Last Thursday, I drove down to Baton Rouge to interview the Cajun Prince, the Silver Fox, former four-term Louisiana Governor, former Louisiana State Supreme Court Justice, former United States Congressman, former federal inmate #03128-095, former reality television star, and current candidate for Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District, Edwin Washington Edwards. Like him or loathe him, it’s indisputable that, since his very first election- 60 years ago- to the Crowley City Council, Edwin Edwards has remained an irrepressible, unforgettable political figure.
His life’s story, which is exhaustively documented in Leo Honeycutt’s authorized biography, reads like a Greek or Shakespearean tragicomedy. Depending on who you ask, Edwin Edwards is either the most beloved politician in Louisiana history or the epitome of political corruption. He is either a good and decent man who was unfairly targeted and railroaded by his ideological foes or a loathsome and ethically bankrupt politician who ultimately became a victim of his own hubris. The truth, in my opinion, is not so clearcut.
Although his biography was published a few years ago, no one should mistake it for an obituary: Edwin Washington Edwards is still very much alive, and if he has it his way, the final chapters won’t be about prison and falling from grace; they’ll be about redemption and vindication.
The odds may be stacked against him, but currently, Edwards is ahead in the polls in his bid to represent Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District. And it increasingly appears that if you are an Edwards’ supporter, you’d want his main challenger to be a far right radical whose views on science, education, and basic civil rights have been characterized as extremist and divisive; it’s the type of candidate that Edwards has, historically, done well against.
At the height of his power, Edwards was a showman and a dazzling orator, capable of moving audiences in both English and Cajun French, evoking a brand of Louisiana populism reminiscent of his most famous predecessor, Huey P. Long. Like baseball great Yogi Berra, a man born only two years before him, Edwin Edwards is also widely known for his quick, playful, and, at times, irreverent wit and his penchant for the one-liner, a talent that, most assuredly, he still possesses.
Today, at the age of 87, Edwards may not be as much of a firebrand as he was 20 years ago, and it’s impossible to overlook the signs of aging. But he does come across as a sort of an elder statesman, albeit one with a checkered past. Before we began our interview, he warned me that he had forgotten his hearing aids; I’d need to sit close and speak up.
The interview took place at his campaign headquarters, located in an upscale, one-
story office park in Baton Rouge, and greeting us at the office’s front door was the Governor’s wife, Trina- an ebullient blonde 36-year-old from Alexandria dressed smartly in Brooks Brothers. Eleven months ago, Trina gave birth to Edwards’ fifth child (and her third), Eli Wallace Edwards; her pregnancy was chronicled in the short-lived and widely-panned A&E reality television show, “The Governor’s Wife.”
Trina and I briefly met a few years ago, and perhaps not surprisingly (considering we’re around the same age and from the same hometown) share several mutual friends, including the producer and creator of the A&E show. Her marriage to Governor Edwards may be unconventional, but according to those who know her well, the two are very much in love. “That show didn’t do her justice,” one of her friends recently told me. “She’s sharp as a tack, and if it were up to me, she’d be the candidate. She’s very smart.”
Although her husband is the candidate and although she is a registered Republican, the campaign is obviously a team effort. When I requested an interview with Governor Edwards, he told me that Trina thought I was “too liberal for her but probably right for me.” She is not only the campaign’s treasurer; she is also, in many ways, its gatekeeper.
That said, there were no ground rules set for the interview. No topic was off-limits. I voluntarily provided him with a broad list of issues I wanted to discuss– coastal restoration, education, health care, abortion, and history– but we ended up talking about much more.
After exchanging pleasantries with Trina, Governor Edwards summoned me into a sparse back office. While my friends set up the video equipment, I took a seat in front of his desk. I reminded him of my Central Louisiana connections and how, for many in Central Louisiana, he was still a somewhat of a hometown hero.
“Are you familiar with Marksville?” he asked.
“Of course. I’ve spent a lot of time in Marksville.”
“Are you familiar with Moncla?”
“I don’t think so. But I do know some people in the Moncla family.”
“Well, I’m from Moncla,” he said. “A small town outside of Marksville.“
Before the camera began rolling, as I mentioned earlier, Governor Edwards said he had forgotten his hearing aids, so, instead of sitting across the desk from him, we decided it would be easier if I sat directly next to him.
