Hoping to avoid a crowded gubernatorial race that would dilute their strength, leaders of the Louisiana Democratic Party on Saturday endorsed state Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite, as their candidate for governor.

The Democratic State Central Committee opened nominations, accepted Edwards’ bid and then quickly closed nominations to applause.

Edwards, 48, gave a short speech blaming Gov. Bobby Jindal for policies that cut $700 million from higher education and led to the closing of the only emergency room serving Mid City and downtown Baton Rouge.

“Louisiana has lost its way,” said Edwards, adding that state government had stopped making strategic investments in the future.

He said electing any one of his three Republican opponents would be a continuation of the same. The announced GOP candidates in the Oct. 24 election are Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, of Breaux Bridge; Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, of Baton Rouge; and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, of Metairie.

Edwards told the Democrats that he supports a minimum wage, equal pay for women and increased financial support for higher education.

After his short speech, the leaders voted unanimously to back Edwards as the party’s candidate. Edwards walked through a standing ovation shaking hands and hugging delegates, including state Rep. Patricia Smith, the Baton Rouge Democrat whose district includes the State Capitol and who officially nominated him.

The action Saturday by party leaders will help keep other major candidates from jumping into the governor’s race.

Some Democratic elected officials and campaign strategists have voiced concern that more than one Democratic candidate would split funding and staffers, probably ending with neither candidate reaching the runoff. Edwards said the endorsement would allow the party to coalesce behind one candidate, focusing money and effort on a single campaign.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been rumored to be interested in running statewide. “He told me personally, on more than one occasion, that he wasn’t going to run,” Edwards said.

Jumping in now would run the threat of alienating party regulars and leaders. Landrieu’s staff didn’t immediately respond to two emailed requests for comment.

Since the defeat of his sister, Mary Landrieu, in the U.S. Senate campaign last fall, Mayor Landrieu; Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish; and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, whose congressional district stretches up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, are considered the state’s leading Democrats still in office.

Though about a half-million more voters have registered as Democrats than have affiliated with the Republican Party, all the state officials elected statewide, both U.S. senators, five of the six congressmen and the majorities of both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature belong to the GOP.

Democrats failed to field a single prominent candidate for any of the last statewide elected officials races in 2011, leading to an anemic 37 percent voter turnout and an overwhelming victory for Jindal.

The Democratic Party on Saturday also endorsed law professor Chris Tyson in the secretary of state’s race against Republican incumbent Tom Schedler.

Edwards lags behind the Republicans in fundraising, ending 2014 with about $746,000 compared to the $1.4 million Angelle has raised, $1.5 million Dardenne has and $3.5 million in Vitter’s war chest.

The Louisiana AFL-CIO and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers endorsed Edwards earlier this month.

If he wins, an Edwards administration would look hard at the tax credits, deductions and exemptions offered businesses that strip of billions of dollars of revenues from state coffers, he said.

“We have to grow the economy,” Edwards said in an interview after his speech. Louisiana has offered so many incentives that when new jobs are created, the state has effectively given away the new revenues.

“You can’t have so many incentive exemptions to the point you can’t realize net new revenues and you can’t pay your obligations,” Edwards said.

“You don’t outsource your fiscal policy to Grover Norquist,” Edwards said, referring to Jindal passing the various contingencies to raise revenues and fill a $1.6 billion deficit past the prominent anti-tax crusader from Washington, D.C.

Edwards, a lawyer, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1988. He is the son of longtime Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Frank M. Edwards Jr. and brother of the current sheriff, Daniel H. Edwards. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2008 and leads the chamber’s Democratic Party caucus.

“As the only veteran in the race, I appeal to a diverse base of voters in our state because I am authentic,” Edwards said.

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