Nearly four years after he reported to prison, Edwin Edwards still casts a long shadow over Louisiana. We may be seeing its twilight, but even now we are living in the Edwards Era. How else to explain the rest of the world's perception of us as corrupt? Who better to hold up as an example -- or an explanation -- of that perception? Both in law and in fact, Edwin Washington Edwards has been the governor of Louisiana for most of the past 25 years.
Both Edwards and Louisiana have paid a heavy price for their long, drunken embrace. He sits rotting in jail, losing one appeal after another -- the latest only weeks ago. His young trophy wife has divorced him and is publicly involved with someone else. His son Stephen, also convicted in the racketeering case, likewise sits in jail.
Louisiana, meanwhile, sits waiting, like Longfellow's Evangeline, for help to arrive from the federal government in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Precious little help has come thus far, held up mostly by Congress' reluctance to send billions to a state that it considers disorganized, corrupt and fiscally undisciplined.
And that's just the latest bad news. For the past 25 years, Louisiana has languished at the bottom of the "good" lists -- literacy, high school and college graduation rates, median household income -- and owned the top rung of the "bad" lists -- pollution levels, cancer rates, infant mortality rates and teen pregnancy rates, just to name a few. To be sure, many of those ills predated EWE's tenure as governor, but for one man to dominate a state's political culture for a quarter-century without making a dent in such serious social problems is telling -- particularly when the rest of the South has made huge strides forward in that same period.
All of which makes the case for Edwin Edwards' decline and fall as Gambit Weekly's top political story of the past 25 years. He reached the zenith of his power and popularity in 1984, fresh off his landslide win over Treen in the 1983 statewide elections. He took more than 600 contributors to Paris on a fundraising trip that wiped out his $5 million campaign debt, toasting himself and them in the Palace of Versailles at a lavish banquet, and returned to ram $750 million in taxes through the Legislature.
But soon thereafter federal prosecutors began investigating his dealings with hospital developers, and by the spring of 1985 he had been charged with racketeering. He would beat the rap in 1986, but he never fully recovered. The trial revealed a sordid side of the high-rolling Edwards, paying off huge Vegas gambling debts with briefcases full of cash. It wasn't the cash that was so shocking; it was that he lost. The image of the unflappable, unbeatable Edwards was shattered forever. Even once-biddable lawmakers refused to bow to his will. In the statewide elections of 1987, he finished second to Buddy Roemer and, in the wee hours of the following morning, announced he would not contest the runoff.
He enjoyed a comeback of sorts in 1991, but only because he managed to get as a runoff opponent the one person on the planet that voters liked less than him -- neo-Nazi David Duke. "Vote for the crook -- it's important" bumper stickers appeared all over Louisiana's snootiest neighborhoods as reformers held their noses, swallowed their pride and put Edwin Edwards back at the helm of Louisiana. He promised a different kind of administration this time -- one for the history books, he said. He kept that promise, though not in the manner he anticipated.
Less than five months into his fourth term, he broke a campaign promise not to push for casino gambling. His floor leaders pulled every parliamentary and political trick in the book to pass the land-based casino law. Then he appointed a group of mostly hacks, lackeys and know-nothings to the various gambling boards, which promptly awarded licenses to applicants with connections to the governor -- snubbing some of the most respected names in the "gaming" industry in the process. Edwin Edwards was back.
But so were the feds. This time, they had wiretaps and videotapes on him. He announced in 1994 that he would not seek re-election, not knowing that the seeds of his ultimate downfall had already been sewn. Federal agents raided his Baton Rouge home in 1997, less than 18 months into his "retirement," and seized some $400,000 in cash. He called it gambling winnings and proceeds of cattle sales. The feds knew it was a bribe from Edward DeBartolo Jr., then owner of the San Francisco 49ers, for a casino license. After a long and contentious trial in Baton Rouge -- which was never "Edwards country" -- a jury convicted him of 17 counts. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
His legacy will last much longer than that, which is another reason we are still living in the Edwards Era.
In the mid-1970s, EWE gave Louisiana its unique open primary election, which lumps Democrats and Republicans into one primary. If no one gets a majority, the top two -- regardless of party affiliation -- proceed to the general election. He pushed the change because he didn't like the small, gentlemanly GOP being able to field a fresh candidate in the general election against a battle-worn Democrat, like himself, who first had to endure a grueling party primary and runoff. He knew he would fare well under the new system, and he did. But so did the GOP, and the Republican Party's rise has been one of the other top stories of the past 25 years. In the spring of 1981, Republicans held only 10 of 144 legislative seats; they currently hold 55 -- more than a third in both the House and Senate. The GOP hopes to capture the Louisiana House outright in the 2007 elections. In 2004, David Vitter became Louisiana's first Republican U.S. Senator since Reconstruction.
