Monday, July 22, 2024

When Chip Hemphill is on a hunting trip with his friends, looking for white-tailed deer and hogs, he doesn’t typically find himself discussing who is second in line to the presidency. His wife, Kathleen, barely mentions politics while overseeing archery lessons at Hoot & Holler Archery, their store in Bossier City in northern Louisiana.

But this week, they each found themselves talking again and again about their congressman, Mike Johnson, who had been unanimously chosen by Republicans to serve as speaker of the House.

“Not so much what was going on, but ‘Can you believe they’re voting somebody in from Louisiana?’” Mr. Hemphill said on Thursday, as the pair took turns greeting customers picking up compound bows and new arrows.

“Everyone was excited,” Ms. Hemphill added. “It’s our guy.”

The decision by a weary, bitterly divided Republican conference to end a three-week search for a speaker by selecting Mr. Johnson, an evangelical conservative with a previously low national profile, surprised and delighted many in Louisiana’s Fourth Congressional District who had been otherwise put off by the latest strain of Washington dysfunction.

In Mr. Johnson’s rise to become the first House speaker from Louisiana, some constituents saw an opportunity to elevate the priorities and needs of their district, which sprawls along the northwestern borders with Texas and Arkansas, and their state, which has struggled to counter spiraling poverty and improve health outcomes.

The staunchly conservative and largely rural district of just over 761,000 people has a median household income of about $48,600, well below the national median of close to $75,000, and about 22 percent of the district lives below the poverty level.

Some here wondered if their newfound connection to power would give Shreveport, once an oil boom town, a larger profile outside the shadows of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Others saw the possibility for further investment in nearby Barksdale Air Force Base, which Mr. Johnson had in April singled out as the beneficiary of his lone defense community project request in annual government funding legislation.

“I feel like a lot of times, up here in North Louisiana, we don’t get heard,” Ms. Hemphill said. “There’ll be a change, definitely,” she added. “We won’t be at the bottom of the barrel.”

Though his ardent opposition to gay rights has alarmed Democrats and contradicts a majority public opinion in the country, Mr. Johnson and his hard-line conservative positions embody the strict evangelical values of many in northern Louisiana, which tends to have a stronger kinship to Texas and the Bible Belt than the rest of the state.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world — a Captain Shreve boy makes good,” said Mike Powell, the executive director of Roy’s Kids, a local charity, referring to the Shreveport high school Mr. Johnson graduated from in 1990. “It’s going to be good for North Louisiana. It’s going to be good for the U.S. And it’s going to be good for the world, if they let him do anything.”

Former President Donald J. Trump won Louisiana by about 19 points in 2020, and Mr. Johnson, who easily won that year and ran unopposed in 2022, became a key architect of efforts to challenge Mr. Trump’s loss and overturn the election results in other states.

The political possibilities of having Mr. Johnson and Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who will remain as majority leader, at the helm of the House has galvanized conservatives in the state, who were already buoyed by Jeff Landry’s decisive victory this month to become the next governor.

“We’re all a little star-struck, to be honest,” said Timothy Magner, the president of the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce, who corrected himself to use the new “speaker” title to refer to Mr. Johnson. “That brass ring, if you will, has always been out of reach.”

And as Washington acclimates to a lawmaker who has not held a prominent leadership position before, those in Louisiana see the same strait-laced man who cultivated a reputation as a dedicated constitutional scholar willing to defend hard-line religious and conservative stances. (Multiple friends and colleagues said he has a knack for impressions of politicians, which they cited as evidence of a sense of humor.)

“He makes what many people may see as unreasonable seem more reasonable, because he comes off as a very logical, rational, researched presentation of what would be undigestible for moderates,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, a longtime Louisiana political consultant who has worked for officials in both parties.

“He would tell you he’s never surprised by God’s ordinance,” she added. “And the thing about Mike is — he means that answer.”

Some constituents said that they, too, were among the many Americans learning about Mr. Johnson this week. In Opelousas, in the southern slice of his district, Shawana Johnson, 43, said she heard of him for the first time through a canvassing text message on Wednesday.

A certified doula who works for a nonprofit organization focused on decreasing the infant and maternal mortality rates, Ms. Johnson said she wished her congressman would address the gaps she sees in medical care, particularly for women of color. (About 57 percent of residents of Mr. Johnson’s district are white, and a third are Black.)

But Ms. Johnson said she was skeptical of the speaker’s ability to effect change, given what she saw as years of neglect and inattention from national politicians.

“This is the poorest parish, this is the poorest city,” said Ms. Johnson, who does not align herself with either major political party. “We voice our opinions, but do they go anywhere? The spotlight is not on what needs to be because ultimately nobody cares about these little rural areas. Those that do care are working so hard, and it’s discouraging.”

Howard Ware, 72, said he had heard of Mr. Johnson, but he had not voted since the 2020 election because of his deep disillusionment with the political system. He wondered if Mr. Johnson could prevail in a Washington that seems unwilling to work.

“I’ve come to the conclusion people like mess,” Mr. Ware said. “They’re not going to let him do his job.”

Scott Anderson contributed reporting from Shreveport, La.

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