Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of columns on the 2015 gubernatorial contenders. Next up: Jay Dardenne.
When state Rep. John Bel Edwards says he told us so, he doesn’t mean it as a taunt.
He sees it as more of a credential.
As the only major Democrat in a gubernatorial race that’s singularly focused on dissatisfaction with the outgoing Republican incumbent, Edwards wants voters to know that he was criticizing Gov. Bobby Jindal before it was cool.
His Republican rivals, he insists, where “enablers” who didn’t fight policies that contributed to the current $1.6 billion budget shortfall “when it would have made a difference.” He even has nicknames for Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and U.S. Sen. David Vitter: “Jindal Lite,” “Jindal Incarnate” and “Jindal on Steroids.”
“I ask them, ‘Where were you seven or eight years ago when we started down this disastrous path, when he was popular and at his apex of his strength in Louisiana?’ ” Edwards said in a recent interview. “They didn’t say a word but he was every bit as wrong.”
If there’s a pretty broad consensus that the next governor should change course and seek out revenue to fund basic needs — even if that means dialing back lucrative business tax exemptions — there’s nothing close to an accord on whether that means the Governor’s Mansion needs to switch parties for that to happen. Or that it even can.
Indeed, the question of whether a Democrat, any Democrat, can win a statewide race these days hangs over his campaign. Louisiana used to routinely elect economic populists like Edwards, with conservative views on guns and abortion rights, and his West Point education is the sort of thing that enhances his crossover appeal. But voters haven’t gone for a Democrat since they sent Mary Landrieu back to the Senate in 2008, only to turn around and boot her out six years later.
Edwards has endorsements from traditional Democratic groups such as the AFL-CIO and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, but some major players — including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who would arguably be running himself if he thought a Democrat could win — are holding back. And in a column last week on nola.com, Bob Mann, an LSU journalism professor who spent years on staff for an earlier generation of Louisiana Democrats, argued that a primary vote for Edwards amounted to a vote for an Edwards-Vitter runoff, which Vitter most certainly would win. Better for Democrats to choose a more moderate Republican who can beat Vitter in a runoff, Mann argued.
The column clearly touched a nerve.
“You’re wrong,” Edwards told Mann in a news release. “A vote for John Bel Edwards is a vote for the only candidate who will save Louisiana from another four years of Bobby Jindal’s calamitous policies. … I firmly believe that the people of Louisiana see more than just a letter behind the candidate’s name.”
So how does a Democrat overcome the odds?
“By being the best candidate in the field and having the best ideas,” he said in the interview.
Still, that D behind his name describes not just Edwards’ party identification. It also fits his philosophy, he said, noting that “I believe government has a role to play in improving people’s lives.” And it’s a big part of his political profile.
Edwards chairs the House’s Democratic caucus, and as such, is particularly vocal on party priorities such as accepting the federal Medicaid money, raising the minimum wage and assuring pay equity for women. He serves on the Education Committee and has pushed measures, often unsuccessfully, to constrain the spread of school choice. This year he authored a bill to limit private school vouchers to incoming kindergartners who would otherwise attend public schools ranked D or F, and another to prevent the state education board from authorizing new charters in local systems that have earned A or B rankings. Neither made it out of committee. Last year, Edwards broke with his fellow Democrats from the Black Caucus and joined with conservative colleagues to oppose the Common Core standards. That too failed.
Asked to name a notable success, Edwards pointed to a 2013 increase he helped secure in the MFP state funding for public schools, the first bump since 2008.
Although he frequently finds himself on the losing end of polarizing votes, Edwards insists that there’s still value in fighting the good fight.
“It takes several tries to pass a good bill, but the bad ones pass,” he said. “You’ve just got to keep having the conversation.”
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.