Editor’s note: This is the third of four profiles on the major candidates running for Louisiana governor. Thursday: David Vitter.
John Bel Edwards is a West Point graduate in the political fight of his life — a Democrat trying to defy the odds and become Louisiana’s next governor.
And one way to do so, friends and backers say, is to present his life story to the public so that his string of successes propels him over his better-financed Republican rivals in an increasingly GOP state.
“I think he has a reputation and a message and a biography that makes him a pretty impressive candidate,” said Brad Stevens, Edwards’ nephew and law partner.
Edwards, 49, grew up in Amite, which is the parish seat of Tangipahoa Parish.
It has about 4,200 residents and is roughly 48 miles northeast of Baton Rouge.
He is one of eight children — seven boys and a girl — who grew up in a sprawling home just a block from the office of his late father, Frank Edwards Jr., who was sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish.
So many generations of Edwardses have held top law enforcement jobs — brother Daniel Edwards is the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish and brother Frank Edwards III is police chief of nearby Independence — that the family was admitted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame last year.
The candidate, who calls himself a country lawyer, comes across as a serious guy in a state known for its backslapping, joke-telling politicians.
“He has been like that since the second grade,” said Vinson Primas, a longtime friend who is a project manager for IBM in Dallas. “He was never a cutup. He was always a serious guy headed toward something.”
Amber Dees, who taught Edwards Louisiana history in the eighth grade, says she is not surprised by his later achievements.
“He was a straight-A student,” Dees said. “John Bel was just the kind of kid you would want to have as your own.”
In 1984, Edwards graduated as valedictorian of his class at Amite High School.
Dick Covington, who has known Edwards all his life, coached him in football and baseball, including a time when the candidate was pitcher and his brother Daniel was catcher.
“Just a good, down-to-earth guy,” Covington recalled. “Anytime teachers needed something, they would go to John Bel and he would get it done.”
He added, “You just had the feeling that he was going to bigger and better things.”
In 1988, he graduated on the dean’s list from the United States Military Academy at West Point, which is a regular part of Edwards’ campaign ads.
He then served eight years on active duty with the U. S. Army as an Airborne Ranger, another part of his biography that backers regularly bring up when asking voters to give their guy a look.
Edwards served during peacetime but he did training missions overseas, including in Korea.
“He has had life experiences that a lot of politicians have not had,” said Robbie Lee, who has known Edwards all his life.
Murray Starkel, a cadet from Ronan, Montana, was Edwards’ roommate and remembers him as a “very no-nonsense, common-sense kind of fellow.”
Starkel said Edwards’ selection by his classmates as vice chairman of the panel that enforced the West Point honor code was significant.
“That is what separates West Point from other schools,” he said.
“To be in charge of enforcing the honor code requires a strong sense of leadership and a sense of duty that is above and beyond,” said Starkel, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.
Edwards originally planned to spend 20 years in the military, but family considerations changed that.
He entered law school at LSU, graduated in 1999 and returned to Amite to practice.
Edwards & Associates handles a variety of cases, but no criminal law since Edwards’ brother Daniel is the sheriff.
In 2007, he was elected to the state House, and he was re-elected in 2011, which gave him a front-row seat for Gov. Bobby Jindal’s time in office.
The conventional wisdom is that, as the lone well-known Democrat in the race, Edwards is all but assured a spot in the Nov. 21 runoff.
Virtually any Democrat who is the sole credible contestant is assured of 30 percent or so of the vote in the Oct. 24 primary, the thinking goes.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, is the favorite to win it all, in part because of his huge fundraising lead.
Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who lives in Baton Rouge, and Republican Scott Angelle, a member of the Public Service Commission who lives in Breaux Bridge, are battling for a spot in the runoff.
But the Edwards camp heatedly rejects the rest of the prevailing theory — that he is sure to lose in the runoff against any Republican in a state turning more red with every election.
They say the candidate’s moderate voting record — campaign ads highlight his anti-abortion and pro-gun stances — will make clear that he has little in common with Democrats nationally.
