Return of the Guv

The vintage politics of Edwin Edwards.

National Journal
Eric Benson
July 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

Thir­teen green-and-yel­low Har­ley-Dav­id­sons and a single black Ca­dillac Es­cal­ade roared down the old Air­line High­way between New Or­leans and Bat­on Rouge, passing the ru­ins of an aban­doned sug­ar fact­ory and the plumes of still-op­er­at­ing oil re­finer­ies. The bikers — scruffy middle-aged guys rep­res­ent­ing the Shriners Ma­son­ic char­ity or­gan­iz­a­tion — paid traffic rules no mind; they took up both lanes, weaved in and out of each oth­er’s paths, and ushered the Es­cal­ade through red lights at 60 mph, sirens blar­ing.

Whenev­er the mo­tor­cade blew through a light, an eld­erly man in the Es­cal­ade’s front pas­sen­ger seat — dressed in a blue-and-white-striped Ral­ph Lauren but­ton-down and gray slacks — would bend down, hid­ing be­neath his win­dow like a boy play­ing peek-a-boo. He was 86-year-old Ed­win Wash­ing­ton Ed­wards: ex-gov­ernor of Louisi­ana, former Fed­er­al Bur­eau of Pris­ons in­mate No. 03128-095, fath­er of a 10-month-old son, and re­cently an­nounced can­did­ate for U.S. Con­gress.

“Look at the gov­ernor!” ex­claimed Dar­ren Labat, Ed­wards’s neigh­bor and driver.

“You don’t want any­one to see you?” teased Ed­wards’s wife, Trina, 51 years his ju­ni­or, from the back seat. “You scaaaaaared?”

“When I was gov­ernor, I wouldn’t let them do that,” Ed­wards said with a shake of his head. “I had a po­lice es­cort, but I wouldn’t let them block traffic.”

Ed­wards was on his way to the St. Charles Par­ish Craw­fish Cook-Off Fest­iv­al, a be­ne­fit for the Shriners where he would serve as a celebrity judge along with heavy­weight box­ing great Evander Holy­field and New Or­leans Saints de­fens­ive co­ordin­at­or Rob Ry­an, among oth­ers. First, however, the former gov­ernor would have to con­tend with the law. As his mo­tor­cade con­tin­ued south through the town of LaPlace in St. John the Baptist Par­ish, Labat spot­ted a white Ford po­lice in­ter­cept­or whip­ping around from the north­bound lanes. After the mo­tor­cade ran some more red lights, the po­lice car man­euvered its way through the mo­tor­cycles, and soon it was flank­ing the Es­cal­ade, lights flash­ing. “Get over!” the deputy in­side mouthed.

It turned out that the Shriners had neg­lected to no­ti­fy loc­al law en­force­ment of their pro­ces­sion, and two more squad cars soon ar­rived on the scene. But the Shriners man­aged to plead their case. Most of them were dep­u­tized by their loc­al sher­iff’s of­fice, and, after all, they rep­res­en­ted a char­ity. No one would be cited. Ed­wards bounced up and down in his seat as the con­ver­sa­tion between the Shriners and the cops seemed to lapse from of­fi­cial busi­ness in­to small talk. “OK, fella, don’t be talk­ing to him. All you gotta be say­ing is good-bye,” he said look­ing in­to the rear­view mir­ror.

Just as the mo­tor­cade was fi­nally ready to de­part, a bald Afric­an-Amer­ic­an deputy slowly sidled up to the Es­cal­ade, ap­proach­ing from the pas­sen­ger’s side. Ed­wards rolled down the win­dow.

“I’m run­ning for Con­gress ‘cause that’s what I feel like do­ing.”

“Hey, I just wanted to let you know, my man.”

“Yes?” Ed­wards said, a little un­sure.

“I sure wish it was you still here. I haven’t seen it ran any bet­ter since you left.”

The former gov­ernor smiled. “Well, I ap­pre­ci­ate you say­ing that.”

“I’m ser­i­ous, all right?” the deputy con­tin­ued. “I haven’t seen one bet­ter since. I haven’t seen one bet­ter, baby. I haven’t.”

Ed­wards smiled. “I’ll tell the sher­iff you’re a nice fella,” he said.

Ed­win Ed­wards is loosely a New Deal Demo­crat, but he doesn’t be­lieve so much in any grand vis­ion of Amer­ica; he be­lieves in do­ing fa­vors. His ver­sion of polit­ics is much more per­son­al than ideo­lo­gic­al. Ed­wards is run­ning for Con­gress in a dis­trict that Mitt Rom­ney won by 34 per­cent­age points — en­emy ter­rit­ory for a Demo­crat — but he be­lieves he can pre­vail by peel­ing off Re­pub­lic­ans one by one, with a prom­ise that he’ll do right by each and every one of them. Sure, Ed­wards is com­pet­ing in an era of mi­cro-tar­get­ing and ideo­lo­gic­al pur­ity, when re­tail polit­ic­al skills are much less cent­ral to con­gres­sion­al elec­tions than they once were. But so what, his think­ing seems to go. Who can res­ist the sly smile, the Cajun lilt, and the mis­chiev­ous wink of the man they call the Sil­ver Fox?

