“Half of Louisiana is under indictment,” the old saw goes, “and the other half is under water.” Louisiana politicians haven’t been keeping up with their end of the bargain lately. No major political figures are under indictment or in prison today. The devastating storms haven’t abated one bit, however, and that’s why Gov. John Bel Edwards in early August was in the suburban town of Youngsville, where two days of non-stop rains a year earlier had flooded 300 homes.
One of them belongs to Paul Hebert, a 29-year-old operations director at an equipment manufacturer. With federal and state aid, he and his pregnant wife have settled back into their refurbished home on Flanders Ridge Drive. “Wow!” the governor exclaimed while Hebert showed him photos of 14 inches of water covering the floor. “We had to replace everything but the washer and dryer,” Hebert explained.
As Edwards headed out to his next event, a man in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops buttonholed him on the street. Ryan Fontenot, a neighbor of the Heberts, badgered the governor about his inability to qualify for more federal recovery funds. (Louisiana has received $1.6 billion so far to assist homeowners and is seeking another $2 billion for them and to fix damaged infrastructure.) “The Republicans in Washington don’t want to help you because you’re a Democratic governor in the South,” Fontenot, a high school civics teacher, told him.
Edwards smiled at Fontent but wouldn’t take the bait, saying he didn’t believe it was true. But Fontenot is right about Edwards’ outlier status: He’s the only Democratic governor of a Deep South state, and no Democratic governor holds office in a state where Trump got a higher percentage of the vote—58 percent. Edwards is also the only Democrat elected to statewide office in Louisiana, where Republicans hold healthy majorities in both houses of the legislature. John Bel Edwards is a blue dot in a sea of red.
And it’s not just the South: Republicans dominate the levers of power throughout the country these days. Donald Trump is in the White House; Republicans control Congress and most state legislatures; there are twice as many Republican governors as there are Democratic ones; conservatives hold a majority on the Supreme Court. Ever since stark reality set in after Trump’s upset win last November, Democrats have held a raging, rollicking debate over how to move forward: Should the party double down on its socially and economically progressive agenda? Or widen the tent to lure back more socially conservative voters in places like Louisiana? For soul-searching progressives, Edwards might present an interesting case study: He is showing how a Democrat can succeed in a deep red, pro-Trump state. Governing in a mostly bipartisan fashion, not pushing hot-button cultural issues, he enjoys a solid approval rating of 55 to 60 percent.
Conservatives are doing their best to dent that number, of course, and his path to re-election in 2019 won’t be easy. Americans for Prosperity, the pro-Republican super PAC, attacks Edwards regularly as a tax-and-spend liberal, and a Baton Rouge businessman with money to burn is pledging to spend $1 million this year and another $1 million next year to pound the governor and ensure that he doesn’t win re-election in 2019.
The Democratic Governors Association has pledged to support Edwards’ reelection campaign. But it’s quite possible that some national Democrats won’t rally to his defense because Edwards, a devout Catholic, opposes abortion at a time when powerful voices in the party, such as the California megadonor Tom Steyer, are pushing to make the issue a litmus test of progressive values. The governor, an avid hunter, is also strongly pro-Second Amendment, which puts him out of step with the anti-gun mood of Democrats nationally but fits a state whose official nickname is “the Sportsman’s Paradise.” (On a helicopter ride to the Youngsville event, Edwards pointed to a lodge surrounded by forest that served as the base for a recent turkey hunt. The one-time Army Ranger now has a middle-age paunch and has lost most of his hair.)
Edwards has also championed causes that wouldn’t be out of place in Elizabeth Warren’s Massachusetts. He has expanded Medicaid to the working poor, threatened to sue oil and gas companies for destroying coastal wetlands, pushed for a higher minimum wage and reformed his state’s criminal justice system.
In an interview in his office in the Governor’s Mansion, Edwards, 50, said Democrats could follow his lead if they want to take back the red-state areas they have lost in recent years. “I happen to believe that Democrats in a large part of the country, but particularly across the South, would do much better if we fielded more candidates who were pro-Second Amendment and pro-life such as myself,” he said. “I happen to believe we have a superior message in many regards that will resonate with people across this region, but they won’t hear it if you don’t check a couple of boxes first. They won’t hear the rest of your message.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, another Democrat who governs a state that Trump carried, agreed. “It’s dangerous to write off certain candidates wholesale because they don’t pass certain tests,” he said.
James Carville, a Louisiana native who has been a top adviser to President Bill Clinton and other Democrats, put it more bluntly. “The lesson [Edwards] offers is that these purists or ideological ayatollahs in the Democratic Party need to shut up and stand down,” Carville said. Democrats would be wiser, he added, to shift the conversation away from cultural issues to the core tasks of governing, where Republicans are much more vulnerable: “If Democrats have the right story and are smart, they can win elections in the South. Start running against the status quo in a lot of places. Start tagging them with the burdens of government.”