For those of you who don’t know, I was born with cerebral palsy, and I carry around some spasticity, particularly in my upper body, which sometimes affects my balance and movement. It took me a few seconds to collect myself before I moved closer to Governor Edwards’ ear. “You can’t hear well, and I can’t walk right,” I explained to him.
“What is it that you have?” he asked. “MS?”
“No, I have cerebral palsy,” I said. He then asked me a series of questions about my experience as a disabled person: Was my condition degenerative, or could I get better? “It’s not degenerative, and the stronger I get, the better I get.” Was I born with my disability or was it something that I was diagnosed with later in life? “Something I was born with.”
Could I use a computer and type?
“Yes,” I said. “I can.”
“Well, you’ve got more balls than I’ve got,” he quipped.
It also became abundantly clear to me that, despite what his critics may say about him, Edwin Edwards is still a natural at this stuff: A charmer and a cajoler, a man who recognizes that empathy and humor are the most powerful weapons in any arsenal, and that, more than anything else, politics is the art of friendship.
I wanted to ask Governor Edwards a series of serious questions about the most pressing issues facing Louisiana today. We skipped around quite a bit, and although my questions, at times, may have been a little disjointed, we managed to cover a ton of ground.
Lamar White (LW): I wanted to ask you some serious, substantive questions about policies in Louisiana and skip the regular questions that you get all of the time. And really get into the issues.
Edwin Edwards (EWE): Alright.
LW: You’re running against a guy, Garret Graves, who was Bobby Jindal’s coastal adviser, and I’m wondering what you thought of the recent passage of Senate Bill 469, which killed the levee lawsuit.
EWE: Well, the whole concept of fighting against finding out about the erosion of the marsh is, I think, a step backwards. Now, I’m not prepared to say whether the Corps of Engineers or the oil and gas companies or the trappers or Mother Nature is responsible for the damage, but there are two things that are certain: There is damage, and erosion is continuing to happen. And if we don’t do something about it, New Orleans will some day be on the shoreline. We don’t want that to happen. Now, in my opinion, I thought that the most prudent and proper thing to do was to have the courts make a decision about if there was damage, to what extent, and to what extent the Corps, nature, and the oil and gas companies and trappers are responsible, and issue a judgment to hold each of these entities responsible for its share of the damage.
But people like Graves and Jindal seem to think that the oil and gas companies have no obligation to repair the damage, if they did any. And I’m not saying they did, but I think we ought to find out if they did. But I thought it was, very, a step backwards for them to do what they did to prevent the courts from having a hearing to decide what happened.
LW: Right. Is this an issue that you will be campaigning on? Is it is an issue that affects your district?
EWE: I am. I have. And I will. Because it’s a very serious present and future problem for our state. And my point is: It’s not just Louisiana’s coast. It’s America’s coast, just like the coast of California and Florida and New York. And I think we properly should involve the federal government in any kind of settlement and resolution of the problem.
LW: There’s a- James Carville, the Ragin Cajun- my friend Cayman gave me this question. James Carville, the Ragin Cajun, famously said that all campaigns need three issues to resonate with voters. Keep it simple, but three issues. What do you think the three issues– what are your three main issues in this campaign?
THE TOP THREE ISSUES IN EDWARDS’ CAMPAIGN
EWE: Well certainly I am dependent upon the fact that I have been in politics for a long period of time. I’ve served successfully as the Governor of the state for sixteen years, and I also have been in Congress, unlike the other candidates running. And I would have an advantage of seniority if I get elected. And the issues that I see is this attitude that the present administration in Louisiana has that it’s all business and industry and nothing for the poor, the disadvantaged, and uneducated. They have taken away money out of the educational system. They’ve made it burdensome for students to go to college because of tuition costs. They have decimated the health care services in the state that has been a traditional great achievement for Louisiana, and I don’t like to see that happen.
ST. GEORGE CAMPAIGN
LW: I’m curious about what you think about the efforts underway in St. George, the area of Southern East Baton Rouge Parish. I know it’s a very controversial issue. You may not want to weigh into it.
