House sergeant at arms on job more than three decades
By Sarah Gamard / Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Not much about the Louisiana Legislature has changed since House Sergeant of Arms Clarence “Smoke” Russ began working at the Capitol in 1982, but the end of the last regular session was one to remember.
Russ said the final hour of last Thursday’s session close was one of the wildest he had ever seen in his tenure. That night shocked staff, lawmakers and spectators alike — House Democrats, including Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, D-New Orleans — were at odds with Speaker of the House Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, in what ultimately became failed passage of the state’s spending plan for next fiscal year.
It was a meltdown of emotions and decorum.
Russ puts that night on the same pedestal as one he remembers decades ago, when gaming became legal in Louisiana. Back then, he said, lawmakers would vote opposite of what they wanted before changing it at their last-minute so their correct vote was recorded — sometimes failing to correct it in time.
“It was crazy in the chambers that night,” Russ said.
In spite of roaming through Louisiana’s political epicenter for 35 years, such moments are few and far between, he said.
For example, a person looking for then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco after Hurricane Katrina busted a garbage can through a glass window in the Capitol’s House wing.
“I don’t think (Blanco) was here and I don’t think she wanted to talk to the person in that state,” he said.
Russ also said a U.S. president’s visit to the Capitol creates “whole different crazy,” especially from a security standpoint.
He also said many come to the Capitol looking to discuss issues with a politician stationed in Washington, D.C., such as U.S. senators or representatives of the Louisiana delegation.
“A lot of folks really don’t understand the difference between state government and national government,” he said. “My staff and I deal with that all the time.”
But overall, the past 35 years have been relatively stable. He said staff and lawmakers still form close relationships with one another, though perhaps not as close as when lawmakers had no term limits. That changed in 1995, which Russ said slightly changed the environment — lawmakers used to be able to retain their job for 20 years at a time. Now, they get 12 years at most.
Russ said he does not know whether the term restriction is good or bad.
“I haven’t formed that opinion yet,” he said. “We’re really just starting to get a feel for (the change).”
Russ, who began working as an assistant clerk under Clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer for 12 years then as Senate secretary for a number of years, says he enjoys being House sergeant of arms because the committee process is the most important.
“The people get to speak for themselves,” Russ said.
Louisianans who think they are affected by potential or existing laws can testify in committee, but not when the bill makes it to the chamber for the full legislative body to debate.
“Everything that’s being discussed and decided here affects people’s lives,” Russ said, calling the committee process “incredible.”
The Senate also has a sergeant of arms, but the two don’t interact as much as one might think. Behind the scenes, the Senate and House sergeants work as the middlemen to get members to the proper committee so they can testify for their bills.
Russ spoke warmly about the lawmakers he and his 17 staff members — only three of which have law enforcement backgrounds — protect. Representatives often apologize, he said, if they get too heated toward his staff during debate.
“They follow the rules.”