One day in early 2013, two seatmates in the Louisiana House — Reps. John Bel Edwards and Sam Jones — were discussing a familiar topic: their belief that Gov. Bobby Jindal was leading the state in the wrong direction.
Edwards looked intently at his friend.
“Sam, I’ve had enough of fighting with this guy,” Edwards said. “It’s time to go big or go home because I can’t do much in the Legislature.”
Edwards paused. “I’m running for governor,” he said.
Jones took a deep breath.
“Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m serious,” Edwards replied.
So began a remarkable campaign, one that nearly three years later would pull off an improbable landslide — and in the process not only defeat the prohibitive favorite, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, but apparently end his political career as well.
Edwards, 49, began as the longest of long shots, an obscure Democrat running in a state where Republicans had won the last 15 statewide races. An untested campaigner, he fumbled his campaign announcement and labored for much of the campaign with little money or name recognition, while Vitter was awash in both.
So deep were the doubts about his chances that three months before the primary, two leading Democrats — former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson — privately asked him to step aside and run for attorney general instead.
But Edwards persevered and stuck to his game plan, drawing on a resolve forged as the seventh of eight children born to a small-town sheriff and charity hospital nurse and honed during training at West Point. Throughout, he believed his military background would serve as a compelling narrative to counter Republican attacks. He also believed Louisiana would want a new direction after eight years of Jindal.
But Edwards needed some luck. Lots of luck, in fact. To make the runoff, he had to be the only Democratic candidate. That happened: Bigger names passed up the race because they thought it was unwinnable.
And he needed Vitter to emerge from the primary wounded. That happened, too, thanks to a savage war among the Republican candidates, initiated by Vitter, and attacks from an anti-Vitter group.
Unbloodied, Edwards was left free to make his case to voters.
“We had to thread a thousand needles,” Jones said.
The seeds of Edwards’ campaign were sown in 2011.
Republicans had taken control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and they were seeking to expand their advantage in the state House with the same playbook Vitter had used in winning re-election to the U.S. Senate a year earlier. Republicans planned to portray 10 conservative Democratic incumbents as Barack Obama-style liberals.
Edwards was in charge of the counterattack.
He recruited Jim Kitchens, a Florida-based pollster who had worked in Louisiana for years, and New Orleans media consultant Ray Teddlie, who is now deceased. The trio devised a strategy to “radically localize the elections,” as Kitchens put it. Each Democrat would emphasize what he had done for his community and try to avoid getting drawn into debates involving Obama.
It worked. The incumbents won all their races, and the Democrats even picked up a couple of seats.
“That gave me hope that the people of Louisiana, when we have good candidates who run smart campaigns, can distinguish between what is going on in Washington and what is happening in Louisiana, and they will still vote for Louisiana Democrats,” Edwards said later.
In January 2013, he decided to forgo an easy re-election bid for a third and final term in the House and run for governor instead. He would announce his bid with balloons and bunting after the legislative session.
But a month later, Baton Rouge talk-radio host Jim Engster asked him during a live broadcast, “So, are you going to run for governor?”
“Jim, that’s an interesting question,” a clearly surprised Edwards answered. “I do intend to run in 2015. I just know from my six years in the Legislature that I believe we’re heading in the wrong direction, and we’re getting there in a hurry.”
Among those listening to the Feb. 20 broadcast was Mary-Patricia Wray, a 27-year-old staffer for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers union who was also a key unpaid adviser to Edwards.
A wave of panic swept over her as she heard Edwards’ answer. This was definitely not the way to announce a campaign, she thought. Indeed, the state’s major newspapers buried the news. By depriving himself of the boost from a traditional announcement, Edwards made a difficult race nearly impossible.
To seed his campaign, Edwards raised money from friends and family in Tangipahoa Parish and from lawyer friends.
He knew his only chance was to build a grass-roots campaign. So he would speak before any group that would hear him. He hired his first campaign employee, Chris Binder, 25, who began driving Edwards all over the state in the candidate’s white GMC truck, with Edwards’ beloved old-school country music playing on Willie’s Roadhouse, a satellite radio station.
In August 2013, Edwards attended the Democrats’ biggest annual confab, the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Binder sat outside the hotel ballroom at a table handing out a free DVD biography of Edwards. Some 500 people filed into the ballroom. Perhaps 20 took a DVD.
Still, there were glimmers of hope.
One came in October 2013, at the annual charity raffle sponsored by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in New Orleans. Dan Foley, the former clerk of Orleans Parish Civil District Court, now a trial attorney, introduced Edwards around and was struck by how many people thanked him for his service as an Army Ranger.
