The rich guy as "man of the people" wasn’t invented by Donald Trump. As an imagemaker, Mike Foster had him thoroughly beat.
Campaign ads when he ran for governor showed Foster welding. In defiance of common political practice, his campaign ran densely written little articles about gun rights in newspapers.
Heir to a plantation, grandson of a governor, wealthy businessman and investor — oddly, the man of the people in Louisiana.
It worked in part because Foster’s timing was excellent. A splintered field in 1995 was seeking to succeed Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. By edging into the runoff past such well-known figures as Mary Landrieu and Buddy Roemer, the two-term state senator from Franklin faced Cleo Field in the runoff and won easily.
The former governor died Sunday, age 90.
If image was at variance with reality in the campaign, one of Mike Foster’s secrets of success was that he was a businessman. Like a good businessman, Foster delegated authority readily and well, including to Steve Perry, Mark Drennen, Andy Kopplin Terry Ryder. Roemer’s former aide John N. Kennedy was among the Foster team.
Younger staffers chosen for smarts and with little discussion of their political leanings were told to get the job done. A generation of future leaders trained by speaking to legislators and officials on the governor’s behalf, and when Foster gave direction, he rarely wobbled. One of his aides became governor, Bobby Jindal, head of the giant state health department in his 20s.
Before becoming governor, Foster was focused on business preoccupations like workers’ compensation law and criticisms of lawyers suing businesses. But as governor he showed a broader vision of where he wanted Louisiana to go.
Education was a success for which Foster is probably best remembered, not least when families send their children off to universities with a TOPS tuition grant. But he also was determined that the schools should be improved. Maybe he did not delve into the details of school accountability schemes drawn up by Leslie Jacobs or Paul Pastorek, but he backed them. With variations, they are still in force today.
With Jim Clinton and others taking the lead, a master plan for economic development was generated called Vision 2020. It was less successful in changing the culture of government permanently, but the long agenda included many specific items that were achieved during Foster’s eight years. The historic Stelly Plan was the most important tax reform in Louisiana for decades.
University funding was one central axis of progress. For 12 years, under Foster and his successor Kathleen Blanco, college funding was a vital priority; unfortunately, it was Foster’s protégé Jindal who failed to keep pace. Under Foster, it was an era of progress.
Foster’s accomplishments made him a reformer, and unlike recent predecessors David C. Treen and Roemer, he achieved reelection comfortably and attacked fundamental problems for the state. He has a legacy that continues today.