The 1984 World's Fair was a big story in the early and mid-1980s, and when it fizzled financially Edwin Edwards had to convince a tight-fisted Legislature to bail it out. It was one of his finer moments.
Black voters were always EWE's most loyal supporters, and the steady growth of black political power in the past 25 years sustained him even when others deserted him. Dutch Morial was New Orleans' first black mayor in 1981. Interestingly, he and Edwards were never close and sometimes testy. The New Orleans City Council had just two black members in 1981, but by 1985 blacks comprised a council majority, which reflected the city's population. Today, the vast majority of the city's elected officials are African American.
Sometimes a politician's fortunes are shaped by his opponents more than his own strengths and weaknesses. In Edwards' case, he had the great fortune to have a former Ku Klux Klan leader as an opponent in 1991. David Duke's rise and fall happened in the relatively short span of three years, but it seemed like an eternity at the time. Duke won a special legislative election in early 1989 thanks to voter unrest over taxes and a low turnout. He became a worldwide sensation posing as a mainstream Republican, much to the GOP's embarrassment. A year later he ran for the U.S. Senate and garnered 43 percent of the vote against an uninspired Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. By 1991, Duke knew he could not win his legislative seat in a big-turnout election, so he ran for governor and edged out incumbent Buddy Roemer to face Edwards in "the runoff from hell." Edwards beat Duke easily, but Louisiana suffered for having to choose between a neo-Nazi and a crook. A year later, Duke ran for president in the Republican primaries, but failed to win a single delegate. In 1999 he ran for Congress in a special election to succeed Bob Livingston, finishing third. No amount of cosmetic surgery could mask Duke's worn-out welcome. In 2002, after pleading guilty to federal fraud charges, Duke spent almost a year in jail -- serving his sentence at the same time as Edwards. Today Duke peddles his peculiar brand of capitalism and hate in the former Soviet Union. Like Edwards, he has been unofficially exiled.
Many are either too young (or too old) to recall that Edwards initially ran for governor as a reformer. In his first year in office, he convinced lawmakers to convene a state constitutional convention, and today Louisiana still follows the 1974 constitution. It's a big improvement over the rambling 1921 constitution, but it has already been amended scores of times. One area of government EWE did not reform was the state's tax code, although fiscal reform battles were fought and gradually won during and between his stints as governor. The biggest objective of fiscal reform -- reducing or eliminating the homestead exemption -- remains unfulfilled, however.
Tax reform has been a long time coming, and Louisiana's declining economic fortunes -- particularly the oil bust -- have left the state with fewer and fewer options for generating public revenue. Desperate to keep the hayride rolling along, lawmakers turned to a lottery and other forms of legalized gambling to replace oil and gas as the state's official trough. Today, Louisiana has a lottery, video poker, slots at race tracks, more than a dozen riverboat casinos and one land-based casino. Ironically, most of those forms of wagering were legalized during or near the end of Gov. Buddy Roemer's "reform" administration -- but EWE got to appoint the gaming boards and award the licenses.
Which, of course, ultimately led to his current status as a federal inmate.
In his early years, Edwards flew to Vegas on casino-sponsored junkets with his cronies in tow, wagering thousands at a time and living large. When questioned by reporters about his gambling habits back then, he piously eschewed the notion of promoting casinos in Louisiana, saying it was a vice he could handle but Louisiana could not. Now we know he got it backwards.
But Edwin Edwards was not addicted to gambling. That was just a mental distraction, like playing solitaire. For him, the real rush came from power -- the ultimate elixir. He loved getting and wielding political power, particularly when it was all paid for by other people's money.
And he was entertaining. If Huey Long took Louisiana on a hayride, Edwin Edwards took us on a joyride.
Standing under the Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville in 1927, Long began his methodical march to power by telling Acadian voters, in one of the greatest political speeches of all time, that Evangeline wept bitter tears as she waited for her beloved Gabriel, but her tears lasted only one lifetime -- whereas their tears had lasted generations. "Give me the chance to dry those tears of those who still weep here," Long implored.
Two generations later, Edwin Edwards had his chance.
Louisiana is still waiting.