“That’s a real door-opener for him,” Foley told his wife as they left the event.
But 2014 brought more storm clouds.
Landrieu, then the only remaining Democrat in statewide office, was sucking up all of the state party’s political oxygen. Edwards was such an afterthought that he was initially not given a speaking spot for the Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
Then, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco had to cancel a planned $5,000-per-person fundraiser that October.
“There’s not enough interest,” she had to tell Edwards.
In December, Landrieu was trounced by Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy, who whacked her again and again as an Obama lackey. Despite spending $20 million, Landrieu won just 44 percent of the vote.
The lesson seemed plain: Democrats couldn’t win statewide.
The next day, Edwards and his wife, Donna, attended the reopening of Whitney Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish, hosted by the plantation’s owner, the politically active New Orleans trial lawyer John Cummings. Nobody paid attention to the couple. The star attraction was New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who gave a stirring speech.
Edwards and the mayor met the next day. With his sister’s loss, Mitch Landrieu was the state’s most prominent Democrat. He had twice been elected lieutenant governor before becoming mayor. If he entered the governor’s race, Edwards would become an afterthought. Landrieu told Edwards he didn’t think he would run, but he wouldn’t give a definitive answer.
Edwards, who studied military tactics at West Point, decided to outflank Landrieu. He traveled from parish to parish, quietly meeting with key Democrats and asking them to endorse him as the party’s official candidate.
The state party announced its endorsement of him in March, several months before it usually gives its nod. He also won endorsements from the state AFL-CIO and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
The next month, Landrieu spoke to the Press Club of Baton Rouge and said he would not be a candidate for governor. Pointedly, however, he declined to endorse his fellow Democrat.
Few believed he could win
The results of Kitchens’ first major poll, conducted in January, were encouraging. Vitter led with 30 percent, but Edwards trailed by only 3 points. Moreover, voters liked Edwards’ military background and his opposition to abortion.
Vitter’s support, meanwhile, was tenuous. For every Vitter supporter, there was another voter who said they’d never vote for him. And the poll found that voters were still bothered by Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal, in which the senator was linked to the so-called D.C. Madam and admitted a “very serious sin.”
Kitchens called Edwards the next day.
“We can beat this guy if we can raise enough money to make it into the runoff against him,” Kitchens said.
“Good,” Edwards replied. “Maybe this will help me raise money.”
But few people gave the poll much credence. Jared Arsement, the campaign’s media consultant, learned that painfully.
“Jared, do you really think John Bel can win this thing?” a prominent Democrat asked him at the Washington Mardi Gras.
“He has a very specific path to victory,” Arsement replied. “It’s narrow. But there is absolutely a path.”
The man just laughed. “You’re crazy if you believe that,” he said.
Edwards got more bad news in May from an unexpected source: Robert Mann, Louisiana’s pre-eminent liberal political pundit and a former aide to Blanco. In a May opinion column, Mann noted that an independent poll showed Vitter with a 38-25 lead over Edwards.
Mann wrote that he had consulted a dozen political insiders and “not one of them believes Edwards stands a chance against Vitter.”
Mann added, “Democrats must face facts. This is a GOP state, not just in national elections, but statewide contests, too.”
Mann’s conclusion: “Democrats have a clear choice: Send Edwards into a runoff that he almost certainly cannot win — or back a moderate Republican, who could defeat Vitter.”
If enough Democrats listened to this argument, Edwards wouldn’t make the runoff.
In July, Edwards hit his nadir.
At the Airport Hilton in Kenner, he met with two people he would describe only as “very, very influential and powerful people in Louisiana and Democratic politics” — but whom others identified as Mary Landrieu and party Chairwoman Peterson. The two repeated much of Mann’s argument: that Edwards couldn’t win and ought to bow out, in hopes of helping a moderate Republican beat Vitter. They urged him to run instead for attorney general.
“The only way I don’t run is if I’m dead between now and when I qualify,” Edwards told them.
Peterson acknowledged attending the meeting but wouldn’t say whether she had pressed Edwards to get out.
Landrieu confirmed via text that she sought Edwards’ exit. She said she had told him “that as much as our state needed his leadership that I honestly did not think he could beat Sen. Vitter.” And, she added, “I have never been so happy to be wrong.”
Edwards faced other private requests that he step aside for John Georges, a 2007 candidate for governor who, with his wife, owns The Advocate. Georges publicly flirted with running this year, and Edwards’ advisers feared that Georges’ entry would split the Democratic vote and keep Edwards from the runoff. But Georges stayed out.
That meant the field was limited to Edwards, Vitter and two other high-profile Republicans: Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle.
