Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards promised that he won’t be a “business-as-usual” leader as he was sworn into office Monday afternoon, and he pledged to work to solve the state’s fiscal problems.
“Louisiana is an example to the rest of the country that diversity is a source of strength — not division,” Edwards, Louisiana’s only Democratic statewide elected official, said in his inaugural speech. “That is why I am confident that regardless of party, we can band together to rebuild Louisiana.”
Hundreds of people came out to watch Edwards, 49, take the oath of office on the State Capitol steps Monday and become Louisiana’s 56th governor, including former Govs. Bobby Jindal, Kathleen Blanco, Edwin Edwards and Buddy Roemer. U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and Congressmen Garret Graves, of Baton Rouge, and Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, also attended the event at which other newly elected statewide leaders, including Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and Attorney General Jeff Landry also were sworn in.
But Edwards was the star of the show, giving what at times felt like a stump speech mixed with a State of the State update.
“You can expect the unvarnished truth from this administration regarding the challenges we face, the solutions we propose and the opportunities we seek,” Edwards said.
Personal touches incorporated into the event included an introduction from Edwards’ former roommate at the West Point military academy, Edwards’ brother standing in for their father who passed away during the gubernatorial campaign and performances from the West Point Glee Club.
“He is a man of integrity with strong beliefs and an unshakable foundation,” said retired Lt. Col. Murray Starkel, Edwards’ West Point classmate.
F-15 jets performed a flyover of the Capitol and Edwards, who served as an Army Ranger in the 82nd 82nd Airborne Division, was treated to a 19-cannon salute.
The crowd, gathered under a sunny blue sky with a crisp breeze in the air, frequently broke out in applause — particularly as Edwards touched on the policies and themes that have become central to his agenda.
Edwards defeated Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the Nov. 21 runoff, becoming the only Democratic governor in the Deep South.
“I know he’ll continue to lead as he serves the people of Louisiana. We are proud to welcome him to the ranks of America’s Democratic governors,” Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Elizabeth Pearson said in a statement.
Over the course of what was initially viewed by many as a long-shot campaign in a conservative state, Edwards attempted to position himself as a moderate Democrat. An Amite native, he previously spent nearly eight years in the state House, leading the chamber’s Democratic caucus.
On Monday night, Edwards, wife Donna and their children — Samantha, Sarah Ellen and John Miller — arrived at the inaugural ball to thundering applause. While acknowledging that a lot of hard work begins Tuesday, Edwards told the crowd of several thousand “tonight we party.”
He then took his wife in his arms and danced to “Could I Have this Dance.”
Edwards will hold his first official news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday to jump-start efforts to expand the state’s Medicaid health insurance program through the federal Affordable Care Act. Edwards had made expansion of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law into Louisiana one of his top campaign priorities. Edwards has said that expansion could be in place by July, opening access to thousands of low-income Louisiana residents who don’t currently qualify.
“Your tax dollars should not be going to one of the 30 other states that have expanded Medicaid when we are one of the states that expansion will help the most,” he told the crowd during his inaugural address, drawing loud cheers.
Later this week, Edwards is expected to meet with Obama when he makes his first presidential visit to Baton Rouge.
Edwards repeatedly touched on themes of unity in his inaugural address.
Just an hour earlier, Republicans rejected Edwards’ Democratic pick to lead the state House in favor of a Republican. Edwards had backed New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger in the House speaker’s race, but the Republican-controlled chamber instead elected New Iberia Rep. Taylor Barras. Leger was re-elected to serve as House Speaker Pro Tempore, the No. 2 job in the House — a position he’s held for the past four years.
Edwards called on the state’s leaders to come together to address issues related to poverty and to end the repeated fiscal troubles that have plagued the state in recent years.
Louisiana is facing a nearly $1.9 billion budget shortfall.
“I can tell you I’d rather be here today inheriting a billion-dollar surplus than a $1.9 billion shortfall, but there isn’t a challenge we won’t meet,” Edwards said. “We must be grounded in reality and see the facts as they are, not as we want them to be.”
Edwards is expected to call a special session in mid-February for the Louisiana Legislature to address what he has deemed as “structural” problems in the state budget.
“We can no longer afford to lurch from year to year, cobbling together temporary fixes and expecting to realize permanent sustainability,” Edwards said. “If we don’t fix the structural budget deficit, we can’t fix any of our other problems.”
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog. Advocate staff writer Pam Bordelon contributed to this report.