There’s also the possibility, though, that Edwards is a one-off, a blue anomaly in a region that’s likely to stay red for years to come. His military background and socially conservative cred might have had real appeal to voters in the state, but he also happened to run for governor in 2015 against a Republican opponent, Sen. David Vitter, who had admitted to patronizing a prostitution ring. The outgoing Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, became a millstone for Vitter. Jindal left office with a 25 percent approval rating. Admitted Carville: “You have to acknowledge that the circumstances here were unique, and he made the most of them.” So is Edwards really a model for the Democratic Party moving forward? Or is he a fluke?
Edwards doesn’t rattle easily. He proved that over time when he ran for governor two years ago. For months, he attracted little attention as he crisscrossed the state in his 2010 GMC Sierra pick-up, with “Willie’s Roadhouse” spinning country tunes on Sirius-XM radio. If Edwards emerged as the top Democrat, by no means a given, he would likely face Vitter, who had never lost an election and was known to play rough. Even though Vitter was tainted by a sex scandal, he was still the heavy favorite.
Democratic Party leaders favored Mitch Landrieu, the popular mayor of New Orleans whose sister served three terms in the Senate before losing re-election in 2014. But Landrieu concluded that he couldn’t win and never entered the race. Edwards stayed in, and his personal biography steadily gained him adherents.
Edwards grew up as the great-grandson, grandson and son of sheriffs in Amite, a rural town in Tangipahoa Parish, an area east of Baton Rouge that has shifted Republican in recent years. The seventh of eight kids, he hunted and fished as a boy and starred as a quarterback and pitcher in high school. When he flew to New York state to enter West Point, it was only the second time he had been on an airplane. He survived the first day, when dozens of other would-be plebes couldn’t handle the hazing, graduated from the military academy and passed the brutal 65-day training course to become an Army Ranger. As an officer, he jumped out of airplanes numerous times at 2 a.m. during training missions.
After an eight-year career in the Army, Edwards retired as a captain to return to Louisiana. He became a small-town lawyer and was elected to the state House. There, he gained credibility by leading the opposition to Jindal, but he couldn’t stop Republicans in the legislature from allowing the governor to draw down the state’s reserve accounts and use a series of other tricks to balance the budget each year—in name only—without violating his pledge not to raise taxes. During his eight years in office, Jindal, considered at the time to be a rising star in the conservative movement, slashed spending on higher education and blew a massive hole in the state’s budget, turning a $1 billion surplus into a $2 billion budget deficit for the next governor.
A telling moment in the governor’s race came three weeks before the primary election when Edwards broadcast a 30-second TV spot featuring his wife Donna, who had been his high-school sweetheart. In it, Donna related how, when she was 20 weeks pregnant, a doctor told them that their daughter would have spina bifida, a serious problem of the spinal cord. The doctor encouraged Donna to get an abortion.
“But John Bel never flinched,” she told viewers. “He just said no.” The ad showed their daughter, Samantha, now grown up, holding hands with her fiancée. Donna noted that Samantha was going to get married in several months.
In a state in which Americans United for Life says is the most pro-life in the country, the ad neutralized a potential advantage for Vitter, a staunch social conservative. The ad also resonated with progressive women voters, perhaps because the Edwardses made it clear that the choice of whether to have the abortion was theirs, not the government’s.
Whenever possible, Edwards told voters on the campaign trail that he lived by the West Point Honor Code—he would not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do. The mantra highlighted Vitter’s 2007 admission that he had made phone calls to the so called “D.C. Madam,” who was convicted of running a call-girl ring in Washington. Put on the defensive, Vitter sought to tie his opponent to President Barack Obama, who was unpopular in Louisiana. But Edwards smacked Vitter back. When Vitter in a televised debate said Edwards had voted with the state’s leading business group only 27 percent of the time as a state representative, Edwards went for the jugular: “I give 100 percent to my wife. That’s who I give 100 percent to.” Pointing at Vitter, he continued, “Senator, you ought to try it.” Vitter looked stunned.
Edwards also capitalized on his predecessor’s unpopularity. His campaign slogan to “Put Louisiana First” connected with voters turned off by Jindal’s frequent absences to campaign for president while the state’s finances deteriorated. In the end, Edwards defeated Vitter, 56 percent to 44 percent, an outcome no one could have predicted even three months earlier.
The unexpectedly large margin of victory left Edwards believing he could continue the tradition of all-powerful Louisiana governors by playing the decisive role in who would become the next speaker of the House and president of the state Senate, and who would be named as committee chairmen. He was in for a rude awakening: House Republicans chose one of their own as speaker instead, which has limited his leverage. (The state Senate did not buck the governor.)
Still, Edwards has notched several big progressive wins. In his first act as governor, in January 2016, he fulfilled a major campaign pledge when he expanded Medicaid for the working poor. It has meant coverage for 430,000 residents, dropping the state’s uninsured health rate from 24 percent to 10 percent.
