When Edwin Edwards died earlier this week at the age of 93 Louisiana lost a political figure whose triumphs and downfall will never be replicated again.
Edwards single-handedly dominated Louisiana politics for more than a quarter century including being elected governor an unprecedented four times, and between his terms as governor he still controlled the state’s political landscape — for the most part — to the detriment of the governors he succeeded. If Dave Treen was still alive, he would confirm it. So would Buddy Roemer if Roemer had not passed away a couple of months ago.
Edwards rose to power the old fashioned way. He got his feet wet in politics on the local level, beginning in his adopted hometown of Crowley nearly 70 years ago when he was elected to the City Council. That was back in the day when Edwards was a young attorney sharing office space with another ambitious young man, B.I. Moody, who was an accountant. Edwards once joked that he and Moody were so broke they shared a telephone line and a trash can. Edwards would later soar as a politician. Moody, who is still alive and well living in Crowley, went on to make a fortune in just about every business venture he touched.
Edwards’ trajectory from Crowley to the governor’s office is well documented. He spent a brief spell in the state Senate as a floor leader for Gov. John J. McKeithen before his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in Louisiana’s old Seventh District, anchored in Acadiana. The incumbent congressman, Ashton Thompson, was killed in a car accident in 1965, prompting a special election, which Edwards easily won.
Edwards didn’t care for serving in the Congress. He said the Congress acted too slowly for his taste which makes perfect sense because Edwards was never one to dally. He was widely known for making decisions quickly, and that was that. He didn’t change his mind, and he never went back on his word.
In 1971, McKeithen was on his way out of office after convincing voters to amend the state Constitution to allow governors to serve two consecutive terms. That set the stage for a wide-open governor’s race that featured 16 candidates including state Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Shreveport and Edwards. Though they had served together in the Senate, Edwards and Johnston were never close personally.
In those days, Louisiana conducted its elections like the rest of the country, in closed primaries. That meant all Democrats ran against one another for the Democrat nomination while Republicans did the same. There were only two Republicans running that year — Dave Treen and Robert Ross.
Edwards and Johnston emerged from the Democrat primary for a runoff that Edwards won by less than 5,000 votes, but he easily defeated Treen in the general election, 57.2 percent to 42.8 percent. Not long thereafter, Louisiana moved to open primary elections in which candidates, regardless of party affiliation, all run against one another with the top two vote-getters meeting in a runoff. It was Edwards who led the charge for the change because he argued it was unfair and too costly for Democrats, who dominated politics in Louisiana at the time, to wage three campaigns to be elected to public office while Republicans often faced no competition for the Republican nomination.
Edwards had campaigned as a reform candidate in 1971 and never hid his ambition to rewrite the state Constitution to bring Louisiana, as he put it, into the 20th century. That was his focus in the first term. After a constitutional convention in 1973 composed of elected delegates, Louisiana voters approved a new Constitution in 1974 that was hailed as the finest in the nation at the time. It would still be considered one of the finest state constitutions in the country if the Legislature would disengage from shirking its responsibilities by asking the voters to amend it so often.
It is important to remember Louisiana’s economy was a different animal in the 1970s. The oil and gas industry was booming and so were the farmers. Since Edwards spearheaded changing the manner in which Louisiana collected severance taxes — from a flat fee to a percentage of the price per barrel of oil — the state’s coffers were flush, and that gave Edwards the money to entice the Legislature to expand state government’s footprint including fulfilling many of the promises Edwards had made on the campaign trail in ‘71 and again in 1975 when he was re-elected with 62 percent of the vote.
Overnight — or in the matter of just a few years — Louisiana had undergone a phenomenal change, and it was a change the people welcomed. In the eyes of the vast majority of the electorate, Edwards could do no wrong.
Barred from seeking re-election in 1979 because of term limits, Edwards left office in 1980 and supposedly slid into the private sector to practice law and pursue other business interests. At least that’s what he told the press he was going to do, but in short order it was crystal clear that Edwards’ campaign for governor in 1983 got underway the moment he vacated the office for Treen to become the first Republican governor in Louisiana since Reconstruction. From the sidelines, Edwards used his allies in the Legislature to thwart every meaningful piece of legislation the Treen administration proposed. All the while, Edwards was raising money for what would become the most expensive governor’s race in the state’s history at the time.
Treen put up a good fight in ‘83, but he was no match for Edwards who promised to return Louisiana to the heydays of the 1970s when all was well with the world.