EWE: Well, I don’t live in Baton Rouge, and I don’t have any opinion. Frankly, I think that’s left up to the voters. However, if I voted, I don’t think I would vote for the separation.
THE STATE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION IN LOUISIANA
LW: Right. And more on education. I guess I wanted to ask you what you think about the recent sort of overhaul of the Louisiana public education system, the charter schools that have been popping up everywhere, all across the state, and the school voucher program. Do you have an opinion on the merits of that program or-?
EWE: I think that any time you take away money that’s supposed to be for the public school system and give it to the private system- unless it directly goes to the student, like transporting the student to school- then I think you’re not only violating the Constitution, I think you’re doing damage to the public school system. And ultimately, if you continue to chip away from it, it’s going to fall under its own weight.
LW: I had a series of questions that I got from– when I said I was going to drive down here to Baton Rouge, I put it up on my Facebook and asked all of my friends to submit serious questions only. And I got this one more than once. And a few of them I’d like to ask you. Recently, Jindal signed House Bill 388. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but it had to do with access to abortion clinics, and its effect, they say, will be to close four of the state’s five clinics. He also recently signed another bill that would keep pregnant women alive on mechanical life support. And a lot of people see this as an erosion of pro-choice, women’s rights. And an issue that has already popped up in the campaign- in Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy’s Senate campaign. I’m curious about what you think about these issues and what you thought about that bill.
EWE: Well, we all have to recognize that since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has laid down guidelines that we have to live by, because it’s the law of the land. Within those parameters, then I think we need to do whatever we can to take care of the health of the woman and the child. I don’t think that government bureaucrats ought to tell a woman whose been raped or whose been impregnated by incest or whose life is in jeopardy that she has to bear the child. That’s a decision that she and her doctor should make it in her own best interest. And I don’t want government bureaucrats deciding that for her. Now it’s kind of interesting to me that the very people who yell the most about getting government out of their lives are the ones who want government to come in, in these situations, and dictate to the woman.
Now look, am I for abortion? No I’m not. I don’t know anybody who is for abortion. But I’m also interested in a woman’s rights to make decisions for herself, based upon the Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court.
LOUISIANA AS THE PRISON CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
LW: Right. Another question I got was about the ways in which Louisiana…. First of all, there was an article that came out last year in The Times-Picayune about Louisiana being the prison capital of the world, that there are more people incarcerated per capita in Louisiana than anywhere else. And I’m curious about what your thoughts are about the prison industrial complex, the privatization of prisons in Louisiana, and what ways, how we can change that.
EWE: Well, number one, we have too many mandatory sentences and too many minimum sentences. Not enough discretion is left to the trial judge because no case fits everybody. A crime that you commit may in certain circumstances justify some type of leniency. On the other hands, someone else, based upon prior violence, might not require that or justify it. My point is that I don’t believe we are the most corrupt people in the universe. I don’t think it’s fair to say that people in Louisiana deserve to be in prison, but I do recognize that drugs has created a serious problem for us. And it’s obvious to me that “Just Say No” has been a dismal failure, and we need to address, in my opinion, more preventive care and also curative care for those who are caught in that web, rather than simply throwing them into a locked cell.
THE PRIVATIZATION OF PRISONS
LW: And as far as the privatization of prisons. What do you think about this idea that–?
EWE: Well, prisons are not made to make money. Prisons were made to care for people who cannot live outside society, and these people who buy these prisons do so to make money. And they do so at the costs of the services and the conditions that they render for the inmates. I believe the prison system is a function of government and should be maintained by government.
THE DESTRUCTION OF LOUISIANA’S CHARITY HOSPITAL SYSTEM
LW: This sort of is a good segue into the question I got about the charity hospital system. And a lot of people asked me to ask you what you think of the privatization of our charity hospital system.
EWE: Again, we had a magnificent hospital system. We were the only state in the nation that had a statewide charity system, going back to the days of Huey Long. When I was Governor, I built a charity system in Houma, one in Monroe, one in Lafayette, and I modernized the system in Lake Charles and in Columbia and in Shreveport. Because I believe that the state has a proper role in providing health care for its citizens.
