Louisiana's Gov A Man Of Many Parts

BATON ROUGE, La. -- He can pilot a 100-ton offshore boat. He's an accomplished airplane pilot and learning to fly a helicopter. He recently began hosting his own statewide radio talk show and enrolled in law school. Some young stud fresh out of college? A Generation Xer with his wannabes in overdrive.Think again? This man for all seasons is Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, a 70-year-old multi-millionaire re-elected last year in a runaway.

When the fall semester began in late August at the Southern University Law Center, the rank-and-file law students were surprised when one of the first-year students showed up with news reporters and TV cameras tracking his moves.

Foster, who received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Louisiana State University in 1952, is going back to school as a part-time law student and trying to squeeze study time in with his duties as governor, his love of the outdoors and other projects.He is taking one course each in lawsuits, legal writing and civil law, and it keeps him in class from 8 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

And, the most ironic part is that Foster enrolled in law school after spending the better part of his first term blasting trial lawyers and rewriting state tort laws to make it more difficult to sue businesses and individuals.

Foster, who normally goes to bed very early in the evening, said he expects to give up some of his sack time to hit the books. And, Foster said sadly, he also might have to give up some of the hunting and fishing trips that frequently occupy his weekends.

Foster's sudden jump into law school isn't surprising to people who know him. He has long displayed a penchant for trying new things and for pushing the envelope.

When Foster ran for governor in 1995, he bragged about being a licensed emergency medical technician, being certified to pilot a 100-ton offshore vessel and being licensed to fly an airplane.

Shortly after beginning his first term in 1996, Foster got the bug to ride motorcycles. He took a motorcycle safety class and bought a few bikes -including a Harley Davidson.He has led bike rides for charity and one of his more novel political fundraisers of the 1999 election season was a $50 per rider motorcycle caravan on picturesque River Road alongside the Mississippi River.

It also didn't take Foster long after taking office in 1996 to begin learning to fly a helicopter from the State Police pilot who routinely ferried him around the state. Foster maintained that if something unfortunate ever happened to the pilot while they were in the air, he wanted to be able to take the controls of the chopper and at least land them safely.Foster has wanted to take some law classes on a part-time basis since he was first elected governor. But, neither the LSU Paul M. Hebert Law Center nor the Southern Law Center allowed part-time law students.The only law school in the state that allowed part-time students was the Loyola University law school, but it was impossible for him to commute for part-time classes.

Then, the Southern Law Center started making headway on an attempt to get American Bar Association approval to offer a part-time program - and Foster got interested.The school's chancellor admitted that it bent its rules to accommodate the governor. Southern Chancellor B.K. Agnihotri said Foster was admitted to a program that won't be open to others until the fall of 2001.Agnihotri said the admissions committee gave Foster some credit for his real-life experience as a two-term state senator and as governor.

In addition, Foster was not required to take the Law School Admissions Test that is mandatory for all other students prior to enrolling. He is supposed to take the test this fall. Agnihotri said the fact that Foster is a sitting governor and wanted to go back to school at age 70 is "inspirational" and justified some special treatment. But, how long Foster remains an "inspirational" law student is open to conjecture.

Foster said shortly after enrolling that he might go to school full time once his current term of office ends in early 2004. After going to a few classes and seeing what's involved, he isn't talking so cocky.

On a recent edition of the governor's weekly radio talk show, Foster was taking questions from callers when a student named Trey rang in and said he too is a student at the Southern Law Center. And, Trey said he and others in Foster's classes were hard at work on their studies and wanted to know why the governor wasn't studying too.Foster and Trey traded small talk about the difficulty of a recent assignment, with Foster commenting the homework looked like about a five-hour task to him.

"I won't say I made a mistake," Foster confided in Trey and his listening audience. "I don't know if I can hang in there." Foster said he has a busy schedule as governor and can't let law school get in the way of running the state.

Trey encouraged the governor to stick with it and even suggested that a study group of fellow students might work with Foster at the Governor's Mansion. Like any other red-blooded college student, Foster was quick with a reply: "Sure, come on over. Maybe we'll have a party."

While it might sound like Foster has everything going his way, that's not exactly true. He doesn't travel out of state very often, but this summer he led the state's Republicans to the GOP's national convention in Philadelphia. And he spent part of his time defending the fact that he was helping Louisiana raise taxes at a time when Republican governors in many other states were presiding over tax cuts.

Foster, who leads one of the poorer states in the nation, has been under attack since midsummer from the business community that helped elect him to office in 1995. He has done the unthinkable for a Republican governor: .as lawmakers groped during the spring regular session for a way to balance the FY2001 budget without Draconian cuts, he accused the business community of not paying its fair share of taxes and proposed a new value-added tax on business activity.

While that proposal failed, the governor helped win legislative approval of more than $211 million in taxes, including higher income taxes and the reimposition of a penny sales tax on food and utilities that had expired in 1997.

Foster also has been busy since the mid-June end of this year's special and regular sessions helping promote a proposed constitutional amendment that would swap lower sales taxes for an increase in personal income taxes.The tax swap would net the state treasury more than $200 million in new revenue for education.