Edwards’ third term in office was marked by a dramatic downturn in the state’s economy thanks to a collapsing oil and gas industry and a falloff in commodity prices in agriculture. While the rest of the nation was experiencing an economic rebirth under President Ronald Reagan, Louisiana was in the midst of a deep recession. Edwards got the blame, and he made matters worse for himself politically when he browbeat the Legislature into raising taxes to balance the state budget.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney John Volz in New Orleans set his sights on Edwards and indicted him on racketeering charges stemming from the state’s issuance of hospital permits. Edwards was tried twice. The first trial ended with a hung jury in 1985. Edwards was acquitted in a second trial the following year, but at that point, the damage was done. Coupled with an abysmal economy and a persona that the governor was a crook, Edwards’ third term, for all practical purposes, was over.
It was not at all surprising that Edwards was unseated in the 1987 governor’s race though Edwards denied Roemer the satisfaction of defeating him in a runoff, which was certain to occur had Edwards not dropped out of the race after running second in the October primary. Roemer was a phenomenon who was full of bright ideas but lacked the follow-through to make it happen. Like Treen had experienced less than a decade prior, Roemer had to deal with legislators who were still close to Edwards though Edwards was coy about ever seeking office again.
In 1991 a weakened Roemer sought re-election and was confident he would prevail. Though he had become a Republican, a conservative movement was afoot in Louisiana and conservatives were leery of Roemer who had vetoed an anti-abortion bill championed by then-state Rep. Woody Jenkins. Though Congressman Clyde Holloway would garner the endorsement of the state Republican Party, state Rep. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was in the picture and he loomed large. Duke had captured more than 60 percent of the white vote in his unsuccessful bid to unseat then-U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston a year earlier, and there was no denying Duke’s rhetoric attracted scores of white voters who otherwise may have cast a ballot for Roemer or Holloway.
Edwards was in the mix, too, with a base of support in the black community which made him a player from the start.
It was called the race from hell. Bumper stickers appeared around the state saying, “Vote for the crook. It’s important.” The reference, of course, was of the choice between Duke and Edwards, who met in a runoff election that garnered national attention including President George H.W. Bush crossing party lines to endorse Louisiana’s most prominent Democrat, Edwards.
Edwards steamrolled Duke in a record turnout though Duke managed to collect some 58 percent of the white vote. In northeastern Louisiana, Duke easily carried Ouachita Parish.
Louisiana had changed.
Edwards never found his footing in the fourth term. The Legislature wasn’t on the same page with the governor, and all the while gambling — or gaming as it was called to pass constitutional muster — dominated the headlines. By June of 1994, Edwards had lost his love for the job and announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. He became a lame-duck governor in an instant.
Edwards didn’t bring gambling to Louisiana. Gambling has been around since the days of Jean Lafitte, and Edwards was accurate when he often reminded audiences that Roemer was responsible for delivering the lottery, riverboat casinos and video poker to the state. Edwards could claim the land-based casino in New Orleans, which he had long advocated and finally pushed through the Legislature in 1992.
It was the riverboat casinos, though, that did Edwards in, specifically the governing board that was charged with awarding the state’s licenses to operate the floating gambling vessels. When Edwards was convicted in January 2001 of taking payoffs to manipulate the riverboat casino licensing process, the thrust of the alleged wrongdoing occurred after Edwards had left office in 1996. It is inconceivable how a former governor can be convicted of manipulating a governing board that no longer answered to him, but the Feds did it.
Sadly, that’s how scores of Louisianians will remember Edwards. They’ll remember his conviction and the eight-plus years he spent in federal prison, but few will take the time to recall his body of work.
Edwards made mistakes. He was no saint. He could be cold. He was calculating. He associated with people who miraculously got wealthy during his terms in office, and he was known — at least in his younger years — of having a wandering eye.
That doesn’t change the fact, though, that Edwards dramatically changed Louisiana and while his conservative detractors could rightfully claim Edwards oversaw a vast expansion of state government and gave the state a black eye in light of an atmosphere of alleged corruption, no one can deny Edwards loved Louisiana and felt he had acted in the state’s best interest. For the most part, he did.
Without a doubt, Louisianians will never witness another governor like Edwin Washington Edwards. Never.
He was one of a kind.
Sam Hanna is publisher of the Ouachita Citizen.