Progressive Democrats in Louisiana, particularly women, are furious at Gov. John Bel Edwards for signing an extreme anti-abortion bill, a development that could cause problems for the governor as he runs for re-election this fall.
Until now, Edwards could count on these progressive Democrats to be strong supporters as he seeks to win re-election in the Oct. 12 primary or the Nov. 16 runoff. These voters comprise as much as 20 percent of the electorate, according to surveys.
But now the Democratic governor is facing a backlash from many of his most loyal supporters after signing a bill that would outlaw abortion as soon as a heartbeat is detected — about six weeks into a pregnancy, even before many women know they're pregnant — with no exceptions in the rare cases where pregnancies result from rape or incest.
“There’s so much anger out there that it’s palpable,” said Sally O. Donlon, who is president of the Louisiana Federation of Democratic Women.
WASHINGTON — Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, has drawn the ire of fellow Democrats in influential roles…
She pointed to one post on the Facebook page of Democratic Women of Acadiana.
“I am grateful he expanded Medicaid,” posted a woman named Suzie Smith. “But I shall no longer vote for him. For anything. At some point in time, one has to stand firmly for women rights.”
The anti-abortion bill does not take effect for now. It would become law only if a similar measure in Mississippi survives a court challenge, a process not expected to happen anytime soon.
In the meantime, Edwards will have to contend with a politically charged issue that has suddenly roiled the governor’s race. He has yet to begin reaching out to disaffected progressives to try to make sure that they stay with him this year.
“I don’t know if it’s 1,000 or 10,000, but a lot of progressive advocates and leaders throughout the state are frustrated by these abortion votes,” said Melissa Flournoy, a former state representative from Shreveport who now heads Louisiana Progress Action in Baton Rouge.
She added: “Some will sit out the election and not vote for the governor. We’re trying to keep people together because he’s the best person from a range of issues. I appreciate his commitment to education, expanding Medicaid and his desire to raise the minimum wage. Even though I disagree with his position on abortion, I’m sticking with John Bel."
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has signed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bills into law, a measure that would ban…
Flournoy said Edwards seens to have “made a decision to run for re-election as the only pro-life Democratic governor in the country, that the pro-life stance will draw more voters to him than he will lose from pro-choice voters choosing not to vote.”
Edwards has said that his decision stems from his strong Catholic faith and that he has consistently supported pro-life legislation dating to his time as a state representative from Amite.
“He is one of many elected pro-life Democrats in Louisiana, which is why this bill passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority,” Richard Carbo, Edwards’ campaign manager, said in a statement. “As a pro-life Democrat, he believes being pro-life doesn't just mean being pro-birth, and he has been true to that belief as governor.
"Today, more than 460,000 working Louisianans have access to health care who wouldn’t if Gov. Edwards hadn't expanded Medicaid, including nearly 70,000 women who’ve been screened for breast cancer. The governor knows there are many who feel just as strongly as he does on abortion and disagree with him, and he respects their opinions.”
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But for many progressives, he has gone too far this time.
“It’s not a secret that he’s pro-life,” said Jennifer Harding, who runs Progressive Social Network, based in Baton Rouge. “It’s unfortunate that being pro-life means you have to support unconstitutional legislation.
“I plan to vote for him, but I’m focusing my attention down the ballot on some of these progressive female legislative candidates. It’s very important to get people elected to the state Legislature to ensure that we don’t get this legislation in the first place.”
Preventing the passage of anti-abortion legislation in Louisiana will be a tall order next year.
The six-week heartbeat measure, Senate Bill 184, by Sen. John Milkovich, D-Keithville, passed on votes of 31-5 in the Senate and 79-23 in the House. An effort to add exceptions for rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother, by state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, failed on a 35-67 vote.
Michael Henderson, an LSU professor who runs the Public Policy Research Lab at the Manship School of Communication, said it’s too early to know whether the anger from the left will harm the governor’s re-election chances.
Edwards noted a 2016 survey by the Manship School showed that 13 percent of those surveyed said abortion should be legal in all cases, 27 percent said it should be legal in most cases, 29 percent said it should be illegal in most cases and 26 percent said it should be illegal in all cases — which would be the effect if SB184 became law.
