A dark horse politician surges, defying the odds and beating an established — but not well liked — politico for the top job.
That may be the story of the 2016 presidential election, but it’s also the story of Louisiana’s 2015 gubernatorial matchup in which state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, eked out a victory over Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in a very red state.
In these two exclusive excerpts from Jeremy Alford and Tyler Bridges’ new book, Long Shot, the veteran political reporters trace the story of that election — along with the aftermath.
There would be no honeymoon period for John Bel Edwards. That became evident shortly after his historic win. Despite Edwards' lopsided margin of victory, partisan anger lingered among die-hard Republican lawmakers, particularly in the GOP-dominated state House of Representatives. Many if not most Republican House veterans won office with David Vitter's help in prior election cycles. In the summer and early fall of 2015, they looked forward to Vitter's election as governor and to helping him, in their new roles as his legislative allies, transform Louisiana into a conservative model of budgetary restraint and political reform. Their candidate for governor may have lost his election, but that didn't mean they had to roll over for Democrat Edwards — even though Louisiana governors had traditionally hand-picked the House and Senate leadership. Like everything else in politics, that time-honored tradition was subject to change, which it did as Edwards prepared to take his oath of office. The new governor would soon learn that politicians who don't recognize — and quickly adapt to — such seismic changes in the political landscape pay a heavy price.
Edwards took office as the first Louisiana governor in modern history who did not hand-pick the House speaker.
In the Louisiana governor's race of 2015, David Vitter failed to grasp that voters no longer tolerated his past sins. He also mistakenly assumed the template that had worked so well for him in past "national" elections for the Senate would work again in the decidedly "local" election for governor. That mistake cost Vitter dearly. For his part, Governor-elect John Bel Edwards would fail to recognize that the Louisiana House of Representatives — the body he had been a part of for eight years — had declared its independence from the governor. Edwards mistakenly assumed that he could anoint Democrat Walt Leger III of New Orleans as the next speaker, despite the lower chamber's GOP majority. That mistake would cost Edwards dearly.
"We'll of course have that honeymoon," Edwards told reporters at the outset of 2016. No, he would not. The warning signs came early, but the handwriting was plainly on the wall in, of all places, St. Joseph's Cathedral in Baton Rouge on the morning of Edwards' inauguration on January 11, 2016.
Edwards, his family, and friends arrived at St. Joseph's early for the traditional Inauguration Mass, which began at 8 a.m. Bishop Robert Muench welcomed everyone, rattling off names and titles of distinguished guests. "For those of you not mentioned, I promise you an abundance of goodness," Muench said to laughter. Mass proceeded with bipartisan lectors, until 8:50 a.m., when the strains of "You Satisfy A Hungry Heart" echoed above the bowed heads of those in line for communion. Then another queue took form.
A second-term House member left the church early with his wife, followed by a freshman, then a term-limited representative. One by one they left — House Republicans all. They made their way to another important gathering, this one scheduled to begin at 9:15 a.m. in the Capitol's Ellender Room. There they convened to derail Edwards' choice for speaker with an eleventh-hour stratagem, one that reflected both the GOP delegation's political agility and a fatal flaw in the governor-elect's handle on the vote count.
Edwards had spent the preceding weeks meeting with Republican lawmakers, telling them that Leger, the speaker pro tempore in the previous term, would be their next speaker. In earlier times, a word from the incoming governor would have been enough, though occasionally some arm-twisting was necessary. This time the incoming governor encountered more resistance as his team lobbied lawmakers. Sometimes he met with House members one-on-one; other times Leger was present alongside Chief of Staff Ben Nevers, a Democrat who had just left the state Senate. Joining them on other occasions was former state Senator Robert Adley, a north Louisiana Republican whom Edwards had tapped to serve as a political troubleshooter. If needed, Adley followed up with GOP lawmakers. They were all old hands at counting votes, and they knew it would be important to have more than just a simple 53–vote majority in the 105-member House.
Counting votes, it's said, is like growing figs: You have to make sure you grow enough for yourself and enough for the birds — because the birds are going to get theirs. A comfortable margin for Leger and Edwards would be somewhere around 60 votes, leaving some for the birds. They were aware that Leger's main rival, Republican state Representative Cameron Henry of Metairie, who was widely reported to have been David Vitter's choice for speaker, was too strident to beat the more moderate Leger. The fact that upwards of 20 Republican House members had promised to back Leger over Henry gave Team Edwards a misplaced sense of confidence. What the governor-elect didn't know was that Henry and other GOP House leaders had hatched an alternate plan the night before Inauguration Day. The final pieces were coming together in the Ellender Room while the governor-elect sat in the front pew of St. Joseph's awaiting Bishop Muench's final blessing. Sitting in the front row, Edwards hadn't noticed the Republican exodus from the pews behind him during communion.
