Gov. John Bel Edwards began raising money for his re-election campaign only eight days after taking the oath of office in January 2016 and ended the year having collected about $3 million, according to his fundraisers.
Most of those who sponsored the events were business lobbyists and others with interests before the governor and the Legislature, which is the norm in a state where private dollars fund candidates’ campaigns.
Edwards and his political allies are expecting a tough re-election campaign in 2019 from well-funded Republicans determined to prove that his election in 2015 was an anomaly in a conservative state dominated by Republicans.
“If there is opposition, you have to have the resources early on to wage a campaign,” said Dale Atkins, who helped organize a Sept. 28 fundraiser at the New Orleans home of Terrell Clayton, a developer of affordable housing.
Edwards, a Democrat, is following the example set by his Republican predecessor, Gov. Bobby Jindal, who raised $3.4 million during his first year and had such a bulging war chest (and high approval ratings) when he ran for re-election in 2011 that no big-name Democrats dared challenge him.
“If I’m looking at running for governor and see a guy with $10 million in the bank a year beforehand, I would think twice about it,” said Atkins, who is the clerk of civil court in New Orleans.
Edwards’ success in 2016 speaks to the power of his office and stands in sharp contrast to the difficulty he faced raising money for more than two years during the governor’s race when he was a long-shot candidate.
The first event for Edwards, on Jan. 19, 2016, was organized by two Baton Rouge lobbying outfits, Spradley & Spradley and Roedel Parsons Koch Blache Balhoff & McCollister, and consisted of a dinner at Dooky Chase’s, the famed New Orleans restaurant. Cost of entry was $5,000 per donor, the maximum allowed.
“We decided to get together to have a fundraiser for the new governor and then talked to our clients,” said Tom Spradley, a veteran lobbyist for a variety of business interests.
Randy Haynie, another prominent lobbyist, hosted a $5,000 per couple fundraiser at his Lafayette home on Oct. 25.
The invitation host list included lobbyist Tyron Picard; trial attorneys Glenn Armentor, Jim Roy and Craig and Pat Morrow; state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte; and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and her husband Raymond.
“A lot of these folks were citizens in Lafayette Parish who own their own businesses and care about the state,” said Haynie, whose clients include the NFL, the tobacco giant Altria and the Harrah’s New Orleans Casino. “Very few in that audience deal with the state of Louisiana businesswise.”
Haynie said he has organized fundraisers for the past five governors and acknowledged that putting on these events helps his business.
“But I’d do it if I was retired,” he said, estimating that the event raised at least $150,000.
As at other events, Edwards mingled with the crowd, posed for selfies and spoke to the group about his goals for the state, including his plans for ending Louisiana’s budget problems.
A dinner at Arnaud’s restaurant in the French Quarter raised more than $1 million, said Dan Robin Sr., the main organizer. It is believed to have been the biggest single event for Edwards in 2016.
Richard Carbo, the governor’s spokesman, declined to discuss Edwards' 2016 fundraising or to provide a list of the events.
Edwards won’t have to provide the specifics until he files a campaign report on Feb. 15 for his 2016 activities.
Emelie Tenenbaum, who raised money for former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and worked for the nonprofit New Orleans Business Alliance, is the governor’s chief fundraiser.
Robin said the Sept. 7 event at Arnaud’s collected $5,000 apiece from some 220 people, the maximum number that could fit in the restaurant space. Donors got a seven-course meal that ended with café brûlot.
“I had to turn away a lot of people,” Robin said, adding that he’s planning to hold another event around the same time in 2017. “We’ve never had a more honest person around. He’s a great young man who cares about the state.”
Robin announced a year ago that he, his son Dan Robin Jr. and Ted Jones, a veteran Baton Rouge-based lobbyist who also organized the Arnaud’s event, had affiliated with a New Orleans law firm, Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert. The news caught the eye of political insiders because James Garner had been a top campaign attorney and adviser to U.S. Sen. David Vitter when Vitter lost the 2015 race to Edwards.
In 2016, Edwards included Garner on a team of private attorneys preparing a lawsuit against oil and gas companies that alleges their drilling activities caused the coast to erode and that will seek heavy damages to restore the lost land.
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Garner raised money from clients for the Arnaud’s event.
Garner wasn’t the only foe from the 2015 campaign who raised money for Edwards last year.
Oil and gas interests, which favored Vitter, hosted two events for Edwards in January.
“I’m raising money where I can,” Edwards said in an interview then. “You can’t start too early or raise too much. Running for governor and running for re-election are expensive.”
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He said political reality explains why the groups are hosting the events.
“They opposed me last year, and I’m governor this year,” he said.
Edwards followed up the oil and gas fundraisers with a Feb. 4 event at the Squire Creek Country Club in Choudrant, just east of Ruston.
Afterward, the governor was busy working with legislators to resolve the state’s budget crisis during two special sessions and the regular session, followed by the massive flooding in metro Baton Rouge and the high-profile shootings that convulsed the region. (The governor cannot raise money during the regular session or for the following 30 days, according to the state’s ethics agency.)
On Sept. 20, he attended a fundraiser at the Shreveport Club hosted by three public officials — Shreveport Mayor Ollie Tyler, Bossier City Mayor Lorenz Walker and Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart Sr. — and Wayne Brown, owner of Brown Builders in Bossier City.
Stewart said Edwards got a good reception from the crowd.
“It wasn’t the normal politicos entirely,” Stewart said. “It was a lot of average people excited about the governor.”
On Oct. 19, Baton Rouge attorney Kris Kirkpatrick hosted Edwards at his home, with hosts contributing $5,000 and attendees $1,250.
Hosts included lobbyists C.J. Blache, Gabrielle Kees, Darrell Hunt and Paul Rainwater, who served as chief of staff to Jindal.
Another host was Richard Lipsey, a Republican gun store owner who provided an important endorsement of Edwards in the 2015 race. He is chairman of the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s higher education policies.
Another host was developer Mike Wampold, who got the Legislature to change state tax law that benefited the construction of his Watermark Baton Rouge hotel downtown.
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On Nov. 28, Edwards attended an event at the Uptown New Orleans home of Mickey and Hilary Landry, both attorneys.
Mickey Landry said Edwards was “very direct” as he described the state’s budget situation and added, “He’s a middle-of-the-road guy who tries to bring people together.”
Alton Ashy, who represents video poker truck stop and video poker machine owners, organized fundraisers for Edwards with his clients in November at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Baton Rouge and at Hammond’s Trey Yuen restaurant in December.
“He’s been very fair with my clients,” Ashy said. “He feels like they are small businesses that want a fair shake.”
Editor's Note: The original version of this article incorrectly said Richard Lipsey, who provided an important endorsement of Gov. John Bel Edwards during the 2015 governor’s race, was named by Edwards as chairman of the Board of Regents. Actually, the members of the Regents board chose Lipsey, who was vice chairman, to be chairman. The article also incorrectly reported that Edwards, after getting contributions in 2016 from oil and gas companies, tried to curtail tax breaks that benefit the companies. In fact, Edwards did not target tax breaks that specifically benefit oil and gas companies. Instead, Edwards and the Legislature in 2016 trimmed several tax breaks that benefit an array of industries, including oil and gas companies. The Advocate regrets the errors.