Spotlight: Louis (Woody) Jenkins


Some people consider a "libertarian politician" to be a contradiction in terms. They argue either that (a) any legislative action must involve coercion, or (b) even a libertarian would be corrupted, once elected, and become just another politician. Nevertheless, an active refutation of these views is alive and well in the Louisiana legislature: Louis "Woody" Jenkins, second-term representative from District 66 (North Baton Rouge). Though elected as a Democrat due to Deep South political realities, Jenkins freely identifies his political philosophy and positions as libertarian.

What can a libertarian legislator actually do? The familiar saying "No man's life, liberty, or property is secure while the legislature is in session," suggests an important role: working to defeat measures that would infringe on these rights. In just his first year in office, Woody Jenkins voted against 8 major and 8 lesser tax increases, and voted in favor of 9 tax reduction measures. He also voted against 18 measures that would interfere with or expropriate private property and 25 that would harass or manipulate free enterprise. He also supported a variety of measures to expand economic freedom (most of which failed to pass), e.g., to repeal state milk price-fixing, legalize the practice of chiropractic medicine, allow beauticians to cut hair as well as give permanents, repeal Sunday closing laws, and legalize Sunday horse racing.

In addition to voting down increases in taxes and regulation, and voting for their opposites, it is also possible to research, draft, and promote legislation to expand freedom. One of Jenkins' initial successes was a bill to enact safeguards for persons who might be committed to mental institutions. Other early successes included a provision permitting a modest tax credit for parents of children enrolled in private schools, and the consolidation of 59 health-related state agencies. Some of his proposals didn't get as far: to require all state colleges and universities to become self-sustaining within 10 years, to make Federal income tax payments deductible in figuring state income tax, to abolish the "crime" of vagrancy, and to abolish the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

But Jenkins' first really large impact began in his second year in office (1973) when he became a delegate to the state's constitutional convention, charged with rewriting an archaic 1921 constitution. He got himself assigned to the Committee on Bill of Rights and Elections, and proceeded to lead the drafting of the Louisiana Declaration of Rights, which became Article I of the new state constitution. Members of the Committee, under Jenkins' guidance, read works by Rand, LeFevre, Hazlitt, Friedman, and others as background, and produced a document firmly embracing the concept of individual rights—in contrast to the collective-rights philosophy of the 1921 constitution.

Reviewing Jenkins' record, one wonders how such an outspoken defender of individual liberty managed to get elected. Part of the answer is that Woody Jenkins is an outgoing, popular, hometown boy who made good. He was president and valedictorian of his high school class, graduated third in his class (in journalism) at LSU, was a radio DJ in high school and a television newscaster in college. And at 19 he and his wife Diane founded a weekly newspaper, the North Baton Rouge Journal. Thus, when he received his J.D. from LSU Law School, switched his registration from Republican to Democrat, and campaigned on an anti-big-government platform for a seat in the legislature, it was no surprise that Woody trounced four opponents with 66 percent of the vote. In 1975 he was unopposed for reelection to a second four-year term.

To gain the respect of his colleagues and keep the support of his constituents, Jenkins does his homework. Staff assistant Robert Bakhaus notes that Woody's knowledge of the legal and political situation in Louisiana is "encyclopedic," and adds, "He is a walking library of Louisiana lore, law, and necessary reform and repeal." He is also an expert tactician. Last year when a bill to bring water well drillers under state regulation was under discussion, Jenkins got the bill laughed to death by proposing that divining rod operators be included in its provisions, and that state standards he set for divining rods. "Right now anybody can just pull a forked twig off a tree and use it for a rod," Jenkins intoned with a straight face. His amendment passed, and the House then killed the entire bill.

Today, well into his second term, Jenkins continues to take on new causes. He has made well-publicized visits to state mental institutions to focus attention on the plight of those committed by their relatives because they are eccentric. The Louisiana ACLU has belatedly hopped on Jenkins' bandwagon on this issue. He is working to prevent state employees from lobbying on state time. Among his pending bills are one that would eliminate the present motorcycle helmet requirement and lower the compulsory school-attendance age from 16 to 14. He is also planning efforts to add None-of-the-Above to Louisiana ballots, and to institute a voucher system for public schools.

Where will he go from here? At 29 Woody Jenkins has many years ahead of him. By serving on the boards of the National Taxpayers Union and the Heritage Foundation, he gains exposure to national issues while continuing to grow in political experience. He's not saying how soon, but nobody will be surprised when Woody Jenkins becomes Congressman Jenkins (D., Louisiana).