At the Capitol, Henry and Republican Delegation chair Lance Harris of Alexandria headed downstairs to the Ellender Room. There, Henry explained to the group that there would be two other candidates for speaker besides himself and Leger — Representatives Taylor Barras of New Iberia and Neil Abramson of New Orleans. Barras was a one-time Democrat who had switched to Republican before the 2011 elections. Abramson was a Democrat. It was no coincidence that the delegation meeting was called for 9:15 a.m. Henry didn't want any lag time between the end of that gathering and the House convening at 10 a.m. That way no one could alert the governor-elect, who might yet be able to twist some arms for Leger — or worse, draft his own Republican candidate for the job.
"If my vote and Taylor's vote equal or combine to 53, we will have a Republican speaker," Henry said to start that final meeting. "But it won't be me."
For once, a meeting room filled with Republican House members went silent. In that moment, Henry actually envisioned a pin dropping with a thunderous plunk. The plan was for Henry to drop out of the race if he ran second and Barras ran third, forcing a Leger–Barras runoff. Barras would then carry all of Henry's votes. Henry had accepted that he could not cobble together a majority, so his decision to step aside was a sacrifice for the GOP team.
The vote went down exactly as planned. On a second ballot, Barras won 56 votes to 49 for Leger.
This meant that Edwards took office as the first Louisiana governor in modern history who did not hand-pick the House speaker. Just as elections at the ballot box have consequences, so, too, do elections for legislative leadership. Leger's defeat meant Edwards would have no say in who got chairmanships or committee assignments — and therefore relatively little direct influence in the House. The vote was an early sign of turbulent times to come, and a harsh reminder of the two kinds of politics in American democracy: the politics of elections and the politics of governance. The two intersect occasionally and overlap frequently, but they require very distinct skill sets. Edwards had proven he knew how to win a tough election. His first attempt at governing did not go so well.
Counting votes, it's said, is like growing figs: You have to make sure you grow enough for yourself and enough for the birds — because the birds are going to get theirs.
Even before the crushing loss in the speaker's race, Edwards received disturbing news about the state's finances. Just about every legislator who had served under Gov. Bobby Jindal knew that Jindal was fudging the numbers to create the illusion of a balanced budget. What no one knew until shortly before Edwards took office was the size of the budget hole. The "real numbers" came as a gut punch: Revenues in the then-current fiscal year, which would end June 30, 2016, were at least $750 million short — and up to $2 billion short for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Louisiana was in a fiscal freefall, and the new governor was coming aboard mid-descent. Worse yet, he would have to cover those deficits by asking a Republican-majority Legislature — one that now had a House speaker installed by David Vitter's allies — to raise taxes.
No honeymoon, indeed.
When Edwards announced that the state would need new taxes to cover the deficit, his Republican foes pounced, saying he had already violated his much-ballyhooed Honor Code by "lying" when he said during the campaign that he would not raise taxes. He responded directly in a statewide televised address, saying, "I am fully aware that I did not campaign on a platform of raising taxes, but the state's deficit is now more than twice as big as anyone ever anticipated, so clearly when the facts surrounding the problem change so dramatically, so must the solutions."
His reasoning was sound, but that didn't matter to his adversaries. He got dinged on talk radio and on conservative blogs, and [the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry] LABI, which had supported Vitter in the election, chimed in by opposing any efforts by the governor to end business tax breaks.
The attacks grew louder when news broke over the salary that Edwards would pay his commissioner of administration, his top appointee. Republican Jay Dardenne, who had finished fourth in the primary and then endorsed Edwards, would receive $33,000 more than the previous commissioner, for a total salary of $237,500. In her news story, Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte noted that Edwards, during the November runoff, had "bristled" at the salaries Bobby Jindal paid his top aides. "They're exorbitant. They're too high. We're going to reduce those costs right off the top," Edwards said at the time. Deslatte, reflecting on that promise, wrote, "But since becoming governor, Edwards, who receives a $130,000 salary outlined in state law, appears to have changed his mind."
Politicians, like all human beings, are imperfect creatures. Nonetheless, revelations of a politician's moral failures or political inconsistencies leave many voters profoundly disappointed. For those who live and work in the belly of the beast known as the political arena, such revelations are just another day at the office. Or, as the French tell us, Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose ("the more things change, the more they stay the same").
