Louisiana’s major Republican gubernatorial contenders, as well as their campaign surrogates and allies, have attacked one another’s characters — bringing up issues ranging from prostitution to a “birthday bash” to a sinkhole — while avoiding critiques of the major Democrat in the race. But in the comparison between rhetoric and record, state Rep. John Bel Edwards has a bulls-eye on his own back.
The head of the Legislature’s Democratic Caucus is running his version of what has become the Louisiana Democrat playbook for any state political contest above the legislative district level: serve up plenty of God and guns, and hope that Louisiana’s majority-conservative electorate doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on behind the curtain. Otherwise, voters might discover that Edwards’ big-government, tax-and-spend/regulate/redistribute agenda aims to empower special interests over the people. In his campaign communications, Edwards particularly plays up his Catholicism and anti-abortion views, along with his belief in the protection of traditional marriage.
But while Edwards often has acted against making abortion more available and worked to maintain traditional marriage, there are some notable exceptions. This makes obvious his sense that faith should be promoted when it brings political benefits but locked away when it goes against the views of one’s ideological fellow travelers. Related to that, Edwards has been missing in action when it comes to protecting religious expression guarantees in the Bill of Rights.
In 2009, to cite just one example, Edwards led a move to amend out of legislation the right of medical providers in the private sector to decline participating in an abortion. The bill eventually became law after Edwards’ amendment was dropped.
That year, he also voted against a bill that prevented adoption records from listing the names of two parents of the same sex — a roundabout way to legitimize same-sex marriage. A federal court decision eventually clarified state law to make this prohibition clear without the bill, although the U.S. Supreme Court mooted the issue when it redefined marriage this year.
Also that year, Edwards voted against a constitutional amendment that would have forbidden government from withholding benefits, assessing penalties or excluding individuals from professions, programs or facilities because of religious preferences. He hasn’t changed: In legislative committee this year, he spoke and voted against House Bill 707 by state Rep. Mike Johnson that would have done about the same thing concerning views on traditional marriage. Edwards incorrectly maintained the bill was problematic, despite the lucid argumentation to the contrary by Johnson, who has a long track record of success in advocating in the courts for religious freedom laws.
Recently, when he had a chance to support religious expression under attack at Airline High School in Bossier City, Edwards went AWOL. His major Republican gubernatorial opponents all spoke out against Louisiana’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter for chastising the school for actions that are clearly constitutional. Edwards made no reported remarks on the matter, illustrating as a policymaker just how willing he is to translate the beliefs he claims into advocacy or action.
Say what you will about his opponent, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who eight years ago expressed remorse over a “serious sin” believed to deal with prostitution, but at least Vitter apparently changed to make his personal behavior consistent with his faith. By contrast, when making or advocating policy, Edwards still acts at odds with the image of social conservatism his campaign tries to construct for him.
Edwards’ supporters also emphasize his military background, where carrying through a commitment can make the difference between life and death. That makes his retreats on these kinds of social issues all the more disappointing. True character is revealed in what one does, not just what one says.
While an Edwards ad claims he “lives his values every day,” his actions within the realm of policymaking falsify that assertion.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at LSU in Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about legislation in it (www.laleglog.com). Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.