Leading members of the state Democratic Party gathered at a New Orleans hotel last weekend in a last-ditch effort to revive their sagging political fortunes by trying to polish the tarnished image of their former savior.
The Over the Hill Gang is pinning its hopes on Edwin W. Edwards, who spent the last 8 /2 years in federal prison. The former governor continues to profess his innocence despite the overwhelming evidence that put him in prison for 11 counts of racketeering, fraud and extortion.
Edwards still has the charisma that helped him become the only Louisiana governor to serve four terms. However, like those who were reduced to telling suggestive stories about Edwards’ sexual exploits, the former governor’s glory days are long gone.
Political commentator John Maginnis pretty well summed that up in his syndicated column. He talked about a young man at a New Orleans bar hearing Edwards’ name being mentioned.
“Without looking up, the bartender’s kid said, ‘Who’s he?’ ” Maginnis said.
The Edwards homecoming, roast and birthday bash was designed to raise money and give the former governor the public exposure he and his friends want so desperately.
Wayne Parent, an LSU political scientist, explained it this way to the Times-Picayune of New Orleans:
“Edwin Edwards is returning with all of the flash, dazzle and bodacious confidence his friends and supporters want and expect,” Parent said. “I’m sure there will be a wide, collective smile all night long.”
The former governor would only sign his biography if you bought the book that evening and DVDs of the event were also being sold.
Members of the Over the Hill Gang at the main event included Jim Brown, former secretary of state and state insurance commissioner, who spent six months in prison for lying to the FBI; state Sen. John Alario, a RINO (Republican in name only) from Westwego and former speaker of the House during two of Edwards terms; and Claude “Buddy” Leach, former congressman, state legislator and current head of the state Democratic Party.
Alario is the only member of that group who still has some political stroke. He has managed to endear himself to Gov. Bobby Jindal and has hopes of becoming the next president of the state Senate. He said that was the reason he switched parties.
Edwards used his time at the podium to repeat what he has said since his conviction over a decade ago. He insists it was a devious plot by a federal judge and overzealous federal prosecutors who were out to get him.
“I was never investigated for stealing money from the state, never was accused of it, and take it to bed, I was never convicted of that,” he said.
No, he wasn’t, but he was definitely convicted of extorting money from riverboat companies in order to get gambling licenses for his friends and supporters. A crime is a crime is a crime, and it doesn’t have to involve state money.
Former federal prosecutors and political observers agreed back in May of 2000 that Edwards, the only defense witness at his trial, didn’t help his own cause.
Wiretapped conversations played during the trial showed jurors and observers a plotting and scheming side of Edwards they hadn’t seen before.
Jurors also believed the three major witnesses against the former governor, even though they were pulling out all the stops to save their own hides. Their testimony was backed up with hundreds of documents and taped telephone calls.
Edwards lost all of his appeals, and that deflates his argument that the judge who heard the case and federal prosecutors were “out to get him.”
Yes, Edwards’ friends managed to benefit from their political connections to the former governor, but he was a willing participant.
Edwards also took time to criticize former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Jindal’s budgeting skills.
There is a better way, Edwards said. Yes, and his major solution for budget shortfalls was to raise taxes. And he left former Gov. Buddy Roemer with a $1.2 billion budget hole in 1988.
Second-guessing comes easily for Edwards, who did it constantly from the sidelines when Dave Treen and Roemer were in office.
Anything for price
You can be certain Edwards will continue to try and recapture the political past. There will be public events like book signings, a possible reality TV show and the former governor will even be tending bar later this month in New Orleans.
Whatever it takes to get back in the public spotlight will be tried, and the media has played right into his hands. Edwards was asked if he is pushing too hard.
“Too much coverage? There’s no such thing,” he said.
Try as they might, the Over the Hill Gang will find Edwards’ popularity will eventually fade into the background. It’s a new and captivating experience at the moment for those desperate for a return to power, but it won’t last. Edwards said as much when he talked about how much Louisiana has changed.
“It’s not Louisiana. It’s some other state,” he said.
Yes, it is. Those who have governed since Edwards have helped us slowly break from the past and improve our political image. We aren’t there yet, but we will eventually make it if we keep our skirts clean. Edwards is a novelty right now, a relic from the past trying to relive history. It’s wishful thinking that is going nowhere. His time has come and gone, and Louisiana is a better place than it was in his heyday.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].