Edwin Edwards, the legendary and controversial four-term governor of Louisiana, dies at age 93

Edwin Edwards, the legendary and controversial four-term governor of Louisiana, dies at age 93

Edwin Edwards, the legendary and controversial Louisiana Democrat who served in the U.S. House from 1965 to 1972; in the governor’s mansion from 1972 to 1980, 1984 to 1988, and 1992 to 1996; and in federal prison from 2002 to 2011, died Monday at the age of 93.

Edwards’ supporters remember the state’s longest-serving leader for bringing women and African Americans into state government, for using oil money to improve the lot of the state’s underprivileged residents, for his work replacing Louisiana’s outdated constitution with its current governing document, and for his many signature quips. His detractors, though, emphasize the chaotic tenure of the “Cajun King” after the oil bust of the 1980s, his reputation as a womanizer, his lengthy corruption trials while in office (he was ultimately found not guilty in 1986 after a mistrial), and his 2000 conviction for extortion and money laundering.

As is our wont at Daily Kos Elections, we’ll be taking a look at Edwards’ lengthy electoral career, as well as the all-party primary system that he instituted early in his governorship, an electoral system that arguably made the 1991 “race from Hell” between Edwards and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke possible. Louisiana still uses its all-party primary system to this day for state, local, and non-presidential federal elections, while California and Washington employ a variation known as the top-two primary.  

During the early stages of Edwards’ time in politics, Louisiana, like almost all of the South, was a one-party state dominated by Jim Crow-era Democrats. The Pelican State used a party primary to select its nominees, with a runoff in races where no one took a majority of the vote and an uncompetitive general election to follow. Edwards, who was a state senator at the time, himself won his seat representing the state’s heavily Cajun southwest corner in the U.S. House in a 1965 election following his 54-46 victory in the Democratic runoff, and he never faced any serious re-election opposition.

Edwards was one of the many Democrats who competed in the 1971 open seat race for governor, and while a win would make him the state’s first Catholic governor in modern history in a state with a large Catholic population, he very much started out looking like an underdog. The field included two-time former Gov. Jimmie Davis, a segregationist who popularized “You Are My Sunshine” during his musical career; Lt. Gov. Taddy Aycock; state Sen. John Schwegmann, the founder of an eponymous chain of supermarkets; state Sen. J. Bennett Johnston; and two feuding cousins from the Long political family, Rep. Speedy Long and former Rep. Gillis Long.

The French-speaking Edwards, though, benefited from a strong geographic base and his outreach to Black voters, as well as massive financial support. A top aide would later say that the future governor had promised donors state jobs, which Edwards, while denying some details, correctly noted wouldn’t have been illegal at the time. Indeed, as the late journalist John Maginnis would write in his 1984 book “The Last Hayride” when describing this story, “As far as a campaign went, very little was illegal in 1971.”

Edwards ultimately secured first place with 23%, while Johnston’s strong performance in the Shreveport area, as well as his own support from business groups, helped him earn second with 18%. What followed was a fiercely contested Democratic runoff between Edwards, who campaigned as a populist, and the more conservative Johnston. Both men portrayed themselves as reformers who would tackle corruption, but Edwards proved eager to make promises to his defeated opponents and their backers to win over their support, while Johnston wasn’t. Edwards, who had the support of labor and Black political organizations, beat Johnston 50.2-49.8—a margin of just under 4,500 votes; Johnston would be elected to the U.S. Senate the following year and serve for four terms.

Edwards then had to turn around and win a general election in early 1972 against Republican David Treen, who had lost a tight race for Congress in 1968. There was no question Edwards would prevail in a state that remained thoroughly dominated by the Democratic Party, but Treen put up a strong fight and held the congressman to a 57-43 victory. That experience, as well as Treen’s win in a congressional race later that year, convinced Edwards that Democrats shouldn’t need to go through two exhausting rounds of primaries only to face a fresh Republican afterwards.

The governor thus championed the 1975 Open Primaries Act, which required all the candidates, regardless of party, to face off on one ballot; if no one took a majority of the vote, the top-two contenders, regardless of party, would advance to a general election runoff. Edwards convinced legislators that they might only need to go through one round of voting now, and that this system would ensure that Republicans would be largely locked out of any runoffs that did occur.

The all-party primary worked out great for Edwards in 1975, who beat a fellow Democrat by a dominant 62-24 spread, but it ended up helping the GOP in the race to succeed him when he was termed out four years later. Just like in 1971, a number of Democrats ran for the open seat, while Treen was the one major Republican in the contest. This time, though, Treen got to face a Democrat, Public Service Commissioner Louis Lambert, who had only barely advanced to the general election and was well to the left of the rest of the field. The defeated Democratic contenders consolidated behind Treen, whose narrow win made him the first Republican to govern Louisiana since Reconstruction.

