An agreement for Tom Benson to buy the Saints and keep the football team in New Orleans was suddenly in doubt.
It was May 1985, and the Louisiana House of Representatives had just refused to accept the state tax subsidies that Benson had negotiated with then-Gov. Edwin Edwards as part of the purchase agreement.
“The deal is dead,” Benson said as he stormed out of the House chamber.
Minutes later, Edwards was given the rare privilege of addressing the full House. “We are going to kill the deal if we tamper with the terms,” he told lawmakers. “You’re all going to lose if the team moves out.”
Edwards exited the chamber, and then the House, in an extraordinary reversal, approved the agreement. Benson completed the sale two weeks later. In time, the Saints became a winning team, and today they are revered throughout New Orleans and indeed much of Louisiana.
No governor has ever done more for New Orleans than Edwards, who died on Monday at 93.
During his record four terms as governor of Louisiana, Edwards played a key role in constructing the Louisiana Superdome, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the Smoothie King basketball and concert arena and the Harrah’s New Orleans casino. He also provided an infusion of money that allowed the 1984 world's fair to get underway.
“He was the best governor we had for New Orleans,” said Ben Bagert, who served in the House and Senate under Edwards.
One reason he did so much was simple longevity – 16 years in office.
But Edwards also displayed a special affinity for New Orleans, even though he, like nearly all his predecessors, came from elsewhere. Edwards grew up in Marksville, near Alexandria, and got his political start in Crowley, west of Lafayette.
Edwards kept a suite at the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter during his third term as governor, from 1984-88, and had an apartment at 1750 St. Charles Avenue during his fourth term, from 1992-96.
He loved to eat seafood at Antoine’s Restaurant or the Chicken Bonne Femme at Tujague’s in the French Quarter, followed by beignets and café au lait at Café du Monde.
But with a highly attuned understanding of politics, Edwards had a practical reason for supporting New Orleans projects.
“He got a lot of political support from New Orleans,” said William Jefferson, a state senator from New Orleans during the 1980s and later a congressman. “It was his style and charisma and capacity to listen. He had great empathy.”
Edwards wanted and needed to reciprocate for voters, with an eye to his next election.
“One of the basic rules in politics is that you stay with the person who brought you to the dance,” Jefferson said.
But Edwards also believed that helping New Orleans was good for the state overall.
“Edwin really liked New Orleans and saw New Orleans as the driver of the economics of the state of Louisiana. He never hesitated in supporting projects for New Orleans,” said Sidney Barthelemy, who served in the state Senate when Edwards was governor and went on to win election as a New Orleans City Councilman at large and two terms as the city’s mayor.
To be sure, critics note that Edwards’ efforts left New Orleans’ fortunes dependent on tourism, an industry that relies on low-paying jobs. Meanwhile, 25 years after he left office, New Orleans remains one of the poorest cities in the country, with too many failing schools and too many unhealthy residents.
Edwards had been governor for less than two years, in 1973, when he faced his first big decision on whether to assist a major state project.
The Superdome needed another $8 million to build the elevators, 64 private suites and the dressing rooms. The Legislature had capped bond financing at $129.5 million.
The Superdome was not Edwards’ project. He inherited it from his predecessor, John McKeithen, who along with other state and city officials had promised to build the Superdome as part of the 1966 agreement with the National Football League to bring the Saints to New Orleans.
But Edwards knew that completing the Superdome would help revitalize New Orleans’ Central Business District and boost the city’s tourism industry.
He worked with a state board to come up with the money. He also insisted, over the objections of some White business leaders, that Black-owned firms get some of the contracts to operate the giant facility.
Superdome Services Inc., owned by two Black up-and-comers, Sherman Copelin and Don Hubbard, received the contract to provide janitorial and security services.
Before, said Copelin, who went on to serve 14 years in the state House, “Black folks would be left out or you’d get the leftovers. With Edwin, you were in the room.”
The convention center was first authorized in 1978 during Edwards’ second term as governor. His successor, David Treen, advanced the project during his four-year term.
State and local officials decided that the convention center initially would house the Great Hall for the world's fair, which was scheduled to open in May 1984.
Then fair officials disclosed that they didn’t have enough money to open. Edwards, who had defeated Treen in 1983 to become governor again, worked with state legislators to authorize a $10 million loan.
A month after opening, with attendance falling far short of projections and the fair unable to meet payroll, Edwards had to step in again and win legislative support for a $17.5 million loan guarantee. He said that shutting down the world's fair would give New Orleans and Louisiana a black eye.
“If it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t have had a world's fair,” said Warren Reuther, president and CEO of Hospitality Enterprises and a convention center and world's fair board member during that time.
The world's fair turned out to be a financial bust, but it paved the way for the development of the Warehouse District. It is now brimming with hotels, restaurants, art galleries, museums and condos in renovated warehouses.
Then in 1985, Edwards saved the Saints with his dramatic appearance before the House.
“He was so capable of convincing people of his position and what was best for the state,” said John Alario, who was the speaker of the House at the time. “Another governor would have had a very difficult time.”
In seeking help for New Orleans, Edwards typically had to overcome resistance from legislators who represented other parts of Louisiana and were scrapping for their share of state money.
“Sixty Rayburn, the chairman of the (Senate) Finance Committee, used to say, ‘New Orleans is like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. You can’t fill it up no matter what you put in it,’” said William Jefferson. Rayburn and others “always felt like New Orleans got everything.”
Edwards would counter that argument by reminding legislators that tax revenue from New Orleans industry and tourism would help fund their projects around the state.
“He’d tell them, next time it’s your turn,” Alario said.
And Edwards developed a reputation for keeping his word with them.
When he took office the last time, in 1992, Edwards’ major ambition was winning approval for a single land casino at the foot of Canal Street. He and Alario won legislative approval for it.
But then after two opposing groups each claimed the right to develop the casino, it seemed the entire project could unravel. Edwards brokered a deal that ended the standoff.
A temporary casino opened in 1995 but went bankrupt after it couldn’t meet revenue projections. The Harrah’s casino that operates now opened in 1999, but it generates far less revenue for the state and far fewer jobs than Edwards promised.
Also during Edwards’ last term, Alario concocted a plan to refinance the expiring bonds that had constructed the Superdome and use the new money to build a multi-purpose arena in Westwego, a headquarters for the Saints on Airline Drive and a baseball stadium nearby for the area’s AAA baseball team.
Barthelemy went to Edwards and said it would only be fair to use a portion of the money to build a basketball arena next to the Superdome.
“We didn’t have a basketball team,” said Lambert Boissiere Jr., a New Orleans City Councilman and ally of Barthelemy. “It was build it, and they’ll come.”
Edwards agreed to include the arena in the package and also added a ballroom for the Pontchartrain Center after then-Kenner Mayor Aaron Broussard noted that hotels near the airport in Kenner generated a lot of sales tax revenue.
The Legislature approved the entire package.
Advocate Librarian Manager Judy Jumonville contributed research for this article.