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?

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“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.”

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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.”

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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. 

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