Jim Brown was an aspiring politician in 1968 when a friend suggested he meet Edwin Edwards, then a congressman from Crowley.
Their careers intertwined significantly. Brown was a state senator, secretary of state and insurance commissioner who ran unsuccessfully in 1987 against Edwards, who was governor for four terms.
“I’m probably the closest to Edwards as far as a political connection of anybody still living today,” Brown said Tuesday. “I wasn’t a personal friend or buddy. I didn’t go to Las Vegas with him with all of his friends, that kind of thing. … I considered him close when it came to the politics.”
After Edwards died Monday morning, Brown posted memories of their personal encounters on his website. Here are some of those stories.
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Many of Brown’s memories of Edwards involve airplanes. Edwards, a World War II Navy pilot, often piloted the state airplane when he traveled around the state as governor.
“I have flown on private planes hundreds of times in my life,” Brown wrote. “The most harrowing experiences I ever had were with Edwin Edwards at the wheel of the plane.”
When he was a state senator, Brown joined Edwards, U.S. Rep. Otto Passman and Passman’s assistant, Jack Hill, on a flight to Newellton to dedicate a new public hospital. On the return flight, with Edwards at the controls, the airplane door flew open, hanging on by one hinge. Hill, who hadn’t fastened his seat belt, nearly fell out.
They managed to get the door upright, and Brown held a supporting chain until Edwards could land the plane. A crop duster offered to fly everyone to Baton Rouge, but Passman insisted that he take him and Hill to Monroe.
“I watched the Governor ease over to the pilot, and they talked in private for a few moments,” Brown wrote. “Our new pilot then came over to where we had gathered and informed us that we must take off immediately because he did not fly after dark. It was 6 in the evening, and we probably had 20 or 30 more minutes of daylight. Upon hearing the pilot’s statement that he didn’t fly at night (which certainly wasn’t true), Passman stalked off towards the hanger with Jack Hill, and hired a local farmer with a truck to drive them back to Monroe. It would be an understatement to say that the rest of us laughed most of the way back to Baton Rouge.”
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There was no laughter when, in the mid-1980s, then-Secretary of State Brown flew from Ferriday to Baton Rouge with Edwards again in the pilot’s seat.
“There were rain clouds in the area when we took off, but the governor indicated that we could comfortably fly around them,” Brown wrote. “Halfway to Baton Rouge, the plane started pitching violently, and the sky was bright with lightening. A 30-minute flight from Ferriday ended up taking us 2½ hours.
“When the plane set down, I quickly lost my supper as I got out, but the governor showed little concern, and acted as if nothing had happened. The other pilot of the plane told me some weeks later that he had never been more scared in his life.”
Most flights were not like that, of course. In 1987, Brown ran to unseat Edwards, who was seeking re-election as governor. One Saturday, Brown had chartered a single-engine plane from New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport to attend the Peach Festival in Ruston, but the pilot said the weather wasn’t good enough for him to fly.
“I had given up on the thought of going to the Peach Festival when Edwards walked in the door,” Brown wrote. “He, too, was going to Ruston and had a twin-engine plane at his disposal with fully equipped radar. He graciously invited me to come along on his plane. I appreciated his offer, particularly considering that I was campaigning against him.”
A few weeks before the gubernatorial primary, Brown needed to return from Shreveport to Baton Rouge but his airplane had mechanical problems. Hoping a state plane might be returning to the capital from North Louisiana, Brown had a staff member call state police and learned that a plane in Ruston would be returning, and the pilot was willing to divert to Shreveport to pick up Brown.
“I assumed that some state agency head had been dropped off in Ruston, and the plane was flying back empty,” Brown wrote. “When the plane taxied up the Shreveport runway, I jumped on board happy to be able to get back to Baton Rouge without the all-night drive. There sat the governor.
“The state police had informed him that I was stranded in Shreveport, and even though I was running against him, he still diverted his plane to pick me up.”
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Political campaigns created even more unexpected encounters with rivals. When Edwards was in the gubernatorial runoff with former Klansman David Duke in 1991, Brown was running for insurance commissioner. A week before the election, Brown and his wife drove to a restaurant in Breaux Bridge. Although some other diners recognized him, they left him alone.
“Just as our platters of crawfish arrived, Edwin Edwards walked in the door,” Brown wrote. “He made a beeline for our table, took a seat, ordered a tray for himself, and, in typical Edwards fashion, began entertaining our group as well as surrounding tables with his Cajun humor.
“Not 10 minutes later, in walked David Duke. Spotting our group, he ,too, joined us as the whole restaurant focused on our table. The banter and joking went on for a good while between the two candidates. Then they each went to their own separate tables. In the next hour, patrons of the restaurant lined up at the table of their chosen candidate, either Edwards or Duke, often leaving a cash donation.
“Just another night on the campaign trail.”