Edwin Edwards, whose four terms made him the longest serving governor in Louisiana history, passed away at his home surrounded by family and friends at the age of 93.
Edwards did not just reign as the state’s top office holder for 16 years but through his prowess dominated Louisiana politics for a greater period than either Huey or Earl Long.
Though reformers Dave Treen and Buddy Roemer resided in the mansion during the interregnum between his second and third and third and fourth terms, Edwards’ shadow loomed over the State Capitol and his fingerprints marked up the legislative frustrations that undermined the two Republicans’ hopes of reelection.
Yet it would not be a forced retreat from the 1987 gubernatorial runoff that would mark Edwards’ low point but his conviction in federal court of extorting millions from companies seeking to obtain riverboat gaming licenses.
Edwards would serve an eight-year sentence that his friends, allies, and even some adversaries felt was too harsh for a man in his late 70s.
Yet for most of his critics, it was jail time long overdue and too lenient for a politician who had deftly evaded conviction and incarceration when Edwards was targeted in previous corruption investigations and trials.
Edwards would hobble out of prison in 2007 and make the best out of what he referred to as his borrowed time.
Edwards married for the third time, had a son, and would launch a curious bid for the Republican-oriented Baton Rouge-based Congressional seat in 2014, earning a spot in a runoff he had no realistic hope of winning.
This is going to shock many people when they hear this, but Edwards started off as a reformer.
You heard that correctly.
In fact, when Edwards and then-State Senator J. Bennett Johnson ran first and second in their party’s 1971 primary the New York Times heralded the story with the headline “Two Louisiana Reformers Win Runoff Spots in a 17-Man Race for Democratic Gubernatorial Nomination.”
In that campaign Edwards had received the endorsements of both the Times Picayune and the Alliance for Good Government.
After squeaking by Johnston in the second round and resenting a third statewide campaign, this time against Republican nominee Dave Treen, who would fare better against Edwards in 1972 than in his reelection in 1983, Edwards set about reengineering the electoral system via the open primary and unwittingly giving birth to the Louisiana GOP as voters no longer needed to register as Democrats to vote as previous elections were essentially settled in the Democratic primary.
With the Mideast Oil Embargo and the resulting oil crisis benefiting the state economy, flooding the state with tax dollars and jobs, the flush voters of Louisiana could care less what Edwards was doing in either his public or private life. Edwin took advantage, had fun and made fun of his transgressions.
Times were good and money was flowing.
But the oil bust in the 1980s proved that the good times were not attached to the governor.
The drastic spending cuts and proposed steep tax increases to make up for the loss of oil revenue caused Louisianans to finally take offense to Edwards’ fast and loose dealings that were under federal scrutiny.
Apparently the electorate’s toleration for political avarice ebbed when they themselves felt the pinch.
Congressman Buddy Roemer’s stunning first place showing in the 1987 gubernatorial primary and EWE’s shocking withdrawal should’ve marked the political end of Edwards.
Yet the Cajun prince would receive two gifts from unlikely sources that would facilitate his return.
The first came from the staunchly conservative bailiwicks of Old Metairie and Bucktown in February 1989 when David Duke won a special election for state representative by a scant 227 votes.
The second transpired in the midst of Edwards’ improbable comeback when the Louisiana Republican Party chose to hold a convention to endorse a candidate for governor, despite Roemer’s recent switch to the GOP.
The characteristic self-defeating move by the state GOP split up the Republican vote and undermined Roemer’s reelection campaign (granted Buddy himself contributed to his own demise along the way) and gave Louisiana the “Race from Hell.”
Edwards had quipped in the 1983 election that the only way he would lose was being caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy. Having drawn Duke as a runoff opponent, the once politically dead Edwards found himself in a similar situation.
Edwards won big, the GOP’s recent gains in Louisiana were obliterated, and the Democrats gained a bogeyman that they would shamelessly exploit and overuse against every Republican candidate who was perceived a threat for the next three decades.
Yet the landslide belied an unpleasant reality for Edwards; it was a coerced victory as the voters felt compelled to “vote for the crook” and a unique scenario that he would not find himself enjoying again.
Though he announced for a fifth term, Edwards soon removed himself from contention.
Until his conviction, Edwards would remain an influential force in state politics but 1996 would mark the end of his dominance.
Edwards was a paradoxical figure serving as the state’s first modern governor in the post Long/anti-Long era while also brazenly embodying the excess that was synonymous with Louisiana politics.
As a candidate, and later as governor through the open primary, Edwards transformed state politics through his victories.
At a time when Catholics did not win the state’s top office and their religion was overtly attacked on the stump, Edwards broke through this all too real religious barrier.
Though ever the gambler, Edwards hedged his bets on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide. While baptized a Roman Catholic, Edwards was engaged in the fundamentalist Church of the Nazarene in his youth.
Edwards also ended the virtual monopoly north Louisiana held on the governor’s mansion as the first Acadiana governor in many years.
Edwards was also the main beneficiary of the increasing influence of black voters and political organizations as a force in state politics.
Though Louisiana has yet to elect a black governor, Edwards was the first post-Reconstruction governor truly elected by black votes, whose support was more fervent and enduring than that of Edwards’ fellow Cajuns.
Loved by many, loathed by others Edwards managed to trigger every emotion from Louisiana voters but one: apathy.