When Louisiana attorney Richard Gallot was elected to the state legislature, the then-rising young Democrat took office with a new rising Republican governor. It did not take long before the two realized they needed to work together to do their jobs and achieve their goals, among them staying afloat as high-profile political figures in the Bayou State.
“Regardless of who’s in charge, they (elected officials) have an obligation to represent our interests,” Gallot says, stressing the importance of responsibility over political objectives.
Today, as New York businessperson Donald Trump has risen to the presidency of the United States, Gallot, the new president of Grambling State University, has advice for his peers, offered as a seasoned politician turned higher education administrator: connect with your so-called adversaries early, earnestly and often.
“We are very polarized now,” says Galllot, who spent 15 years serving in the Louisiana State Legislature working with two Republican governors during his terms in the state House and Senate. “It’s going to take members of state legislatures and Congress to do their jobs,” he says, having worked with politicians whose personalities have run the gamut.
“It’s important to connect” beyond paperwork and memos with peers and adversaries at every level of influence, says Gallot. It is important, he says, to “develop something beyond your official relationship.”
Approaching his challenges from that point, Gallot says he has already sought to engage the member of Congress representing the district in which Grambling is located. Recently, during a visit to Washington, he contacted the Congressman, Rep. Ralph Abraham, regarding getting a tour of the White House for his wife who was accompanying him for an official visit. Abraham arranged for his wife to meet with Gallot’s, the president says. They toured the official mansion and lunched together, he says, making him more than just a name sending documents for help.
Such gestures are necessary today, as university presidents encounter an entirely new crew of federal higher education officials under Trump, many of whom have little, if any, real-time experience in higher education policy and administration. Behind Trump’s crew are elected lawmakers of all political parties who are likely to serve as long, if not longer, in their respective offices than Trump, he says.
Politics is an exercise in pooling ideas at some point, Gallot says, noting that then-Gov. Murphy J. Foster asked him to support a measure in the state House. Gallot said that he would, if the governor could help get Grambling funds to finance several projects important to the university. The tradeoff worked, as Foster’s bill passed and Grambling got its $25 million for construction.
“You (lawmakers) have to be willing to assist them (government chief executives), when they need help,” says Gallot, noting lawmakers on Capitol Hill hold the federal purse strings.
Gallot adds it is important to cultivate the scores of career government employees who do the day-to-day work of keeping a government agency running. “I don’t have to go to Trump Tower,” he says of the “higher-ups and political appointees” who have visited Trump at his New York City offices since the November elections.
Career public servants at the local, state and federal levels are where the “real work is being done,” Gallot says. Those individuals are just as important as the ones who visit Trump Tower for news headlines and photo opportunities, he says.
Get to know them, he adds.
Gallot, interviewed by phone last week at the end of a NCAA board meeting in Nashville, also offered a bit of wisdom given by NCAA Executive Vice President Bernard Franklin during the meeting.
‘If you’re not at the table, you’re going to be on the menu,” Gallot recalls Franklin saying, as he, Gallot, offered advice to peers sorting through the continued fallout over Trump’s persistent and offensive rhetorical outbursts.
Presidents need to step back from the rhetoric and help their students develop leadership skills at such times, Gallot says.
“If a student sees me sulking and kicking cans, what else should I expect from them?” he asked. “They need to see me engage with the government by example, no matter who is in power.”
A rookie president he is, Gallot acknowledges. Still, he knows a lot about the work a president needs to do to get the job done in the real world, he adds.