MEDICAID EXPANSION UNDER THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT
LW: The issue’s come up a lot so far in the Senate campaign. I’m sure it’s going to come up in your campaign for Congress. But- and it did last year too- the Medicaid expansion dollars that Bobby Jindal refused from the federal government. What’s your opinion on that?
EWE: It’s one of the worst decisions he’s made. We have 300,000 people in Louisiana- children, old people on fixed income, people who are unemployed or underemployed who cannot afford hospital services, and with a signature on a piece of paper, he could put those people in a health care system, paid for completely by the federal government for three years and up to 95% thereafter, at no cost to the state.
Now, my point is this: This is 2011 (a reference to the year Jindal made his decision). We are are a compassionate people. We do not allow people to suffer and die unattended, and this is an opportunity that he had to provide that health care to people who heretofore have not had access to adequate care.
Now, I couple that with this argument: If you’re not a believer in the words of Jesus- to do what we can for these who are less than we are- then look at it from the conservative viewpoint. Under the law, the hospitals have to treat these people even if they can’t pay. So what is happening is that without proper coverage, they’re going to flood to the emergency rooms, seeking medical attention which they should’ve gotten through the regular channels. What does that mean? When you get there, you’ll be in a room of 2 to 300 people who ought to have gotten treatment otherwise. Number one.
Number two. Since they can’t charge but must treat them, they factor the costs of the bills in your bill, and your insurance company ends up paying for it. So either way, the system needs to work for the benefit of children who are sick and dying and old people who are on fixed income. And I regret it very much that this Governor has chosen not to participate in it, because I think he feels like he doesn’t want Louisiana to be part of the United States of America.
CREATIONISM IN THE CLASSROOM
LW: I wanted to ask you a- not related to this- but before I get into sort of the light, off-color questions I have about Louisiana, there’s a question about– One of the very first things that Bobby Jindal did when he was elected was he signed this bill called the Louisiana Science Education Act. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this legislation, but it basically allows public school science teachers to supplement their materials to teach creationism in the classroom. And when you were Governor, you were actually the plaintiff I believe- probably just by virtue of the fact that you were Governor- in a very important, seminal case on creationism in the classroom, Edwards v. Aguillard. I’m curious about what you think about this law, because the Court in Edwards v. Aguillard seemed to be pretty clear that public schools cannot teach creationism in a science classroom.
EWE: Well, in my opinion, that is the law based upon Supreme Court decisions, and I think it is correct because it fortifies the theory that we have- which I think is a good one- to keep separation of state and religious practices.
Now, having said that, little by little, the creationism people have tried to erode that principle, but every time they’ve done it, at great cost to the state in litigation, they’ve ended up losing. And I don’t know why we continue to go down that road. Because until the Supreme Court changes that position, that’s what we’re going to have to do.
FELLOW INMATE AND FELLOW FORMER GOVERNOR, DON SIEGELMAN OF ALABAMA
LW: So I want to ask you too about your life in Oakdale and the time you spent there. A few years ago, I met at the Democratic National Committee in Denver- the Convention, rather- Don Siegelman, the Governor of Alabama, and I believe he served time with you. Is that right?
EWE: I knew him well when he was in Oakdale.
LW: What was your experience with him being there, the two Governors being there? Did you have a good relationship with him?
EWE: Oh yes, we spent a lot of time together.
LW: Do you know much about his case?
EWE: Oh yes, absolutely. And I thought he was the only person I know who got a deal that was rawer than the deal I got from the federal government. But he had a former US Senator– I mean a former US prosecutor who became a US Senator, who was after him politically, and that there was a whole conspiracy, practically everybody, from Karl Rove on down the line to the US prosecutor who prosecuted him. Something like 45 State Attorneys General signed a petition declaring that he had been improperly treated and asked for leniency, but it never got anywhere. And I hope in some way and some day, he finds some justice, vindication.
LW: I’m not sure what the status is, but when I met him, he was off, out.
EWE: He’s back in Oakdale.
LW: He’s back.
EWE: And still working on his case. But once you get into the federal system, it’s awfully hard to get extricated.
JIM LETTEN AND EDDIE JORDAN’S FALL FROM GRACE
LW: What did you think of the recent scandal in the US Attorneys Office in New Orleans involving internet commenting, and the sudden resignation of Jim Letten?
