Edwin Edwards' Encore

Sep 16, 2014

50 years after he first won a congressional seat, Edwin Edwards is asking voters to send him back to Washington.

The four-time former governor is a Louisiana legend, but – as Sue Lincoln reports – it won’t be an easy sell.

The 87-year-old carries the baggage of a felony conviction, and he’s trying to mount a political comeback in district that’s become starkly conservative.

Put him in front of a crowd, and you get classic, quotable Edwin Edwards.

“I told the farmer that every time I told his neighbor what I was going to do when I got elected, he kept telling me his cow was dead. His cow was dead!” the former governor says, recounting his earliest days on the campaign trail. “And the farmer asked, ‘Don’t you know what he was trying to tell you?’ No, I replied, what was he trying to say? ‘He wants you to know he’s got no use for your bull!’,” Edwards exclaims, prompting cascades of laughter from his audience.

But there’s another side to the candidate, beyond the brash quipster. I found him at his campaign headquarters, in a stripped down office--bare of all save a desk, a couple of chairs and a campaign sign. He spoke thoughtfully about his image and the current political climate.

“I’m a very controversial person. I understand that. I’m controversial because I’m outspoken,” Edwards said. “But I think that it’s more important that those of us running for office, and in office, tell it like it is.”

As a longtime Democrat, Edwards readily admits that he has little faith in Louisiana’s current leadership, pointing to the levee board lawsuit against the oil and gas companies as an example.

“We need to find out who and what and how and to what extent the damage was caused. That’s why I was very disturbed when Governor Jindal chose to make efforts to kill the lawsuit,” Edwards explained. “I see nothing wrong in finding out who did the damage. If it’s the oil and gas companies, so be it.”

And even though he’s still claiming innocence in the corruption case that sent him to federal prison for nearly nine years, the Edwin Edwards of today says he has great faith in the system itself.

“Government should serve--and try to make things better for—people; not throw roadblocks,” he said. Then he made another little jab at Governor Jindal.

“There are many people that, unfortunately, look at the federal government as our enemy—rather than our friend.”

That’s quite a contrast to the Edwin Edwards who responded to his conviction in May 2000 by telling reporters, “The Chinese have a saying: If you sit by a river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river. I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough, so here comes my body.”

Despite the fact that his federal corruption conviction means Edwards is prohibited from voting, he has been endorsed by the Louisiana Democratic Party. And experts, like ULL political science professor Pearson Cross, think the former governor will do well enough in November to move on to the December runoff.

“He has fantastic name recognition—way better than anyone else in the race. He’s really the only Democrat of any stature,” Dr. Cross said. “He’s going to get lots of votes, just because of who he is. But on the other hand, this is a Republican district.”

Most Republicans in the race don’t seem to be focused on Edwards at all. Instead they seem to be trying to “out-conservative” each other.

“I think that we’re going to have an easier time distinguishing ourselves from the other candidates,” Garret Graves, a former Jindal cabinet member, said. “We’re the only one in the race that has the experience streamlining government, cutting government, making government work.”

Paul Dietzel, grandson of the former LSU athlete, is sticking to the Tea Party line, saying, “Our message of hard work and getting the government out of the way is resonating.”

“Everybody says they’re conservative,” according to state Representative Lenar Whitney. “However, I’m the only one that has a conservative voting record.”

Edwards knows he faces long odds to come out on top of the 12 candidates in the race.

“I recognize that it’s going to be a difficult thing to do, because this is a conservative district. And while I have conservative fiscal views—always kept the budget in balance and left surpluses—nevertheless, I have a very liberal social view.”

Dr. Cross says Edwards’ liberal view, coupled with his history, won’t add up to all the votes he needs to win.

“Edwin Edwards, although he is a legendary Louisiana figure, is toxic, Cross stated flatly. “At the end of the day, it’s pretty tough for Edwin to get to 50-plus-one.”

A recent poll by the Glascock Group, based in Pineville, shows Edwards leading in November. Paul Dietzel and Dan Claitor are tied for second, followed by Lenar’ Whitney. Projecting the results out past the Nov. 4 primary, that same poll says Edwards will lose to Dietzel or Claitor in the December runoff.