Observers have suggested that Edwards made a massive mistake by pushing the Open Primaries Act, though Maginnis speculated that he might have known exactly what he was doing. Edwards, Maginnis suggested, already wanted to make it more likely that when he’d be eligible to run for governor again in 1983, he’d go up against Treen than a Democratic incumbent. No matter what, though, the all-party primary helped Louisiana Republicans make electoral gains even as they remained far in the minority: Maginnis explained, “Sleek and overconfident, Democratic bosses soon discovered that it wasn’t their power, popularity or philosophy that kept them in power; rather it was their monopoly.”

No matter what Edwards was planning for in 1975, he got his ideal opponent in 1983. Treen struggled to deal with the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, and the popular and well-connected Edwards was always the favorite to defeat him. The once and future governor ran an aggressive campaign where he famously declared, “David Treen is so slow it takes him an hour and a half to watch ‘60 Minutes,’” and, in a line that has not aged well, snarked, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” Edwards went on to win back his old post 62-36.

Few anticipated it at the time, but this was the last election where Edwards would be popular. The oil crash and the governor’s trials left him hobbled going into the 1987 all-party primary, a race that attracted another crowded field. Conservative Democratic Rep. Buddy Roemer, who was the son and namesake of one of the incumbent’s one-time top ally, consolidated the anti-Edwards vote and led him 33-28. Edwards then shocked his supporters when he announced that he was conceding rather than proceeding onto a runoff, a move that automatically made Roemer the governor-elect.

That move seemed to mark the end of Edwards’ career, but his final gubernatorial campaign would go down in history. The Democrat sought a 1991 rematch with Roemer, who would defect to the GOP months before Election Day. Other Democrats entered the race or considered campaigns but, despite Edwards’ considerable baggage, no viable alternatives emerged who could take on the well-known candidate.

Roemer wasn’t so lucky. Republican state Rep. David Duke argued during his campaign that he’d put his past as a KKK leader behind him, but Duke’s dog whistles against “welfare” recipients appealed to his intended audience. Edwards took first with 34% while Duke edged out Roemer, who had made his share of enemies during his time in office, 32-27 for second place. What followed was the infamous Edwards-Duke race that was summed up by the (reluctantly) pro-Edwards bumper stickers “Vote for the crook, it’s important,” and “Vote for the Lizard, not the Wizard.”

It’s very possible, though, that the 1991 race would have featured a very different matchup if it wasn’t for the all-party primary Edwards pushed through 16 years before. Political scientists Ronald King, Douglas Rose, and Matthew Crozat would note in the 1995 book “David Duke and the Politics of Race in the American South” that, despite Duke’s party affiliation, he fared poorly with registered Republicans, who were still deep in the minority. They found instead that Duke’s base “came primarily from white non-Republicans, especially Democrats with less education,” a group that would have been unable to vote in a GOP primary.

The 1991 general election that did take place attracted national attention, with prominent Republicans like President George H.W. Bush, Roemer, and Treen rejecting their party’s official nominee. Edwards, who said of his opponent, “The only thing we have in common is we’re both wizards under the sheets,” also argued that a Duke victory would turn Louisiana into a pariah state and cost it vital tourism dollars. Edwards won 61-39 in what would turn out to be the final victory of his career.

Edwards’ fourth term was dominated by corruption allegations linked to his attempts to bring gambling to the state. The governor decided not to run again in 1995 but soon found himself in a legal mess: In 2000, he was convicted of corruption in awarding riverboat licenses, and he ended up serving eight years in prison.

Edwards, who was released in 2011, decided to wage a 2014 campaign to return to Congress after a four-decade absence in the 6th District. The Democrats’ campaign for this very gerrymandered seat generated plenty of buzz but few observers gave him a serious chance, and he lost the runoff 62-38 to Republican Garret Graves.

Edwards never would run again, but the all-party primary system he set up decades ago lives on, despite attempts to scale it back or eliminate it. Legislators did temporarily re-institute the old party primary system for congressional races for the 2008 and 2010 cycles, but they reverted back to the all-party primary in 2012.

This year a number of prominent state Republicans, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, led a renewed push to scrap this method of voting, arguing that December congressional runoffs mean that the eventual winners will miss out on prized committee assignments. Conservatives were also furious at Sen. Bill Cassidy for voting to convict Donald Trump in February, and they believed that he’d lose a 2026 party primary if there was one.

The drive, though, failed in the face of opposition from other party luminaries like Graves and Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, a potential 2023 gubernatorial contender who warned that a change would produce “extreme candidates.” With Republicans in control of the legislature, however, this is unlikely to be the last serious threat to this major part of Edwards’ legacy.

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