Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards should know by now that the longer you dodge an issue, the greater the chance it’ll knock you for a loop.
Edwards went into full obfuscation mode last month when Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, accused him of being a closet opponent of capital punishment. When Landry withdrew the Department of Justice from a suit involving application of the death penalty in Louisiana, he said Edwards presented too big of an impediment to bring the state victory.
A legal order now prevents the state from carrying out executions. State law presently allows only lethal injection for executions. Afraid of consumer backlash whipped up by special interests, pharmaceutical manufacturers have refused to sell the state the combination of drugs needed for this method to pass constitutional muster.
Landry claimed Edwards has deliberately dragged his feet on the issue, tacitly preventing executions. For his part, Edwards dismissed Landry’s complaints as political theater.
But the episode threw an uncomfortable spotlight onto Edwards’ personal views on the death penalty. In subsequent questioning by reporters, even when asked point-blank more than once about his own position on capital punishment, the governor deflected by saying the state can't currently carry out death sentences, and as chief executive he would try to do what the law required.
Edwards to date hasn’t had to take a legislative position on capital punishment. While in his term legislators have filed several bills to abolish the death penalty, none have come close to reaching his desk. Since he took office, legislators haven’t considered an alternative to lethal injection or putting into law guaranteed confidentiality of drug suppliers.
Currently, 21 of the 33 states allowing capital punishment authorize multiple forms of execution, many mandating use of an alternative if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. If such a bill appears next year, legislators can put Edwards on the spot — if his reelection opponents already haven’t in campaign communications and forum appearances.
Asking Edwards about widening the state's methods of execution would make it harder for him to sidestep the issue. His continued evasions would strengthen assumptions he opposes the death penalty. With his eye on reelection, if Edwards really sided with the majority on this issue, it seems unlikely he would continually pass up chances to remind future voters of his position.
Edwards can’t avoid answering the question much longer. While his campaign successfully made the 2015 election about hookers instead of issues, this time around he won’t be able to hide beliefs out of step with voters. LSU polling data this year show 58 percent approval of the death penalty for those convicted of murder.
In general, refusing to give a straight answer on any issue turns off voters. This especially applies to Edwards, who in his previous campaign explicitly held himself out as a straight shooter. The longer he tap dances around his personal death penalty views, the harder it becomes to project that image.
If Edwards doesn’t want this to fester to the detriment of his reelection effort, he needs to answer two questions: Do you personally support or oppose capital punishment, and do you support or oppose legislation to add ways to carry out capital sentences? Come on, governor, 'fess up.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.