It was the hottest Superdome ticket in 10 years: Saints vs. Rams, with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl.
Every Saints fan wanted to be at the Jan. 20 playoff game.
And a select group of elected officials and political insiders got their wishes realized, for free, in the governor’s state-provided suite.
Those who watched the game at the invitation of Gov. John Bel Edwards included former Gov. Edwin Edwards, New Orleans City Council member Helena Moreno, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, state Rep. Royce Duplessis, Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart, Baton Rouge-based developer Mike Wampold, and Fred Heebe, a lawyer and owner of the River Birch landfill in Jefferson Parish.
Also present were lobbyists, friends from Amite including John Bel Edwards’ priest, Mark Beard, and various family members and staffers in the governor’s office. So how did they get the lucky ducats?
“It’s mostly people who ask,” Edwards said in an interview. “There is no shortage of people who ask, especially for an NFC playoff game. I have friends and campaign donors. I have priests. I have family. You’ll find a wide range of folks up there.”
An outside interest group often pays for the food and drinks. For the Rams game, it was the Louisiana Video Gaming Association, headed by Alton Ashy, a veteran lobbyist in Baton Rouge.
Ashy was a strong and early supporter for Edwards when he was a long-shot candidate for governor in 2015, and estimates he has raised $750,000 to $1 million for the governor’s re-election campaign this year.
Edwards does not use the suite for fundraisers, said Richard Carbo, his campaign manager.
Ashy said sponsoring the suite's food — which covers basic stadium food, beer, liquor and soft drinks, and a suite attendant — costs about $2,000.
“That place is like Grand Central,” he said. “Everyone wants to come in and say hello to the governor. Inevitably, everyone gets a cocktail or a beer.”
Ashy received six tickets to the suite for the Rams game. He gave two tickets apiece to Burton LeBlanc, a Baton Rouge trial attorney who first knew Edwards when he, too, was a trial attorney, and to Chris Coulon, a lobbyist who works for Adams & Reese in New Orleans.
Ashy missed the game because of outpatient surgery, so he gave the other two tickets to LeBlanc, who in turn invited his daughter Maggie and her husband Charles Gladney III.
The Advocate obtained the list of attendees through a public records request.
'Like hosting a party'
The governor gets the free use of two suites for all events at the state-owned Mercedes-Benz Superdome under a longtime practice well-known to the politically connected.
For the Rams game, Edwards sat in the larger of the two suites, which has 39 seats, along with his preferred guests. The suite is above the 35-yard line on the Saints’ side of the field.
The second suite, with 22 seats, included mostly family and staffers. It is above a corner of the Poydras Street end zone.
In all, the Superdome has 153 suites.
People close to past governors said they, too, rewarded political supporters with invitations, and also invited company executives whom they were wooing to invest in Louisiana.
“It’s a special invitation,” said Andy Kopplin, who served as chief of staff to two governors, Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco. “For the governor, it’s like hosting a party. It’s work.”
Edwin Edwards, who served four terms as governor, said he is glad to be able to concentrate on the game now instead of having to tend to his guests.
“It’s a good way to watch the game,” he said. “It’s more comfortable in the suites. You have food, drinks and televisions.”
Buddy Roemer, an avid reader who was governor from 1988 to 1992, was known to bring a book to Saints games. The practice was part of a pattern of perceived slights to political insiders that contributed to Roemer’s defeat when he ran for a second term.
Bobby Jindal, who was governor from 2008 to 2016, was known for reserving seats in the suite for potential out-of-state investors. A teetotaler, Jindal did not serve alcohol.
John Bel Edwards, a starting quarterback at Amite High School during the early 1980s and still an aficionado of the game, said guests know not to bother him during the action.
“If I’m sitting in my seat, they leave me alone,” he said. “I get up during timeouts and halftime and visit.”
Edwards said he always sits next to Donna, his wife.
