John Bel Edwards’ rise from a small-town Democratic lawmaker to the most powerful figure in Louisiana represented a stunning political feat, but as governor he received no honeymoon.
He was immediately faced with a state budget crisis and a majority of Republicans in the Louisiana House who rejected his pick for speaker then installed one of their own, breaking with decades of tradition. In the years since, Edwards has navigated an at times toxic political environment in the state House as well as more than his fair share of natural disasters. The Legislature has held 11 sessions, including seven Edwards called specifically to deal with budget issues.
He is occupying a tenuous political space: Edwards is now the only Democratic statewide elected official in Louisiana, and the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. He is running for reelection in a state that President Donald Trump carried by 20 points. And he accuses a group of conservative Republicans in the Louisiana House of having worked to thwart compromises throughout his first term.
But as he runs for reelection, Edwards is making the case that despite the political turbulence, he has actually accomplished notable victories, like Medicaid expansion and solving the budget crisis. In doing so, he is making the case for centrism in a deeply Republican state. While he said “more and more of the oxygen” is being consumed by the “very far right and the very far left,” the governor is trying to position himself in the middle, where he insists most voters also reside.
“When you position yourself in the center, I believe that resonates with more people across a broader spectrum of the electorate and citizenry than if you camp out on either end,” Edwards said in an interview at the Governor’s Mansion, in the shadow of the towering State Capitol in Baton Rouge. “The durable solutions to our problems are in the middle of the spectrum.”
At times in Edwards’ tenure as governor, he has been beset on both sides of the political spectrum.
Earlier this year, the chair of Louisiana’s Democratic party, State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, repeatedly slammed a law signed by Edwards that banned abortions at about six weeks of pregnancy as “embarrassing,” exposing the highest-profile rift between Edwards and his own party.
Edwards is trying to get to 50% in the Oct. 12 primary election, which would give him the governorship for another four years. If he falls short, he'll face his top Republican challenger in a Nov. 16 runoff.
His Republican opponents, Congressman Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, along with national groups like the Republican Governors Association, are working hard to paint Edwards as a liberal in the mold of the national party. They accuse him of overtaxing, mismanaging health programs and misleading the public about the budget deficit.
Republicans also argue Edwards’ election is a fluke, only possible because he faced an opponent in David Vitter who had been beaten down by his Republican challengers for a prostitution scandal.
Edwards dismisses that idea, claiming his opponents don’t realize how hard and long he worked in 2015 to win – for instance, he traveled the state for two years before the election rallying support.
However, he is not embracing a role as a trailblazer for the Democratic party wanting to replicate his success in the Deep South, and instead said he is solely focused on his current job. He is pro-gun, anti-abortion graduate of West Point who comes from a family of sheriffs. Now 53, Edwards’ life story played a prominent role in his 2015 run. He repeatedly played up his service in the U.S. Army as an Airborne Ranger. One of the most memorable TV ads of the race featured his fellow West Point cadets testifying to his adherence to the honor code of that institution. This time, his ads feature sheriffs and DAs defending him against attacks from Republicans, and those same West Point cadets lauding his first term.
Still, Edwards said he “never intended to do anything beyond Louisiana.”
“If there are folks out there who seek to determine what the key to success is for me, can that be replicated elsewhere, I'll leave that to them,” he said. “I believe the people in Louisiana are comfortable with who I am, where I am on the political spectrum as someone who is a moderate but someone who has delivered time and time again.”
On a recent Saturday, before the LSU football team pummeled Northwestern St., 65-14, Edwards’ face on the side of his campaign RV loomed over attendees at a campaign tailgate. Dozens filtered in and out throughout the afternoon, either for the free food and booze or to shake hands with the governor.
State Rep. Bernard LeBas sipped a Miller Lite as he mulled over Edwards’ first term before concluding his fellow Democrat has done a good job, “especially considering what we were left with.”
The two served in the House together; both are Democrats from rural areas, LeBas from Ville Platte and Edwards from rural Tangipahoa Parish. Now LeBas is termed out of his House seat and is running for the state senate. He and Edwards both are in a precarious spot, running as Democrats in areas that Donald Trump carried handily.
