Gov. John Bel Edwards bowed his head and closed his eyes.
He had just spent 10 minutes hitting his key campaign talking points while addressing parishioners at the New Home Family Worship Center in Algiers on Sunday.
Edwards had even told the all-black congregation that he was “putting a blessing on” the Saints for their game against Tampa Bay that afternoon.
Then Bishop LeRoy Phoenix Sr., dressed in a white suit and white tennis shoes, laid his hand on the governor’s shoulder and asked everyone to join him in a blessing, six days before Saturday’s gubernatorial primary.
“He blessed the Saints! We want the saints of God to bless him!” the bishop said, prompting shouts of support. “Come on!” called out several people.
Edwards spoke in six black churches on Sunday in Algiers and Jefferson Parish’s West Bank as part of his campaign to draw a big turnout among African-American voters on Saturday. Edwards, a Democrat, is facing two Republicans: U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone. Black voters comprise about 57% of Democratic registered voters in Louisiana.
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The Democratic formula for victory in Louisiana typically calls for the candidate to win at least 33% of the white vote, at least 90% of the black vote and for blacks to account for at least 30% of the overall turnout.
Edwards surpassed those numbers in 2015 when he trounced then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter with 56% of the overall vote. One potential red flag for the governor: blacks were only 25% of early voters this year, according to pollster and demographer John Couvillon, down 2% from 2015.
Truth in Politics, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group funded by longtime GOP donor and Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, is aiming to chip away at the governor’s support particularly among African-American women, who are the Democratic Party’s most faithful supporters. The group has launched an ad in which Juanita Washington, a black woman, accuses Johnny Anderson, a former senior aide to the governor, of having sexually harassed her and saying of Edwards, “He didn’t care.”
In an interview on Sunday, Edwards said that in the wake of Washington's 2017 accusation, Anderson was forced to resign immediately and that he enacted anti-sexual harassment policies across state government.
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The governor’s pitch to black voters is intensifying as election day draws near.
“I don’t think I’ve visited as many churches in one day,” he said, as he drove to his final stop on Sunday, a service for the Mt. Hermon Baptist Church Family and Friends Day at the John A. Alario Event Center in Westwego.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Troy Carter, D-Algiers, and other black Democrats are making appeals to voters in ads on black radio stations.
“If you love your freedom, if you believe in justice, if you want to move forward, vote, vote like everything depends on it,” Carter says in a 60-second spot for Edwards.
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, state Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, and others have recorded robo calls to Democratic voters.
Edwards is putting his name on pre-election ballots passed out by Democratic legislative and parish council candidates throughout Louisiana and on ballots of black pro-Democratic political groups, especially in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
It generally costs a campaign $100 per worker to hire them to wave signs and hand out ballot recommendations on election day, according to one black elected official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Much of the money comes from the Louisiana Democratic Party in an effort overseen by a veteran Democratic operative, Ben Jeffers.
The state party 10 days ago sent out a mailer statewide that highlighted the support of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and six other African-American elected officials: mayors Jeff Hall, of Alexandria, LaToya Cantrell, of New Orleans, Sharon Weston Broome, of Baton Rouge, Adrian Perkins, of Shreveport and Jamie Mayo, of Monroe; and Natalie Robottom, the president of St. John the Baptist Parish.
“He has stood tall on the issues that are important to our community,” Richmond wrote.
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For months, just as he did four years ago, Edwards has been making stops throughout Louisiana that are aimed specifically at black voters.
In late July, he visited four black churches over two days in Lafayette and attended a banquet celebrating Lloyd Joiner Jr.’s 40th year as the pastor at Progressive Baptist Church also in Lafayette.
“People respected the fact that he was engaged,” said state Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, who accompanied him at some of the stops.
On Aug. 11, Edwards visited True Vine Baptist Church in Alexandria, accompanied by Mayor Hall, and then three other black churches.
On Aug. 18, Edwards visited four black churches in Monroe accompanied by state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe.
On Aug. 31, he and state Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, played the rub-board alongside Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas at the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival before a large African-American crowd.
Accompanied by state Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Mansfield, Edwards stopped in Natchitoches on Sept. 12 to speak to 25-30 African-American ministers and to a predominately black crowd at the Ben D. Johnson Educational Center.
Two days earlier, he attended a dinner for the NAACP’s Shreveport chapter.
On Sept. 29, Edwards attended Gloryland Baptist Church accompanied by East Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman Erika Green.
Along the way, Edwards has stopped at popular black-owned restaurants – Laura’s 2 Next Generation in Lafayette, the Legacy Café in Natchitoches, Pamela’s Bayou in a Bowl in Alexandria and Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans.
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On Sunday, Edwards began with the 7 a.m. service at St. Stephen Baptist Church in Algiers.
Sen. Carter introduced him.
“He’s not a convenient Christian,” Carter said of the devout Catholic. “He is one who is no stranger to our community.”
Edwards began his talk by saying, “Y’all got up early here. But the Holy Spirit got up before we did, right?”
Edwards then touched on his key talking points: the Medicaid expansion to 459,000 Louisiana residents, a drop in the percentage of those who are without health care insurance, the drop in the state incarceration rate – “we’re safer as a result of that,” he added, citing FBI statistics – the increase in teacher pay, turning the budget deficit he inherited into surpluses.
But then he sounded a word of warning.
“Nothing we’ve done is irreversible,” he told the congregants.
Edwards concluded by referring to Psalm 119 and Psalm 37.
“God will order our steps,” he said. “But we have to move our feet. Because if we don’t move our feet, there’s nothing to order.”
He asked the congregants to pray for him and to support him and ended by saying, “Go Saints!”
The crowd cheered.
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