Gov. John Bel Edwards often opens his public speeches by touting one of his first decisions and proudest accomplishments in office — to expand access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. He delves into the details: How many people, mostly working poor, now have access to preventive care (471,067, according to the state’s most recent numbers), how many have gotten breast and colon cancer screenings (48,924 and 27,270, respectively) and how many are now getting help managing diabetes (9,505) and hypertension (25,613). He notes that the expansion is largely funded by the federal government, and is, therefore, a great deal for the state.
That’s not what he did when he appeared last week at the annual meeting of American Legislative Exchange Council, known for crafting conservative model legislation that state lawmakers across the country adopt, and officially opposed to the Affordable Care Act. I mean, Edwards isn’t stupid.
In fact, by ignoring the protesters, addressing the group and focusing on priorities they have in common, the Democratic governor proved himself pretty politically savvy.
Up for reelection next year in a generally Republican state and under a regular barrage of criticism by potential opponents such as U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry, Edwards is clearly looking for ways to show he’s not an ideologue.
And he can make a decent case. Although he headed the Democratic caucus as a legislator, Edwards himself was in ALEC. This year, he signed three ALEC-modeled laws — on budget transparency, campus speech and shielding pipelines and other infrastructure projects from environmental protesters.
Despite some grousing on Twitter from conservative critics, ALEC officials and members seemed pleased he came. ALEC national chairman Jason Saine even praised Edwards’ commitment to “sound tax policy,” which surely caused some consternation among local critics of his push to renew a portion of a temporary sales tax earlier this year. In fact, Edwards recognized the author of the ultimate compromise bill, state Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, from the podium as one of ALEC’s Louisiana state chairs.
"Good ideas shouldn't be partisan," said Saine, a Republican legislator from North Carolina. "We want to hear from him."
Turns out an even more prominent conservative also wanted to hear from Edwards this week: President Donald Trump.
Edwards joined an otherwise all-Republican group of governors and attorneys general at a Thursday meeting at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey golf club to talk about the state’s criminal justice reform drive aimed at reducing mass incarceration. This is a rare issue that has bipartisan support, both in many states and at the federal level, even though both Landry and Kennedy have tried to use it to paint Edwards as soft on crime. Kennedy went so far as to pen a letter to Trump badmouthing Louisiana’s effort, which apparently went ignored.
Instead, the president nodded approvingly as Edwards explained that the law has already knocked Louisiana out of its perch as the nation’s most incarcerated state. We know this because an Edwards staffer tweeted out a clip showing the exchange.
And why wouldn’t he? Trump is a hugely divisive figure nationwide but still popular among the Louisiana voters who’ll decide Edwards’ fate in 2019. While the governor has disagreed in public with some of the administration’s more extreme policies, he’s generally refrained from personal criticism and has by all accounts built a decent working relationship with the White House.
There wasn’t a lot for Edwards’ more liberal supporters to like in all this, particularly in his friendly visit to ALEC just a week after he bypassed the progressive Netroots Nation gathering in New Orleans, which drew major figures from the left wing of his party such as Massachusetts' U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California's U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
But Louisiana voters who like Warren and Harris are likely to turn out for Edwards despite any disappointment. He did take on the Medicaid expansion and some other Democratic priorities, after all, and he’s the closest to a like-minded soul that they’re going to get in Louisiana.
Edwards’ bigger challenge is keeping enough voters who like Trump and back ALEC’s agenda in his corner. On that front, you’ve got to admit that he had a pretty good week.