“I believe he has proven he can work both sides of the aisle, just like I feel I can,” LeBas said.
An avid sports fan, Edwards blows off steam with Saints and LSU basketball and football games, attending many of the biggest games in recent years, including the NFC championship game between the Saints and Rams in 2019, the LSU-University of Texas game in Austin and the Sweet 16 hoops matchup between LSU and Michigan State.
The governor has also maintained a certain level of his country background from growing up in the small town of Amite, where he lived before joining the military academy and attending LSU law school. He returned to Amite in 1999 to open a law practice, then won election and reelection to the state House in 2007 and 2011, serving as the Democratic caucus leader during Jindal’s tenure.
For instance, he installed a chicken coop at the governor’s mansion, one much nicer than the coop at his private home in Roseland, and he is able to occasionally sneak away to fish speckled trout or hunt ducks with his 17-year-old son, John Miller Edwards. Every now and then, he said, he tends to the mansion’s vegetable garden, full of cucumbers and tomatoes and greens.
He’s even had the chance to relive his high school glory days leading the Amite High School football team as quarterback in the early 1980s. The governor has tossed the football to LSU players and competed against Drew Brees in a throwing contest at a Saints practice.
State Sen. John Alario, a Republican ally of Edwards, said the governor has the ability to laugh at himself, a crucial skill for someone in his position. Alario said he’s also attended the occasional poker game hosted by Edwards – though he is quick to note these are “not like the Edwin Edwards poker games,” referring to the high-stakes games the legendary former governor held at the mansion.
Edwards has developed a reputation among lawmakers who are close to him as a workhorse with a seemingly endless motor.
Alario, who is term-limited this cycle, said each of the seven governors under which he has worked has done what they thought was best for the state, and noted it’s a difficult job. But he added, “this guy works harder than anybody I’ve seen.” Alario said he often received telephone calls in the early hours of the morning from Edwards, who said he rises before dawn and is frequently on the phone by 7 a.m.
“He is in a unique position,” Alario said. “There’s almost a (Republican) supermajority in both houses of the Legislature … Things have gotten much more partisan. But he’s willing to roll up his sleeves and work on both sides to reach an agreement.”
Through seven special sessions dedicated to dealing with the state’s years-long fiscal crisis, retired state Rep. Gene Reynolds recalls many long nights working on the fourth floor with the governor until the wee hours of the morning.
“He just keeps going and going,” said Reynolds, who led the Democratic caucus for much of Edwards’ first term. “He never seems to be tired.”
The long hours are due in part to necessity. Edwards repeatedly assumed his role as commander in chief of Louisiana, gaining plaudits for his handling of hurricanes, floods and other disasters. In 2016 alone, Edwards dealt with crippling flooding across the state, as well as police shooting of Alton Sterling that thrust Louisiana in the middle of a national debate over police use of force, and the shooting of six police officers that followed. Dealing with the state’s budget shortfalls also required seemingly endless long nights negotiating with the Legislature.
Rep. Barry Ivey, a Republican, criticized Edwards on taxes and other issues. But he said the governor and Legislature both faced an “extremely challenging” time over the last three-plus years. While he would have liked Edwards to be more hands-on dealing with rank-and-file lawmakers like him, he said the governor has always been approachable.
“He comes from the House,” Ivey noted. “He’s a regular guy. That’s part of his broad appeal, is he comes across as a regular guy.”
Perhaps unintentionally, Edwards also may have ushered in a new era in Louisiana politics when the Republicans in the House rejected his pick of state Rep. Walt Leger III, a New Orleans Democrat, as speaker, picking instead Republican Taylor Barras. For decades until Edwards’ election, the governor hand-picked the House speaker, despite the two branches of government being ostensibly separate.
Sam Jones, a longtime ally of Edwards who helped him win in 2015, said Edwards is much the same person as when they were roommates while serving in the House, and Edwards would stay up late studying the next day’s bills. But for all the political battles waged between the Democratic governor and Republicans in the House, Jones said he thinks having a divided government was good for the state.
“For a long time our state has been driven by the governor only,” Jones said. “By having a divided House like we did, I think it made us all better. I think it made him better.”