Edwards has hired private attorneys to prepare a major lawsuit against oil and gas companies that will allege their drilling has eroded the state’s fragile coast. (Republicans say he’s a tool of trial lawyers.) He has sought to include language in legal services contracts that would forbid discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexual and transgender workers. (The state’s conservative attorney general has blocked that in court.) And, after eight years of budget cuts under Jindal, the state’s public colleges and universities saw a slight increase in funding this year. Edwards also pushed through a series of changes to Louisiana’s criminal justice system that will shorten some prison sentences, prevent certain nonviolent offenders from going to prison and expand eligibility for parole. The bipartisan package is aimed at ending Louisiana’s status as the country’s biggest jailer on a per capita basis.
Edwards plugged the budget deficit Jindal had bequeathed by winning legislative approval to raise the state sales tax temporarily by one percentage point—giving Louisiana the highest combined local and state sales tax rate in the country—and ending some business tax breaks. But conservative Republicans stymied his efforts to raise taxes to reduce traffic congestion and end the state’s budget problems. Things will come to a head next year when more than $1 billion in temporary taxes expire.
In July, Edwards was one of 11 governors who issued a bipartisan appeal to the Senate to reject the sharp cuts to Medicaid as part of the Republican effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Edwards, however, has preferred to focus on Louisiana issues. Asked about Trump, Edwards said, “He could be more disciplined in his messaging, not tweeting and saying the first things that come to his mind. They’re causing his administration an awful lot of turbulence.” Edwards added that he is doing what he can to work with Republicans in Washington “because I’m not doing the best thing that I can for my constituents if I take any other approach.”
Edwards enjoys relatively high approval ratings at a time when much of the state’s economy continues to suffer from low oil prices that have idled parts of Louisiana’s petro-chemical industry. But, the economic slowdown has limited tax revenue, which has contributed to the state’s budget problems, and Republicans are putting the blame on him. Edwards says his Republican critics have yet to show how they would balance the budget through spending cuts alone. But their obstinance also serves to weaken the governor politically because as long as the budget problem remains unresolved, the focus remains on his effort to raise more revenue.
“As he yaps about taxes, the Republicans and independents peel off of him,” said Roy Fletcher, a Republican political consultant. “A quarter of the Republicans are willing to give him the benefit of their doubt as long as he’s not messing with their money.”
Lane Grigsby charges that Edwards is indeed messing with their money. He’s the Baton Rouge businessman leading the effort to end Edwards’ career in two years. “‘Give me enough money, and I can solve other problems’—that’s what he’s saying,” Grigsby said. “Giving people more money does not solve problems. It prolongs problems.”
Edwards has scheduled a series of fundraisers for the coming months to make sure he gets his message across Louisiana against the coming Republican onslaught. He raised $3 million last year, collected $1.3 million at a sold-out event in New Orleans last month and is planning to have at least $9 million in hand for the 2019 campaign.
Edwards is about as well-positioned as possible for his re-election. He will have a substantial war chest, has earned a reputation as trying to serve the best interests of the state, not his personal ambitions, and has the profile a Democrat needs to win statewide in Louisiana. He’s seen as a strong leader, and a uniter. In July 2016, Baton Rouge police shot dead an unarmed black man outside of a convenience store. Amid community protests, a shooting rampage by a crazed black man left three police officers dead. Through it all, Edwards channeled his background as an Army company commander to help maintain the peace. Historic flooding a month later in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, including Youngsville, left Edwards reassuring an anxious public once again. He speaks in calm, measured tones, calling on Louisiana residents to pull together for the greater good. And he spent the past week making sure that Louisiana was prepared to handle whatever Hurricane Harvey would throw at the state.
But the budget issues could trip him up. One can almost write the coming attack ads that will slam him for having tried to raise billions of dollars in taxes. Without a doubt, national Republicans will spend heavily to send him back home to Amite.
Asked if he was nervous, the governor laughed and said, “No. They’re coming. But why be nervous?” He added, “The fact that I am a Democrat is not a disqualifier. There are many people out there looking for Democrats whom they can support because the Republican Party is rushing to the far right.”
Replicable or not, Edward’s success has encouraged others in the South to look to him for advice. The Arkansas Democratic Party invited Edwards to be the keynote speaker at its annual dinner last month. Republicans have routed Democrats in Arkansas in recent years, winning both chambers of the Legislature and all statewide offices.
“He may not fit that ideological purity test that we’re putting on Dems now, but what he does is fight for people,” said Michael John Gray, a state representative in Arkansas who chairs the state party. “Even some of the staunchest left advocates in the party told me afterward that they understand we have to have a big tent. He created a sense of pride. If this guy can do it in Louisiana, we can do it here.”
Edwards outlined his philosophy to other Democratic governors at a recent gathering in Aspen. “If they insist on fielding candidates who toe the mark on the party platform from top to bottom, then they’re not going to have me as governor,” he said in an interview. “If we only field candidates like that, then that candidate is not going to win.”
“Then you don’t get things like Medicaid expansion,” he added. “You don’t get criminal justice reform. You don’t get somebody fighting for a higher minimum wage and the pay gap where women make so much less than men and a whole host of other things. The center of the political spectrum is up for grabs.”
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