald Long, Jimmy’s brother — filed a bill to honor his memory by renaming the school. This stoked fierce opposition from the school’s alumni, who hold the school’s tradition dearly. They lobbied fiercely against the bill, not out of disrespect for Rep. Long, but out of high regard for the school and its traditions.
Some outsiders, including Louisiana legislators, couldn’t understand what the big deal was. It’s just a name, they said. There are all kinds of good arguments that could be mustered against that position, but in the end, it boiled down to this: the name of the school is a family tradition. It might not make sense to outsiders, but within the family, it is sacred. That’s what was happening here. It’s why the alumni fought so hard for their cause. To them, it felt that Louisiana politicians were trampling on a cherished tradition, just to throw their weight around.
This afternoon, the Louisiana House of Representatives narrowly passed a version of the Senate bill. Excerpt:
The House, without objection, added an amendment aimed at placating opponents of the measure, Senate Bill 1.
Whether it represents a compromise remains in dispute.
While the school would be named after Long, as originally drafted, it would not affect diplomas, transcripts, logos, stationery and other items. In addition, the LSMSA’s board of directors would have control on exactly how the name change is implemented, including signs and class rings.
Others alluded to the fact that Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, sponsor of the bill and Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, Thompson’s key ally on the legislation, were in the House chamber before and during the vote.
[State Rep. Patricia Smith, a bill opponent] noted that the LSMSA depends on state dollars for its operations. “I don’t like getting emails from people saying they are threatened and their funding is being held up,” she said.
Thompson said he was pleased with the House-passed version of his bill and plans to ask the Senate to give it final approval before adjournment on Thursday at 6 p.m. “I don’t know anything about any threats,” he said after the vote.
I’m told by alumni who were at the legislature and active in lobbying efforts that the arm-twisting by Thompson and Long that Rep. Smith mentions was a big part of today’s vote. I heard from a lobbyist friend not involved in the controversy that Thompson and Long really wanted this to go through, and the fact that the bill passed the House with and amendment that “gutted” it was a real accomplishment by the alumni.
There’s no doubt that the Senate will approve the compromise, and that Gov. John Bel Edwards will sign it into law. The Louisiana state budget is a rolling disaster, and Edwards needs all the support he can get. Thompson and Long are powerful state senators. The story writes itself.
This is a Pyrrhic victory for Thompson and Long. This name change is as nominal as it gets. Everybody will get to officially do what they would have done anyway: ignore this, and call the school what it has been called for 34 years. They won’t have to go through the hassle and expense of changing signs, letterhead, and the rest. The school’s board of directors will have say-so on how this law is implemented. Maybe I’m not seeing something, but it looks like the best thing that alumni could have hoped for short of an outright win. It looks like a face-saving solution for two of the most powerful men in the Louisiana Senate.
But here’s the thing: from now on, through no fault of his own (he’s dead), poor Jimmy Long’s name will be mud with the alumni and the community of the school. It ought to be held with affection and honor, but now it will forever be associated with this ugly legislative attempt to force something unwanted onto the school and its community. Plus, there are thousands of alumni and alumni families throughout the state and nation who are fired up in advance of the next legislative election, ready to work for and donate to legislators who stood by the school despite the pressure from Thompson and Long, and ready to work against those who did not. I knew before this started that graduates of the school (I was in the Class of ’85) felt passionately about the place, but the intensity of feeling and commitment around the name-change issue honestly shocked me.
This episode has been a good lesson in politics. It was not the victory alumni hoped for, but it was a remarkable result all the same, given how things usually go in the Louisiana legislature. The teaching moment will continue past the signing of this bill. Here’s a list of how state reps voted. I was pleased to see how my state representative, Kenny Havard, came down on the issue.
Still, what a shame, what these prideful lawmakers and those who knuckled under to them have done to Jimmy Long’s memory. But the alumni memory is longer.