{{third­PartyEmbed type:magazineAd source:magazine_mid}}

“It’s more than a passing of the guard; it’s a passing of a way of cam­paign­ing,” former Louisi­ana Gov. Buddy Roe­mer told me. “I grew up on a cot­ton farm, and I re­mem­ber Earl Long com­ing by to ask my fath­er for his vote. I think of Ed­wards that same way — stop­ping by the farm.”

BE­GIN­NING IN 1954, with a bid for City Coun­cil in Crow­ley, Louisi­ana, Ed­wards won his first 22 races, and between 1972 and 1996, he served four terms as gov­ernor. He was power­ful, ef­fect­ive, and pretty much al­ways in some kind of trouble. By his own count, Ed­wards was the sub­ject of more than two dozen crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tions dur­ing his ca­reer, and in all but one of those in­stances, he man­aged to suc­cess­fully parry the ac­cus­a­tions, of­ten go­ing on the coun­ter­at­tack with hu­mor. In the 1970s, he said of al­leg­a­tions that he had got­ten un­law­ful cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions: “It was il­leg­al for them to give, but not for me to re­ceive.” On the eve of his 1983 elec­tion, he told a young New Or­leans Times-Pi­cay­une re­port­er named Dean Baquet: “The only way I could lose the elec­tion is if I’m caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” In 1991, he poin­ted out his only sim­il­ar­ity with his gubernat­ori­al op­pon­ent, former Ku Klux Klans­man Dav­id Duke: “We are both wiz­ards un­der the sheets.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5073) }}

Even­tu­ally, however, Ed­wards’s charm couldn’t save him. In 2000, he was con­victed of 17 counts of rack­et­eer­ing, ex­tor­tion, fraud, and con­spir­acy in a wide-ran­ging case in­volving the grant­ing of state casino li­censes. He ended up serving eight and a half years of a 10-year sen­tence.

Ed­wards’s post­pris­on life has been any­thing but sedent­ary. He mar­ried 32-year-old Trina Scott — a blond Re­pub­lic­an whom he’d met as a pris­on pen pal — in a lav­ish ce­re­mony at the Hotel Mon­tele­one in the French Quarter. Two years later, they had a son to­geth­er. (Ed­wards had dis­covered that he’d had sperm frozen fol­low­ing a vas­ec­tomy in the mid-1990s.) He cris­scrossed the state pro­mot­ing his auto­bi­o­graphy. He at­ten­ded scores of din­ners and char­it­able events, un­veil­ing a new crop of zingers. (“I fi­nally found a good use for Re­pub­lic­ans,” he said re­peatedly. “You sleep with them.”) And he and Trina starred in a poorly re­viewed A&E real­ity show, The Gov­ernor’s Wife.

Today, he lives in a ritzy sub­di­vi­sion south of Bat­on Rouge. The liv­ing room of Ed­wards’s Mc­Man­sion is dec­or­ated with four por­traits of him, from vari­ous points in his polit­ic­al ca­reer. In­side his of­fice are pho­to­graphs of him with Elvis Pres­ley and John F. Kennedy (“I was go­ing to run for vice pres­id­ent with Teddy Kennedy, but then he got in­to that prob­lem at Chap­pa­quid­dick”) and match­ing prints by the artist George Rodrig­ue of him and his two great Louisi­ana pop­u­list for­bears, Huey and Earl Long.

“Any­time any­one new came to the pris­on, Guv al­ways put to­geth­er a care pack­age — hy­giene products. It was, if you need de­odor­ant, soap, shower san­dals — here it is.”

Ed­wards an­nounced in March that he was run­ning for Con­gress, and he fre­quently jus­ti­fies his can­did­acy with an hon­est if not par­tic­u­larly in­spir­ing de­clar­a­tion: “I’m run­ning for Con­gress ‘cause that’s what I feel like do­ing.” His plat­form is prag­mat­ic: He wants to build a high-speed rail line between Bat­on Rouge and New Or­leans, as well as an el­ev­ated ex­press­way to re­lieve con­ges­tion on In­ter­state 10. He wants to dredge the Mis­sis­sippi prop­erly so that ships can con­tin­ue to ac­cess loc­al factor­ies. He would have voted against Obama­care, but he sup­ports its most pop­u­lar pro­vi­sions.