Ironically, while Edwards wanted to face Vitter in the runoff, Vitter also wanted Edwards rather than either of his fellow Republicans.
So two weeks after qualifying, Vitter began to carpet-bomb his GOP rivals, starting with Angelle, who had formerly overseen the state agency that regulated the oil industry.
An outside super PAC allied with Vitter produced an ad that showed images of a tree disappearing into the Bayou Corne sinkhole and blamed Angelle for not preventing the disaster. The spot made it seem that Angelle’s resignation five days later was an attempt to shirk responsibility.
Angelle’s numbers, which had been rising, stalled.
Then Vitter turned to Dardenne, who had served 28 unblemished years in public office.
A Vitter ad portrayed a Dardenne trip to Europe to promote Louisiana tourism as a taxpayer-funded birthday bash for Dardenne, his wife and their friends.
Dardenne’s numbers also cratered.
But Vitter would soon be on the receiving end.
A super PAC formed by a Baton Rouge firm of trial attorneys revived the 2007 prostitution scandal with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In one ad, a woman looked directly into the camera and said of Vitter: “How can we trust him? Louisiana can’t have a governor with so many dark secrets.”
As the primary drew closer, Angelle — and to a lesser extent Dardenne — began using the prostitution issue to question Vitter’s character.
“We have a stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana, if we elect David Vitter as governor,” Angelle said in one televised debate.
Arsement, a 31-year-old protégé of the late New Orleans media consultant Teddlie, barely knew Edwards when he was hired by the campaign in early 2013 to produce the candidate’s videography. So Arsement drove to Amite to spend the day with him.
When Edwards discussed his adherence to West Point’s honor code, Arsement immediately saw a campaign commercial. He envisioned another one on public education when he learned that Donna Edwards was a schoolteacher.
And then Edwards told him about the time his wife was 20 weeks pregnant with the couple’s daughter Samantha and doctors urged an abortion because the girl would be born with spina bifida. Edwards and Donna refused.
“What do you think?” Edwards asked. “Is that a story people would respond to?”
“John Bel,” replied Arsement, “if you lose this election and we don’t tell this story, Ray Teddlie will rise from the dead and strangle me.”
The spot began airing shortly before the primary election. In it, Donna Edwards said her husband “never flinched” when doctors suggested an abortion. “He just said, ‘No. We’re going to love this baby no matter what,’ ” she recalled. The ad ended with a shot of Samantha and her fiancé holding hands.
The ad helped rocket Edwards to a 9-point advantage, according to an internal poll.
The day before the Oct. 24 primary, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand was at his morning coffee klatch at the Royal Blend on Metairie Road when he noticed a young man secretly filming the group. The sheriff confronted him, and the man beat a hasty retreat. Deputies caught him hiding behind an air-conditioning unit in a neighbor’s yard.
The Advocate published a story about the episode that evening. In it, Vitter confirmed that the man, Robert Frenzel, had been spying for his campaign. Fallout from the clumsy espionage helped keep public attention focused on Vitter’s character.
Edwards led the primary with 40 percent. Vitter was a distant second, with 23 percent. Angelle and Dardenne were out.
Vitter wasted no time in hitting Edwards. Two days after the primary, he aired an ad that tied Edwards to Obama and accused him of wanting to free 5,500 “dangerous thugs” from prison.
Edwards neatly defused the attack. He rolled out an endorsement from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and then aired his own ad in which a popular sheriff called Vitter’s attacks “false” and “irresponsible.”
Meanwhile, Gumbo PAC, another anti-Vitter political action committee, launched an ad that pointedly reminded Dardenne and Angelle supporters why they hadn’t voted for the senator. It featured video clips of the two men accusing Vitter of lying about their records.
Then Dardenne took the unusual step of crossing party lines to endorse Edwards. “He knows that fear, intimidation and vindictiveness are the enemies of building a coalition to move Louisiana forward,” the lieutenant governor told reporters.
The Edwards campaign now readied a haymaker.
Nearly a year earlier, Arsement had asked Wray, the teachers union staffer, to match the dates of Vitter’s phone calls from the D.C. Madam with the House of Representatives’ activities on those days. Wray put it off until a sleepless night in January.
She curled up on a couch in her Baton Rouge home with her computer and found a news article that listed the days and times of the five phone calls. Then she reviewed what the House had done each day. The day of the fifth and last call — on Feb. 27, 2001 — produced pay dirt. That day, the House voted to honor 28 soldiers killed by an Iraqi missile in Operation Desert Storm.
At 5:30 a.m., Wray sent an exuberant email to Arsement and Edwards: “VITTER WAS ABSENT!!!!” she wrote.
