Back in the day, way before he headed off to West Point, law school, the Louisiana Legislature and ultimately the Governor’s Mansion, John Bel Edwards was a pitcher for Amite High School’s baseball team.
And give him this: He still knows how to aim straight down the middle.
Now that Edwards has officially launched his reelection campaign in advance of this fall’s vote, a pattern is starting to emerge. Edwards, a Democrat, is running against a pair of Republicans — so far — who are likely to spend much of 2019 painting him as an out-of-touch liberal. His answer, it seems, will be to talk about issues that have broad appeal.
The big one is Louisiana’s teacher pay, which reached the Southern average under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco but has failed to keep up since. Edwards’ top agenda item in the coming legislative session is to increase salaries for educators and school support staff, and there doesn’t appear to be much opposition to the general concept.
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That doesn’t mean that there won’t be battles, both over the amount and distribution of raises and over how to pay for them. A fight over the latter may be lurking behind the superficially unrelated controversy now playing out over whether to recognize higher revenue for next year, a prerequisite to allowing the money to go into Edwards’ proposed budget (Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras is using his post on the Revenue Estimating Conference to block the move). Inside baseball aside, the Legislature is likely to approve something, and Edwards has been talking about raising teacher pay enough to claim plenty of the credit.
As for his goals for next term, Edwards is starting to focus more and more on investing in early childhood education. This too is a priority that cuts across party lines, and the governor is always careful to frame it in widely appealing ways, as an investment that nets a significant return and as a means to preparing the state’s children to succeed in school and ultimately at work.
"If we ever want to close the achievement gap and improve education outcomes in Louisiana we are going to have to do something between zero and three years of age," Edwards said at a recent editorial board meeting with The Advocate. "It absolutely ought to be a priority."
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That’s not his entire platform, of course. Edwards is once again promising to push for a slightly higher minimum wage, particularly in light of similar moves by many other states. And he’s still talking about taking measures to reduce the deep wage gap between men and women. He ran on both issues in 2015 and there’s ample evidence that they have widespread support, even though the Legislature has refused to adopt either measure.
But the more potentially divisive issues are actually behind him.
In 2015, Edwards promised to try to reduce mass incarceration, and while Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy are still attacking him as soft on crime, he passed legislation with lots of support from Republicans.
Last time around he promised to adopt the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which former Gov. Bobby Jindal had rejected, and quickly did. There have been some problems with it, which the governor’s staff says are largely fixed. But overall, Edwards points to great success; the expansion has given nearly 500,000 Louisianans access to insurance and preventive care, saved the state money and helped keep rural hospitals in business. And significantly, critics of how much the state spends on Medicaid haven’t called for a reversal of the policy.
Also behind Edwards is the task of digging out of the deep budget hole he inherited. There are Republicans who are going to push to roll back some of the sales tax that the GOP-majority Legislature passed, but the real crisis — and the real fight — is in the rearview mirror.
Other issues will arise during the long campaign, and both Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone will surely make Edwards’ party affiliation and political leanings a central plank.
Just as surely, Edwards will try to avoid giving them much to swing at.