In 1979, the eight-year reign of Gov. Edwin Edwards, the Cajun prince, was coming to an end. Six men vied to replace him.
It would prove to be a pivotal election for the state — and for each of the six men who will be inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame Saturday night in Lafayette.
One inductee, then-Secretary of State Paul Hardy from St. Martin Parish, finished fourth in the governor’s race that year. The strong showing set up the achievement he is best known for: his election in 1987 as the first Republican lieutenant governor since Reconstruction.
Another inductee, Raymond Blanco from Lafayette, was the chief strategist for another 1979 gubernatorial candidate, then-state Sen. Edgar “Sonny” Mouton. Blanco applied the lessons he learned from Mouton’s defeat when his wife, Kathleen, was elected four years later to the state House — and, two decades after that, to the Governor’s Mansion.
Richard Zuschlag, a third inductee, first assisted a political candidate in a major way in 1979 at a time when his Lafayette-based company, Acadian Ambulance, was growing by leaps and bounds.
Ron Gomez, a fourth inductee, was a well-known radio announcer in Lafayette when he was first elected to the state House in 1979.
Edwin Lombard, a fifth inductee, was partway through his second term as clerk of Criminal Court in New Orleans when that closely fought 1979 primary was held, and two candidates claimed the second spot in the runoff. Lombard was sent late that night to a Baton Rouge courthouse to certify the unofficial election results in Orleans Parish.
Marion Edwards, the final inductee, played no overt role in the 1979 election. But the surprise outcome that year — the election of the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, David Treen — set up his brother’s return to the Governor’s Mansion in 1983, when Marion did play a pivotal role.
With the six new members, the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame now numbers 181 inductees, said Carolyn Phillips, the executive director. The latest group was chosen by a panel headed by lobbyist Ted Jones that includes John Georges, owner of The Advocate.
The Political Hall of Fame has been in existence since 1993 in Winnfield, which was the birthplace of three governors: Huey P. Long, Earl K. Long and Oscar K. Allen. The inductees mostly consist of top elected officials but also include political consultants, lobbyists and journalists.
The latest crop come from a variety of backgrounds.
Growing up in Cecilia, Hardy had two assets that would assist him later: he spoke French at home, and his family was steeped in politics. His maternal uncle Bob Angelle served in the state House for 30 years, including a stint as speaker from 1957-60 during Earl K. Long’s final term as governor.
“Momma taught us religion and English,” Hardy, 76, said in a recent interview. “Daddy taught us how to make friends.”
Speaking French to farmers and working-class families in Acadiana and employing his Cajun charm with everyone else, Hardy won election to the state Senate as a Democrat in 1972 and then was elected secretary of state in 1975.
During his 1979 run for governor, his “Hardy Parties” drew crowds throughout the state with free-flowing booze and foot-stomping music. For a time, polls showed Hardy making the runoff, and a Hardy Party at Evangeline Downs drew an astounding 16,000 people.
These developments prompted Mouton to consider getting out of the race. But Gov. Edwin Edwards, a political ally, encouraged him to stick it out.
Providing strategy to Mouton was Raymond Blanco, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and moved to Lafayette to become a football coach, first at Catholic High School in New Iberia and then at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Raymond loved food, politics, football and his family, and he was never shy about showing any of it.
In 1979, he was the dean of students at the university while Kathleen was a housewife with six children who assisted her husband’s volunteer political activities.
“We all knew Paul,” Kathleen Blanco recently recalled. “He was a handsome, articulate, bilingual, fun-loving person. It became very problematic to have two people from Acadiana running for governor, however. It split the base. People from St. Martin Parish loved Paul. People from Lafayette loved Edgar. Friends got upset with each other for being with the opposite person.”
Hardy finished fourth with 16 percent, while Mouton placed sixth with 9 percent, or a total of 25 percent for the two candidates from Acadiana.
“Many people felt if Mouton hadn’t been in the race, I would have made the cut” for the runoff, Hardy said. “And if I had made the cut, I would have had a good chance of being elected governor” against Treen, the only Republican in the race.
Hardy missed the runoff only by 4 percentage points but was well-positioned to run again statewide. After serving as secretary of transportation under Treen and then switching to the Republican Party, he defeated Bobby Freeman, the Democratic incumbent, in the 1987 lieutenant governor’s race. Hardy lost his re-election bid four years later when Democrats turned out in massive numbers to defeat then-state Rep. David Duke, R-Metairie, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who was trying to deny Edwards a fourth term.
Raymond Blanco learned an important principle in 1979 from Mouton’s pollster, David Garth, who was based in New York.
“Do not waste your money on frivolities — signs, billboards or campaign paraphernalia,” Kathleen Blanco said. “TV, TV, TV became our mantra.”
Raymond made sure to adhere to that mantra when his wife ran for the state House four years later.
“Coming into 1983, we had a whole box of learning tools,” Raymond, who is 83, said recently.
He remained Kathleen Blanco’s chief political strategist as she climbed the political ladder, and eventually became the state’s first First Gentleman after her election as governor in 2003.