EWE: My wife believes in karma. And I think if you want to believe in karma, that’s a prime example. I take comfort- although I don’t like to revel in other people’s miseries- in the fact that the US Attorney who was involved in my case ran for District Attorney in New Orleans, and then had to resign because he bankrupted the office.
EWE: And he was forced out of office in disgrace.
LW: What was your experience- I know you were in jail at the time- but what was your experience during Hurricane Katrina? Were you able to watch the live news footage on television?
EWE: Well, I saw it on television when I was in prison, and I was horrified. Went to bed many nights with my heart aching for the unfortunate people caught in that trap- in part, man-made and in part, forces of nature. And I thought, “Oh how I wish I were Governor. I think I would do things different. At one time, there were probably 2,000 motorboats stacked up alongside the highway outside of New Orleans, anxious to get into rescue people but they wouldn’t let them in because they didn’t have certificates of insurance. If I’d been Governor, I’d say to hell with that- you want to arrest people, you want to put me in prison- do so. But I’m not going to let those people suffer and die while you hold me up on some type of technicality. But I’m just a different kind of person. I’m a can-do fellow. I grab hold of things, and I get them done. I get criticized, but I make things work.
JINDAL’S ABSENTEE TENURE
LW: What’s your assessment of the current Governor? I know you’ve spoken a lot about him.
EWE: I don’t understand why he wants to be Governor of Louisiana. He seems more interested in Michigan and Florida and California and the rest of the country, but he needs to wake up to the fact that Louisiana is one of the 50 states and is going to continue to be, and we need to recognize that we are part of the national government.
LW: When you see his travel schedule and the amount of time he actually spends at the Capitol, on the Fourth Floor, what do you think? How much of a hands-on job is it, a 40-hour-a-week job? Can you really do it anywhere in the country, or do you need to be–?
EWE: Well, when I was Governor, I was here. I answered the phone. If there was a problem, I addressed it. Some people didn’t like the way I did it, but I addressed it. And I wanted to be the Governor of Louisiana, not Michigan or California or Florida. But Louisiana, because this is the state that I love and where I wanted to serve. And I think I must have done a pretty good job because I’m the only Governor who managed to do it for four terms.
LW: Right. And it is an hands-on job, which was what I was trying to get at.
EWE: Yeah, it is.
THE 2015 RACE FOR LOUISIANA GOVERNOR
LW: And what about the race to replace him. It’s a pretty crowded field. It looks right now that it could be Jay Dardenne, the Lieutenant Governor, obviously Senator Vitter, and there is a Democrat in the race, John Bel Edwards. What do you think of the dynamic there? What’s your assessment of–?
EWE: Well, it’s early yet, but in Louisiana, two years before an election is not necessarily that extraordinary. But I would view that Dardenne, Vitter, and probably Kennedy would be the primary Republican candidates and, as far as I know, John Bel Edwards will probably be the only significant Democrat. So, we’ll have an interesting race.
LW: Well, I think that’s all I really have for you.
EWE: One thing’s for sure: Things will get better unless Vitter is elected.
EDWARDS’ STRATEGY IN THE SIXTH
LW: Let me ask you think. Who do you think your number one competitor is in your election? It’s a really crowded field. But there have been several polls recently. They show you on top, but-
EWE: I know that, but I don’t want to answer. But it’s surprising to me the number of people who do not know anyone else running. Everywhere I go, I ask, ‘Do you know anybody?’ and they’dn knew (sic). At the Kiwanis Club, only two or three other people are raising their hands saying they know one of the other candidates. And most of them have less than 10% favorability- recognition.
LW: Maybe that too.
EWE: Well, I don’t know if any of them have any of that. They’re going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just getting known.
LW: Right, right.
EWE: You know, right now, they’re all running on how bad I am, and none of them are running on how good they are.
LW: Right, and I guess it remains to be seen.
EWE: Well, I’m going to be nice to all of them, because I don’t know who will end up in the run-off and I hope to draw some supporters of candidates that don’t make the run-off.
LW: Well, thanks for meeting with me and agreeing to answer my questions.
EWE: That’s it. Well, thank you.
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