“If people get rid of their biases as far as the D’s and R’s, they will be greatly impressed with him,” Lee said.
“He is not this super-left, super-liberal candidate that some people will portray him to be simply because he has a D behind his name,” he said.
Edwards bristles at the notion that a Democrat cannot win.
His campaign complained when a news story noted that his first television ad omitted the fact he is a Democrat.
“We have a very unpopular Republican governor.” Edwards said. “The lesson is, it is not the party, it is the person.”
Voters are looking for someone with demonstrated leadership ability, he said.
“I am comfortable being evaluated on that basis,” he added.
Edwards is considered a moderate Democrat.
He is a veteran member of the House Education Committee and is often aligned with teacher unions and the Louisiana School Boards Association.
Edwards has called for curbs on charter schools, criticized Jindal’s 2012 push to toughen teacher tenure laws and tried to delay revamped teacher evaluations.
Earlier this year, he sponsored a late-session resolution that increased public school aid by $36 million.
In 2013, he played a key role in an eleventh-hour, $500 pay raise for teachers.
He wants to replace state Superintendent of Education John White and opposes Common Core.
However, during a recent forum, Edwards said Democrat-rich Orleans Parish cannot rely indefinitely on the state tab to keep State Police in New Orleans to help curb crime.
He also said voters would likely be unwilling to back a tax hike for transportation.
The candidate’s longtime criticism of Jindal is a key theme of his campaign.
Edwards said he was criticizing the governor’s higher education and other cuts long before it became popular.
“It was only me,” he said. “Jay Dardenne wasn’t doing it; David Vitter wasn’t doing it.”
“And Scott Angelle was right there with him all the way,” he added, a reference to Angelle’s time as a Jindal lieutenant.
Edwards and his wife, Donna, are the parents of three children ranging in age from 13 to 23.
Donna Edwards teaches music at the Southeastern Louisiana University Lab School, which is part of the Tangipahoa Parish public school system.
While Edwards’ father served in the administration of four-term Gov. Edwin Edwards, the families are not related. Frank Edwards Jr. was assistant commissioner of administration under the former governor from 1983-86.
In the state House — John Bel Edwards has served there since 2008 — he is known as serious, analytical and a lawmaker who does his homework.
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, has sat next to Edwards on the back row of the Louisiana House chamber for four years.
“The night previous to every session day, he studies every bill to conclusion,” Jones said. “He is not going to be surprised by anything.”
Jones said Edwards’ serious demeanor is no liability.
“He is not going to be the candidate that tells the best jokes in this campaign,” Jones said. “But you know what? I think Louisiana needs someone who is not the biggest joke teller for sure.”
State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, often clashes with Edwards on key bills.
The pair had a polite but high-profile dispute in the final hours of the 2015 legislative session on a controversial, Jindal-backed budget bill.
But the disagreement left no scars, and Broadwater heaps praise on a Democrat he first got to know because his daughter and Edwards’ son are friends and eighth-grade classmates.
“They are such a good family,” Broadwater said.
“John Bel never met a stranger,” he said. “But he is not a gregarious and loud guy most of the time.”
Similar testimonials are heard all over Amite.
“I think first and foremost he is a rock-solid Catholic Christian,” said the Rev. Mark Beard, pastor of St. Helena Catholic Church, where Edwards is a Eucharistic minister, altar server and reader.
Amite Mayor Buddy Bell, no party, rattles off Edwards’ membership in civic groups, his family’s years of public service and the growth of the Florida Parishes.
“He has a terrific base,” Bell said.
Starkel scoffed at the idea that Edwards resembles any national Democrats, and he said graduating from West Point is a big plus.
“One of the things that West Point and the Army teaches you is you have to make decisions based on imperfect information,” he said.
“You have to live by the decision but you also have to have the flexibility to adapt,” Starkel said. “That is a quality that is absolutely critical and is lacking in a lot of politicians.”
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.