'A good mix of people'
Sitting next to Donna Edwards at the Rams game was Marty Chabert, a former state senator from the Houma area who now serves as chairman of the state Board of Regents, which sets policy for the state’s universities. Chabert, whose brother Norby is a Republican state senator, also serves as the governor’s oil spill coordinator.
“If the governor calls to invite you to the game, you want to go,” Chabert said. “He’s my friend, my boss. He’s a good man.”
Heebe, a well-known Republican donor whose prodigious political fundraising was one focus of a fizzled federal probe a few years ago, said he is an avid supporter of the governor. Heebe, who assumed a lower profile in politics during that investigation, hosted a fundraiser for Edwards at his New Orleans home on Oct. 9, along with his wife, Jennifer Sneed Heebe, a former Republican state representative and Jefferson Parish Council member.
“My wife let it be known that we’d like to go (to the Rams game),” Heebe said. “The governor heard we were interested, and he texted me.”
Edwin Edwards also raised his hand.
The ex-governor, now 91, said he had a nice time, sitting next to his wife Trina and Daniel Edwards, John Bel Edwards’ younger brother and the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish.
“It was a good mix of people,” Daniel Edwards said.
Moreno, the New Orleans councilwoman, said she was excited to get the invitation, noting that she served in the state House with the governor.
Duplessis, D-New Orleans, noted that the Superdome is in his legislative district.
Stewart, the Caddo Parish district attorney, is a political ally of Edwards in a parish where the governor is counting on a truckload of votes this fall. “I consider the governor a friend,” Stewart said.
Wampold, whose company develops, owns and manages multi-family and commercial property throughout the state, also described himself as a friend of the governor’s — though not necessarily a political supporter.
“I’ve helped him on a couple of items and issues,” Wampold said. “He’s helped me on a couple of items and issues.”
Wampold added that he is a Republican and hasn’t decided whether to support Edwards’ re-election bid. But he added, “The governor has done a very good job.”
'A political perk'
Randy Morris, another guest, is chairman of the Rural Hospital Coalition — which consists of 49 rural hospitals throughout the state — and owns West Carroll Health Systems in Oak Grove, a 35-bed acute care hospital, 80-bed nursing home and full- service primary medical care facility in northeast Louisiana.
“The governor has always been supportive of rural hospitals, especially with the Medicaid expansion,” Morris said. Unlike in other states, he said, no rural hospitals in Louisiana have closed in recent years, thanks to Edwards’ decision to extend the Medicaid program to the working poor.
Morris expects Edwards’ re-election campaign to spread the word about the Medicaid expansion among the rural hospitals’ clients, and he said the hospital owners can assist with that effort.
Dan Robin Sr., a lobbyist who organizes a major fundraiser for Edwards each year in New Orleans, said the governor invited him after learning that Robin hadn’t attended a Saints game since Billy Kilmer quarterbacked the team during the franchise’s early years.
Peterson is a state senator whose district includes the Superdome; she also chairs the state Democratic Party.
In 2015, Peterson told Edwards in a private meeting that he ought to get out of the governor’s race because he couldn’t win, an episode that Edwards later said was the lowest moment of his campaign.
The two appear to have made up. She is an important political ally of the governor, both in the Senate and within the state party, especially in an election year.
Peterson did not return a phone call.
Gladney and Beard did not return multiple calls to discuss how they ended up at the game. Coulon did not return phone calls but answered questions by text.
Edwards has used his invitation list to give perks to public servants at times, inviting military veterans to the Nov. 18 Saints game and first responders to some other games, Carbo said.
Rolfe McCollister, the publisher and chairman of Baton Rouge Business Report, sat in the governor’s suite from time to time while Roemer and Jindal were in office.
“Like any suite, there’s a lot of conversation and potential business going on,” McCollister said. “That’s the difference between the suite and the stands. The governor can use it to the state’s benefit or his own. It’s a political perk for any governor.”
Heebe echoed the view of others when asked about the game itself.
"Unfortunately, they had that no-call,” he said, referring to the referees missing the pass interference that paved the way for the Saints' defeat in overtime. “Other than that, it was thrilling.”