It isn’t every 86-year-old congressional candidate who keeps a Pack ’n Play in a spare room at his campaign office for his 11-month-old son’s naps. But then every congressional candidate isn’t former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
A trifle hard of hearing but still sharp as a tack, Edwards is spending his golden years on the campaign trail. After serving four terms as governor, going to jail, marrying his prison pen pal, welcoming a fifth child into the fold and filming a reality television show, Edwards eschewed retirement and launched a bid for the 6th Congressional District seat. The election is Nov. 4.
These aren’t the glitzy days when supporters paid $10,000 to gamble in Monte Carlo and dine at Versailles with Edwards to help him retire some campaign debt. These days, he’s more likely to pop up at a catfish festival, looking like the grandfather he is in blue jeans and a pullover shirt. Bumper stickers stacked in one corner of the campaign office hint at the bygone days when it was “important” to vote for Edwards because the other choice was a former Ku Klux Klan leader. It’s been 18 years since Edwards was governor and 42 years since he was in Congress.
“Every day, I run into people whose grandmother was a supporter of mine — or whose father or mother was,” Edwards said, adding that he recognizes the importance of clicking with multiple generations.
A few things: Beautiful wife and baby aside, Edwards knows he’s old, and he knows some people dismiss him as an ex-con. He’s no longer the up-and-coming heir to the Kingfish. The contributions aren’t coming in at a lickety-split clip. At his campaign office in an upscale development of businesses and townhomes, Edwards was told that he couldn’t display campaign signs on the lawn. He had to hang a shingle that blends into the building and makes it look like the Edwards campaign headquarters is a doctor’s office or a law firm.
But this is Louisiana politics. It’s a carnival ride, and Edwards is grasping for the brass ring that will send him to Capitol Hill. He aims to be in a runoff come November. His enthusiasm can’t be discounted. This is a sharecropper’s son who served as governor four times. Whether he can win again is anyone’s guess.
“Why do I want to run? So Ari can have a job,” Edwards joked at his sparsely furnished campaign office off Jefferson Highway in Baton Rouge.
Ari is Ari Krupkin, Edwards’ 27-year-old campaign manager. Krupkin is managing his first campaign, but he has a busy résumé. He grew up in Baton Rouge, worked as a page in the Louisiana Senate, studied music before shifting to political science, interned for Democrat Don Cazayoux’s congressional campaigns and worked behind the scenes for Vice President Joe Biden.
The Edwin Edwards campaign team has been a family affair. His wife, Trina, juggles the phone lines while their son Eli scoots around in a snazzy blue-and-green walker and squirms in delight at the prospect of a spoonful of cooled coffee. One of Trina Edwards’ best friends is the campaign treasurer.
Now Krupkin is on the job, partly because Trina Edwards was spreading herself too thin as the mother of a young, active baby and two teenage sons. Krupkin also is tasked with raising money in a crowded race.
The 6th District seat opened up when U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Cassidy is trying to oust U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Based in south Baton Rouge, the 6th District includes all or part of East Feliciana, Iberville, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, Lafourche, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. John the Baptist, Terrebonne and West Baton Rouge parishes. The district, with 358,555 registered voters, is 74 percent white, 33 percent Republican and voted for GOP presidential candidates by wide majorities in 2008 and 2012.
The field of candidates also includes Republicans Garret Graves, Craig McCulloch, educator Charles “Trey” Thomas, tax lawyer Cassie Felder, state Sen. Dan Claitor, business owner Paul Dietzel II, state Rep. Lenar Whitney and Robert Bell, a retired U.S. Navy Reserve officer and Tea Party of Louisiana columnist who calls himself Captain Bob. Libertarian Rufus Craig also is seeking the seat. A runoff, if needed, will be Dec. 6.
April quarterly reports filed with the Federal Election Commission detail the contents of the candidates’ campaign bank accounts. Not everyone filed a report.
The reports, which cover money raised and spent between Jan. 1 and March 31, show Graves had the most money on hand with $312,681.04. Claitor and McCulloch were second and third with roughly $100,000 each. Edwards was near the bottom of the barrel with $27,381.63.
“I’m satisfied with fundraising. Ari’s not,” Edwards said.
Edwards is keeping a busy fundraising schedule. He recently raised money at a doctor’s house in Thibodaux, marveling a day later at the hotel-like size of the heavily marbled mansion. Other times, it’s just a small meet-and-greet where Edwards shakes hands and collects campaign contributions.
“He walks into places, and it’s like coming in with a rock star,” Krupkin said.
Edwards thinks he’ll raise between $1 million and $1.5 million. By Krupkin’s estimate, they have $150,000 in the bank.
Krupkin came to the campaign via a conversation over drinks with Edwards’ biographer, Leo Honeycutt. Krupkin mentioned he’d love to talk to Edwards if he decided to launch an election bid. Not long after, Krupkin was running along the waterfront in Washington, D.C., when his phone rang. It was Edwards, asking to meet with Krupkin.
“I expect this to be the experience of a lifetime,” Krupkin said.
Edwards has an idea of what he’d like to do in Washington. For one thing, he wants to serve on the Agriculture Committee. His thoughts on issues confronting Louisiana:
- Expanding Medicaid coverage to more people in Louisiana — something Gov. Bobby Jindal has rejected as too expensive — would create 17,000 jobs in the medical field. Rejecting Medicaid expansion just means costs and hospital waiting times will rise for those with insurance because the uninsured will go to emergency rooms for basic care.
- The national debt ceiling is far too high, but much of the debt occurred during undeclared wars under a Republican president. The U.S. has spent too much time and money in Afghanistan with little success. It’s time to come home and spend those dollars building up the country.
- An influx of Mexican-based sugar products is flooding the U.S. without much regulation, hurting the country’s sugar cane producers.
- The federal government should be prevented from unrealistically regulating the petrochemical industry.
Edwards knows he’s running with two strikes against him. He’s 86 and a convicted felon.
“I have to address the age problem. I also have the problem of the prison sentence. Many people think I was convicted of political corruption. I was never charged or convicted of bribery or selling riverboat licenses or misusing public funds. ... It’s an important distinction for me. Whether the trial was fair, and I don’t think it was, it was not a political corruption trial,” he said.
It’s a distinction the former governor has amplified since he walked out of federal custody in 2011. He was convicted in 2002 for a bribery and extortion scheme involving riverboat casino licenses. A jury convicted Edwards, his son Stephen, Baton Rouge businessman Bobby Johnson, former aide Andrew Martin and Eunice cattleman Cecil Brown of shaking down riverboat casino license applicants. Some would argue that part of the alleged criminal activities took place during Edwards’ final term as governor. Edwards insists they did not.
Edwards dismisses any suggestion that the congressional race is his chance at redemption.
“I view redemption as an element of atoning for something you did,” he said. “Unlike people who got caught on camera or confessed wrongdoing, that is not my situation. They can seek redemption, not I.”