So it was that as the August 2016 floodwaters receded, Edwards faced another political storm, this one of his own making. He had promised to govern in a manner different from his predecessors, but news reports surfaced about business-as-usual decisions in the dispensing of patronage. Edwards cleaned house at the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, the official name of the board that oversees management of the state-owned Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie King Arena in New Orleans. That board, in turn, fired its long-standing attorneys and hired the law firm that employed Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand's wife, Shawn Bridgewater. The sheriff's wife was a respected corporate attorney with an A-list of local business clients, but the press gave the story page one treatment.
In an even bigger story, Edwards appointed a handful of politically connected trial lawyers — most of them among his top campaign donors — as counsel for the state in a controversial lawsuit against oil and gas companies. One "hook" of the story was that Edwards had appointed former state Representative Taylor Townsend, who had been one of the new governor's key campaign fundraisers, as lead counsel in the case. Unlike the other trial attorneys named in the story, Townsend was not known as an environmental lawyer — but he did serve as a co-chair of Edwards' transition team and, in early 2016, he stepped in as chair of the governor's super PAC, Louisiana Families First. Townsend, in his capacity as lead counsel, hired the other attorneys as highly qualified "subcontractors."
Another hook of the story: The contract for legal services included provisions for attorneys fees that oil and gas advocates thought were too generous, triggering a public spat between Edwards and new Attorney General Jeff Landry, who came into office with solid backing from energy interests. The story raised a host of red flags.
"There is a perception that the governor is turning his office into a private law firm," Melissa Landry of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch told WWL-TV, which broke the story with The Advocate. The governor, she added, "is quietly handing no-bid legal contracts to his campaign supporters."
One name among the trial attorneys Townsend hired practically jumped off the page to those who followed the election closely: James Garner, the David Vitter campaign attorney who had worked so hard to keep the Wendy Ellis allegations [that Vitter employed her as a prostitute and fathered her baby] out of the mainstream press. Politically, that was the biggest red flag of all.
How did David Vitter's lawyer get such a patronage plum from the man who had just beaten Vitter? The answer was as old as politics itself. After the election, Garner reached out to Team Edwards via New Orleans attorneys Gladstone Jones and Dan Robin Jr., who had worked on separate legal matters with Garner's firm in the past.
More important, Jones and Robin were early and fervent supporters of Edwards. Robin also knew Neal Kling, a member of Garner's firm. The two lawyers were happy to help Garner extend an olive branch. What resulted was a match made in political heaven: Garner's firm announced on January 22, 2016 its "affiliation" with Robin & Associates — "a governmental relations firm in Louisiana and Washington, D.C., headed by Dan A. Robin Sr., along with Ted Jones and Dan A. Robin Jr."
Robin pere et fils had shown their fundraising prowess during the campaign. Now it was Garner's turn to show what he could do, and he delivered. Garner raised at least $25,000 for Edwards' transition team, and in early September 2016 he generated a significant portion of the more than $1 million in ticket sales for an Edwards fundraiser hosted by Dan Robin Sr. at Arnaud's Restaurant in the French Quarter. Garner's work was perfectly legal and, to political insiders, perfectly understandable. His firm had a bevy of big-name corporate clients eager to have a friend in the Governor's Mansion, and the new governor saw the wisdom of turning a savvy former adversary like Garner into a newfound ally — especially one who could help fill campaign coffers. Money, after all, is the mother's milk of politics.
Speaking of money, Garner's was not the only olive branch extended to the new governor. Within a month of Edwards taking office, various oil, gas, and chemical associations — whose members had opposed him during the campaign — were likewise eager to help him replenish his campaign war chest. Political action committees for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Chemical Association sponsored a joint fundraiser on January 26 in Baton Rouge. Two days later, the PAC for the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association held its own fundraiser at the group's annual meeting at the Golden Nugget Casino in Lake Charles.
"They opposed me last year, and I'm governor this year," Ed-wards told The Advocate when asked about the fundraisers. To no one's surprise, the groups later opposed much of the governor's tax proposals in subsequent legislative sessions, notwithstanding their recent willingness to shower him with campaign checks.
In politics, battle lines and olive branches — much like time-honored traditions — inevitably dissolve with the passage of time. Only the game itself endures, because human nature is immutable.
Plus ca change, indeed.
— Jeremy Alford is the publisher and editor of LaPolitics and a former Gambit columnist. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times and writes a syndicated column for more than 25 Louisiana newspapers.
— Tyler Bridges is a freelance journalist who principally reports for The Advocate. His previous books include Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards and The Rise of David Duke.
Gambit political columnist and chairman Clancy DuBos edited Long Shot.