Henderson said that part of Edwards’ appeal in 2015, when he was a long-shot candidate for most of the race, was that he is a cultural conservative who is pro-guns and pro-life and who also favored an expansion of Medicaid for the working poor, a higher minimum wage and pay equity for women.
“If you’re an independent who leans conservative or if you are a Republican who voted for him before, you might vote for him again because he’s not a national liberal,” Henderson said.
Louisiana lawmakers have passed a bill that would ban abortions at about six weeks of pregnancy if upheld by the courts, sending it to the gov…
Spokesmen for Edwards’ two Republican opponents — U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone — both said their candidates would have signed SB184.
Nia Weeks is executive director of Citizen SHE United, a New Orleans-based group that advocates for a progressive policy agenda centered on black women’s issues in Louisiana.
“I’ve had conversations where some women can’t see much difference between him and a Republican candidate,” said Weeks. “Others have said he’s the best bet we have and point to the criminal justice package (which ended Louisiana’s status as the biggest incarcerator nationally on a per capita basis) and the Medicaid expansion. The reactions are very visceral. But I don’t know how much of it will reflect where people will land in a few months.”
Mandie Landry is an attorney in New Orleans who is running for the legislative seat to be vacated by Rep. Walt Leger III, a Democrat who voted against SB184.
She, too, is hearing many complaints about Edwards’ decision.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot of people on social media saying they won’t be supporting him,” said Landry, who is representing the Shreveport abortion clinic in court. “I wonder if they’ll still be that angry in October.”
Sue Mobley, a liberal activist based in New Orleans, said she will still be angry, and Edwards will suffer as a result from like-minded voters.
“Progressive women are the ones who knock on doors and raise funds,” Mobley said. “I’m hearing that people will not fundraise or canvass. I’m hearing calls of who else might run. As it stands now, I’ll abstain from voting. I’m a chronic voter, so saying that makes me cringe.”
While it is more than four months to election day, the furor over the abortion issue may not die down by the Oct. 12 primary.
Through House Bill 425, the Legislature is poised to put a measure on the ballot that would ask voters to pass a constitutional amendment to ensure that no rights exists for abortion in Louisiana. The It also would serve to strengthen Louisiana’s legal position should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion throughout the United States.
“I think the conversation of abortion access will continue to be in the news throughout the summer and into the fall,” said Amy Irvin, who is executive director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, which provides funding for women who can’t afford abortions. “I think it is a strategy to bring out pro-life Republicans and the Republican base, which certainly doesn’t bode well for a Democrat.”
The hoopla over the abortion issue seems like déjà vu all over again for Caroline Roemer, who is an activist for education issues in the State Capitol.
In 1991, her father, Buddy, was governor and had to decide whether to veto a strict bill that would have banned abortions except for the exceptions of rape, incest and the life of the mother.
Caroline, then 23, was living at the Governor’s Mansion.
“It was my opinion that the bill was disrespectful of women and the decision women were faced with,” she said recently. “I hounded my father about it, literally, every chance I got. Not in an angry way. But I spoke to him as a woman and as his daughter. I remember sitting at breakfast one morning — the bill had passed. He was contemplating what was the right thing to do.
“I looked at him and said, ‘You cannot sit here and tell me if I had been in a terrible situation and been raped and became pregnant that you would look at me and say, ‘I’m sorry. Suck it up and get through it.’ I don’t believe that’s the conversation you and I would have as father and daughter. We would figure out what the right answer was for us. We would certainly not want it dictated by a piece of legislation that was nothing less than pure politics.’ I don’t recall his response. He ultimately vetoed that bill.”
Roemer, who had a mostly pro-life voting record, told the public that the bill was too harsh and restrictive and would saddle the state with big legal bills to defend a measure that couldn’t pass legal muster.
The Legislature overrode the veto. It was the first time that had ever happened in Louisiana.
Roemer lost his re-election bid in the October primary as former Gov. Edwin Edwards and then-state Rep. David Duke advanced to a runoff that Edwards eventually won.
Caroline Roemer and others involved in the 1991 governor’s race said the override of the veto contributed to her father's defeat but was not decisive.
Advocate librarian Judy Jumonville provided research for this article.