For months, Wray’s discovery was a closely kept secret. In August, she couldn’t help but tell a reporter that the campaign had what it considered a kill-shot, but she said it wouldn’t be fired until the runoff.
Arsement’s ad debuted Nov. 7, during the highly anticipated LSU-Alabama game. It juxtaposed Edwards’ military service with Vitter getting a phone call from a madam minutes after missing the vote to honor the slain soldiers.
“David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots,” intoned the female narrator.
The senator, whose numbers had been rising when the ad aired, quickly fell from 37 percent to 30 percent, according to Kitchens.
By now, Mann had admitted his mistake, that Edwards could win, and Peterson and Mitch and Mary Landrieu were helping Edwards raise big dollars. Edwards was raising $250,000 a shot at fundraisers. He and Rep. Jones laughed: Just months earlier, Edwards would drive across the state to collect $5,000.
Five days before the Nov. 21 runoff, after the deadly bombing in Paris, Vitter made a last-ditch effort to nationalize the campaign. He aired an ad that charged Edwards with supporting an Obama plan to bring more Syrian refugees into Louisiana. Vitter’s numbers began to rise again. But Edwards countered with an ad saying he wanted a halt to the immigration.
Election day, at last
Final polls forecast an Edwards victory. But rain on election day prompted fears among advisers that some of his voters might stay home. Indeed, turnout was below expectations by midafternoon, especially among African-Americans, the Democrats’ most reliable bloc.
The Edwards campaign had a final trump card: a robocall secretly recorded by President Obama urging African-American households to vote for him. The Edwards campaign had to trigger the robocall early enough to be effective but late enough to prevent the Vitter campaign from making hay from it. The call went out at 5:30 p.m.
At that moment, Edwards was attending Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. When it ended, he and Donna walked to the front of the church and said a prayer.
Afterward, Edwards stood by the confessional and recalled the parade of doubters he faced through the primary. His sense of duty, he said, kept him going.
“I have never backed out of any commitment I’ve ever made in my life,” he said. “I have never failed at anything that I set to accomplish, either.”
Edwards elaborated as he walked to a waiting State Police SUV. He had made a commitment to people throughout Louisiana, he said, to “people who had been hurting, schoolteachers, middle-class people, poor people. There are a lot of people out there who have been left behind over the last eight years.” He paused. “I had accepted that I might lose. But I would be able to go home and look at my children and tell them that I had done my best. When you quit, you have not done your best.”
While he admitted being nervous, he said, “I don’t think I’m as nervous as he is right now,” referring to Vitter. It was 6 p.m.
At 9:02 p.m., WWL-TV called the race for the Democrat. Surrounded by family and friends in Suite 1450 at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter, Edwards embraced Donna. She became teary.
Bedlam erupted in La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom on the second floor. Moments later, the Most Wanted Brass Band burst into the room and serenaded the packed house with “When the Saints Go Marching In” and an ad-libbed chant: “Who dat say they gonna beat John Bel?”
Normand was two blocks away, at Galatoire’s restaurant, where he was joined by about 75 Edwards supporters. The sheriff stood on a chair, lofted a glass of red wine and asked everyone to join him in a toast.
The final result: Edwards 56.11 percent, Vitter 43.89 percent.
At 9:27 p.m., Vitter appeared on the huge TV screens spread throughout the Monteleone ballroom. No one could hear his words, but everyone could see that he was conceding. The crowd gasped when the news flashed on the screen that Vitter also had announced he would not seek re-election to the Senate in 2016.
At 9:38 p.m., Edwards and his family appeared on the stage from a back entrance. “I did not create this breeze of hope that’s rolling across our beautiful and blessed state,” he told the jubilant crowd. “But I did catch it.”
At midnight, the believers who had been with Edwards throughout — Jones, Arsement, Wray, Kitchens, the Blancos — posed for photos in the now-deserted ballroom.
On the 14th floor, friends and family streamed past the troopers guarding Edwards’ suite. Edwards, jacket off, collected hugs and handshakes. About 12:30 a.m., he bit into a hamburger someone fetched from Deuce McAllister’s Ole Saint restaurant.
The governor-elect was ready for bed at 3 a.m. But three West Point classmates recalled a promise: that he’d smoke a victory cigar with them if he won. Duty called again. The foursome took an elevator to the roof and lit up their stogies.
At one point, Edwards walked to the roof’s edge. He looked down. Some people were going home; others were going to work. “This is a tremendous responsibility,” he thought to himself, “a sacred responsibility.”
He and his buddies called it a night at 4 a.m. Edwards was up at 7:30 a.m. to get started.