This is how Kathleen Blanco described his role.
“Raymond loves the campaign,” she said. “He doesn’t like governance. During a campaign, he could always see something coming at us before it arrived. So he already had a strategy to block it or take advantage of it. It was that football mind of his.”
Elizabeth Mullener, in a 2004 Times-Picayune profile, put it this way.
“He understands the role of Catholicism, the world view of the Cajuns, the voting patterns of ordinary people from one precinct to the next,” Mullener wrote. “He understands that elections here are not determined by ideology or issues but rather by personality and demographic factors.”
Zuschlag agreed to help Mouton in 1979 after Raymond Blanco called to ask if Zuschlag would allow the candidate to film a campaign commercial in his office at Acadian Ambulance.
“They were looking for a place with a good backdrop,” Zuschlag remembered with a laugh recently, adding that he made what at the time was a sizeable campaign contribution for him, perhaps $500 or $1,000.
Zuschlag had gotten to know Mouton when the senator sponsored a bill approved by the state Legislature that raised the price that ambulance companies could charge Medicaid patients. It went from $40 to $60 per ride, still below the standard $95 rate for others.
Zuschlag also had to play politics to win approval parish by parish to be allowed to operate there. The company now operates ambulances in 38 parishes and three other states besides Louisiana: Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi. It has 4,700 employees.
In 2018, Acadian Ambulance’s political action committee contributed a total of $156,000 to federal, state and local candidates, said Zuschlag, 70.
“This company is dependent on Medicaid and Medicare money for more than 50 percent of our revenue,” Zuschlag said. “It’s necessary for me to get along with whoever is in power. That’s one of the things I’ve learned to do well. I consider myself to be a moderate. The problem is that there aren’t many left in the middle. They’ve jumped to the left and right. It’s harder to build consensus now.”
Gomez also had a tie to Mouton’s 1979 campaign, albeit indirectly. Mouton’s decision to give up his Senate seat caused then-state Rep. Allen Bares to run to replace him. Gomez, meanwhile, ran for Bares’ House seat and won.
Gomez had become well-known in Lafayette by serving as the play-by-play announcer at football and basketball games for the University of Southwestern Louisiana since 1960. By 1979, he also owned three local radio stations.
Gomez won re-election in 1983 and again in 1987. He then chaired the powerful Ways and Means Committee until then-Gov. Buddy Roemer named him as secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, whose responsibilities include overseeing oil and gas drilling permits.
Gomez lost the 1992 race for mayor of Lafayette to Kenny Bowen by 166 votes out of 29,100 that were cast. In 2000, he published his autobiography with a memorable title, My Name Is Ron And I Am a Recovering Legislator. He is 84 today.
Lombard was a civil-rights activist and young lawyer who caught the attention of Moon Landrieu, who was elected mayor of New Orleans in 1970 and became the city’s first chief executive to welcome blacks into management roles.
In 1974, Lombard won election as clerk of Criminal District Court, a position that handles the court’s evidence and daily docket. The clerk also oversees the city’s election system.
In the 1979 gubernatorial election, Treen ran first with 21 percent in the primary while Jimmy Fitzmorris and Louis Lambert both claimed second place. A lawsuit compelled state troopers to hustle Lombard and other clerks of court to a Baton Rouge courtroom to certify the results.
After each clerk testified before the judge, he was told the government would provide him a room that night at the Baton Rouge Hilton.
When Lombard arrived, however, the desk clerk at the Hilton told him they were out of rooms.
“Maybe he had never seen a black clerk of court,” Lombard recalled recently, noting that he was the only black clerk in the state at the time. “I said I would call the judge. All of a sudden a room opened up. I got the presidential suite.”
Lombard served as clerk for 29 years, resigning after his election in 2002 to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. He won re-election in 2012. Now 72, he plans to serve out his 10-year term and then retire.
As they grew up together in Marksville, Marion Edwards and his older brother were close. So it was only natural that when Edwin moved to Crowley after getting his law degree from LSU, Marion went there, too, and went into real estate and insurance.
John Maginnis profiled Marion Edwards in a chapter called “His Brother’s Keeper,” in his book on the 1983 governor’s race, “The Last Hayride.”
“Through the 13 straight elections (Edwin) had won, from city councilman to governor, there was one indispensable constant: his brother, his alter ego,” Maginnis wrote. “Edwin had the gift for politics, but Marion developed a gift as rare — a talent for raising money. With each more expensive step up the political ladder, Marion’s fund-raising acumen grew too.”
In 1983, with Marion serving as his chief fund-raiser, the Edwards campaign raised an astounding $16 million — or $10 million more than raised by Treen, the incumbent. Edwin Edwards thumped Treen, 63-37 percent.
Afterward, Marion organized a never-before-seen post-election trip to Paris, with 618 travelers filling two 747s, paying anywhere from $2,100 to $10,000 a head for the privilege of visiting France with the governor-elect.
“He knew how to talk to people,” Edwin Edwards said of his brother in a recent interview. “He took charge of things.”
Marion Edwards died in 2013 at his home in Broussard. He was 84.