The only Demo­crat in a race packed with Re­pub­lic­ans, Ed­wards will al­most cer­tainly ad­vance to the second round. (Louisi­ana’s “jungle primary” sys­tem, which Ed­wards him­self in­stalled as gov­ernor in 1975, dic­tates that all can­did­ates enter an open elec­tion in Novem­ber and, if no one sur­passes 50 per­cent of the vote, the top two com­pete in a Decem­ber run­off.) But once he makes it to the second round, he is al­most un­an­im­ously con­sidered a lock to lose. “He will get crushed “¦ and the only per­son who really gets any­thing out of it is Ed­wards, be­cause he doesn’t really want to win, he just wants the at­ten­tion,” long­time Louisi­ana Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al op­er­at­ive Robert Mann wrote me in an email.

Still, Ed­wards re­tains a kind of mys­tique that makes him im­possible to ig­nore. “He’s hard to beat, man, I’m telling you,” says Roe­mer, the only per­son ever to de­feat Ed­wards in an elec­tion. (Ed­wards avenged the loss by de­feat­ing Roe­mer four years later.) “He’s not go­ing to be a pushover this time. It would sur­prise me if he didn’t have a battle plan. I haven’t seen it yet, and I don’t know what it is, but I wouldn’t as­sume just be­cause I was a new face and a Re­pub­lic­an in a con­ser­vat­ive dis­trict that he would be an easy op­pon­ent.”

AFTER THE DELAY ON THE HIGH­WAY, Ed­wards ar­rived at the craw­fish fest­iv­al to a hero’s wel­come. One wo­man asked him to sign a mat­ted copy of an April 2000 Times-Pi­cay­une art­icle on his tri­al. “It’s been in a den just wait­ing for the op­por­tun­ity,” she said. “It hurt when he went down.”

As Ed­wards entered the fenced-off judging area, a tall, well-built man greeted the former gov­ernor with a hand­shake and a warm smile. I fol­lowed him back to his table and asked him how he knew Ed­wards. “We did time to­geth­er,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was jok­ing.

It turned out he was Oliv­er Thomas, former pres­id­ent of the New Or­leans City Coun­cil, who, hav­ing pleaded guilty to bribery charges, joined Ed­wards at the Oak­dale Fed­er­al Cor­rec­tion­al In­sti­tu­tion in 2009. He and every­one else in pris­on called Ed­wards “Guv.”

“Poverty in pris­on is a big is­sue, and it doesn’t get talked about,” Thomas told me. “Any­time any­one new came to the pris­on, Guv al­ways put to­geth­er a care pack­age — hy­giene products. It was, if you need de­odor­ant, soap, shower san­dals — here it is. Some guys in pris­on didn’t come in with any­thing. Guv’s hu­man­ity was al­ways big­ger than his polit­ics.” (Ed­wards: “I wasn’t sup­posed to do that, but I did it. They had noth­ing.”)

“I’ll nev­er for­get a con­ver­sa­tion he had with some muckety-muck white-col­lar guys,” Thomas con­tin­ued. “They said, ‘Guv, you ought to hang with us, not those guys,’ and he said, ba­sic­ally, ‘Shut up,’ but his lan­guage was harsh­er. He would hang out with white, black, His­pan­ic, some of the Vi­et­namese gang mem­bers from New Or­leans. “¦ I wish every­one in polit­ics would go to pris­on — they’d be much closer to the people, not so re­moved. What do we know about a lot of politi­cians who shine their halo? Guv’s been there, done that.”

{{third­PartyEmbed type:magazineAd source:magazine_bot­tom}}

After greet­ing Thomas, Ed­wards con­tin­ued to make the rounds. He in­tro­duced him­self to Holy­field — Ed­wards had been at the in­fam­ous fight where Mike Tyson bit his ear — and got the box­er to crack up. He made small talk with dig­nit­ar­ies from St. Charles Par­ish. He peeled his craw­fish with lithe and dex­ter­ous fin­gers that seemed more be­fit­ting of a young sur­geon. But he was es­pe­cially ex­cited about meet­ing a dyed-in-the-wool Re­pub­lic­an, a heavyset blond wo­man who stopped him as he was walk­ing back to his car. “That lady was down on Demo­crats,” Ed­wards said as we drove away. “She’s a Re­pub­lic­an. She hates Demo­crats. But she’s for me.”

Eric Ben­son is a journ­al­ist liv­ing in Aus­tin, Texas. His work has been pub­lished in The New York Times Magazine, Grant­land, and the Ox­ford Amer­ic­an. 

What We're Following See More »
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
1 days ago

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
1 days ago

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
1 days ago

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
1 days ago

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
19 hours ago

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.