JUNEAU: The Election From Hell

(As my retirement approaches, some of my weekly columns will look back at key events during my career with LABI. This column is the first in that series—Dan Juneau)

Perhaps the lowest point in my career with LABI and my involvement with Louisiana politics was the infamous “Election from Hell” in 1991: Edwin Edwards versus David Duke. Throughout the month after the October primary election, media from around the world descended upon Louisiana to chronicle the race between the scandal-tainted former governor and the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. One would win and one would lose, but the real loser in this race was Louisiana’s image.

The diabolical runoff between Edwards and Duke wasn’t supposed to happen. Governor Buddy Roemer’s popularity had plummeted during his term as governor, but polling leading up to the vote indicated he would end up in a tightly contested runoff with Edwards. Duke registered scant support in the polls. Sometimes polls lie, and they certainly did in that 1991 election.

Roemer rode to the Governor’s Mansion in 1987 on a wave of idealism generated among voters who were tired of scandals and the aftershocks of the collapsed state economy that plagued Edwards in his third term.  Unfortunately for Roemer, his soaring rhetoric was not accompanied by substantial reform in the eyes of most voters as the 1991 race drew near. Sensing an Edwards run against him and vulnerability on his right, Roemer switched from Democrat to Republican to prepare for his re-election effort. The move successfully fended off a strong mainstream Republican challenger but opened the door for Duke’s “anything but” mainstream campaign.

There was a lot of speculation at the time regarding Duke’s strong showing in the primary election. One school of thought was that many voters wanted to send a “message” to Roemer by casting a protest vote for Duke in the primary in order to convey their displeasure, but they would vote for the sitting governor in the general election to prevent Edwards from serving a third term. Message sending or not, when the votes were counted, Edwards led the primary with 33.8 percent of the vote followed by Duke with 31.7 percent. Roemer was a fairly distant third with 26.5 percent, and the fourth-place finisher, Republican Clyde Holloway, took enough votes away from Roemer to hand the runoff spot to Duke.

Monday, October 21, 1991, was one of the worst days of my professional career. My phone never stopped ringing as calls poured in from media around the nation and around the world asking me about the impact the election would have on Louisiana’s economic image. There was no putting a happy face on that message. A short time later, I moderated a business community debate between Edwards and Duke. In the waiting area where both candidates were assembled before the debate began, Duke as usual was full of himself. He adored media attention and the media always obliged him. Edwards on the other hand was a bundle of nervous energy focused on his prey. Duke knew nothing about business and that became readily apparent as the debate proceeded. (I remember a member of the media telling me during the campaign that business would support Duke because he was a right-winger. I replied that he was confusing “right-winger” with “white-winger.”) Edwards, who had supported numerous business and economic development initiatives in his first two terms, absolutely wiped the floor with Duke, giving him a primer on business issues. Neither man used notes in the debate, but only one man used his brain.

I will never forget going to vote on Election Day, November 16, 1991. Many expected a low voter turnout given the choices. At my precinct, the line wrapped around the high school gym several times as voters stood in line to cast their ballots. No one spoke a word. The most notorious election perhaps in the state’s history was decided shortly after the polls closed that night with Edwards scoring a 61 percent to 39 percent win. As impossible as it seemed, Edwin Edwards would soon begin a fourth term as governor—and he had scores to settle, as the business community would soon find out.

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