After eight years in prison, Edwin Edwards has finally been released. He started his prison sentence in October 2002 in Fort Worth Texas and was later moved to a federal facility in Oakdale, Louisiana. On Thursday, he reported to a halfway house in Baton Rouge for two hours and then departed for his daughter’s home in Denham Springs.
Despite his conviction and well known affinity for womanizing and gambling, the four- term Governor is a hero to many Louisiana citizens. Edwards possesses a combination of charisma, political skill and wit that is rarely seen in the political world. By comparison, our state’s leading politicians today seem downright boring.
Voters in Louisiana have always placed a premium on political entertainment. As a result, our state elected as Governors such characters as Huey and Earl Long, a singer named Jimmy Davis and a charming rogue like Edwin Edwards.
Because of his strong bond with the voters of Louisiana, Edwards was elected to four terms in office, longer than any other Governor in state history. He was powerful and controlled the Louisiana Legislature as well as any other Governor. While Edwards can claim credit for funding many roads, bridges, and other capital projects during his terms in office, he also presided during a time of decline for Louisiana. During the Edwards era, Louisiana lost jobs to other states as population out migration became a serious problem for the state. To offset a weakened oil and gas industry, Edwards promoted gambling as an economic answer for Louisiana. Twenty years later, the gambling industry has not lived up to the lofty expectations of many supporters.
It was his connection to the gambling industry that was the eventual downfall for Edwards. In 2000, he was convicted for his role in a bribery and extortion plan involving the riverboat casino licensing process in Louisiana. This was not his first brush with the law. During his career, Edwards was the subject of over two dozen federal investigations. In the mid-80’s, he was indicted on racketeering charges for his role in hospital and nursing home investments. After a high profile trial in which he blamed a Republican administration for targeting him, the Governor was acquitted.
The Governor’s good fortune ended in 2000 and despite a number of appeals and pleas for a presidential pardon from former opponent Dave Treen and others, Edwards was not released early from prison. Although his prison sentence was for ten years, Edwards was released early for “good behavior,” an unusual description for someone known as the “Silver Fox.”
Despite his conviction and reputation for corruption, Edwards is adored by many in Louisiana. There is a clear nostalgia for the bygone era of personality politics in Louisiana. In fact, many of his supporters would love to see Edwards back in the Governor’s mansion. If he ran for office again, he would undoubtedly receive plenty of support. Fortunately, the state constitution prohibits Edwards from ever appearing on a statewide ballot. Instead, Edwards will write a book and embark on a statewide tour.
In the years since Edwards left, the legislature has passed enhanced ethics laws and the U.S. Attorney’s office has expanded its public integrity division. These changes are considered positive and have helped improve the ranking of Louisiana as a place to “do business.” If this state is ever going to compete with our neighbors, we must never again have a reputation for corruption. Business leaders must not feel they have to bribe state officials for contracts and opportunities.
As Edwin Edwards exits prison, we should acknowledge his many skills and then commit to never electing another Edwin Edwards again. We literally cannot afford that type of entertainment.
Jeff Crouere is the Host of “Ringside Politics,” which airs at 7:30 p.m. Fri. and 10:00 p.m. Sun. on WLAE-TV 32, a PBS station, and 7 till 11 a.m. weekdays on WGSO 990 AM in New Orleans and the Northshore. He is the Political Analyst for WGNO-TV ABC26 and a Columnist for selected publications. For more information, visit his web site at RingsidePolitics.com. E-mail him at [email protected].