‘I haven’t had this much attention since the trial’
Many agree that former Gov. Edwin Edwards will turn a sleepy race for Louisiana’s congressional 6th District seat into something more interesting, but it’s not very likely he’ll win.
Edwards’ announcement Monday that he’s running for Congress puts an end to several weeks of speculation that he’s joining an already crowded field hoping to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
His candidacy doesn’t come as a shock to many, considering the colorful former governor hinted at mounting a congressional campaign earlier this month. But as a left-leaning octogenarian several years removed from his last political office, and running in a deep-red district, a number of political strategists say it’ll be a tough race for him.
The 6th District, centered in Baton Rouge, has been reliably Republican for years, and became even safer for Republicans in 2011 after the lines were re-drawn, Lafayette political scientist G. Pearson Cross said.
Edwards will make the race more exciting, and may even attract national attention, but not much more than that, Cross said. “This changes the race. It’s sure to stir up some notoriety … but I don’t think he has a chance of winning,” he said.
Whether he has a shot at winning the seat, the former governor did what he’s done his entire career — soak up a share of the spotlight.
The father of five, politician, reality TV personality and ex-convict announced his candidacy to much fanfare Monday, entering a packed ballroom to cheers and applause during a meeting of the Press Club of Baton Rouge.
Photographers swarmed the four-time governor as he, his wife, Trina, and their infant son made their way to the front of the room.
“I haven’t had this much attention since the trial,” Edwards said, referring to his 2000 bribery and extortion court case.
“I acknowledge there are good reasons why I should not run, but there are better reasons why I should,” he added.
Outside the venue, the reaction was less positive.
The state Republican party condemned the former governor, while state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, one of the candidates running in the Nov. 4 election, took a shot at Edwards on Twitter.
“Unlike last time, don’t vote for the crook. It’s important,” Claitor tweeted. It’s a reference to an old Edwards campaign slogan when he ran for governor against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
For its part, the state Democratic party was quiet Monday.
Despite his popularity, many people consider Edwards politically radioactive.
He was convicted and sentenced to federal prison in an extortion and bribery scheme to rig riverboat casino licenses. He spent nearly a decade behind bars before his 2011 release.
While several people in tune with state politics questioned whether Edwards is making a serious run, or just trying to grab headlines, political strategist Raymond “Coach” Blanco, of Lafayette, cautioned the naysayers not to count Edwards out.
“He’s probably one of the best ever at sizing things up,” Blanco said. “I’m sure he’s looked at the numbers and he’s looked at the district, and if he’s going to run, he’s not playing. He’ll be serious about this.”
Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University, said it’s likely Edwards will have to change his spots and campaign as a moderate or even a conservative if he is going to have a chance at winning a seat in Congress.
“It will be interesting to see if Edwards has the appeal to win in a district that’s reliably safe for Republicans,” Samuels said. “He’s the inheritor of the Huey Long populist tradition.”
In that vein, longtime political watchers might have noticed Edwards, an unabashed liberal, took a number of conservative positions Monday, including embracing the Keystone XL pipeline and talking about his opposition to the country’s new health care law.
In a reversal of a statement he made last year, Edwards said he would not have supported the Affordable Care Act had he been in Washington, D.C., when Congress voted on it. “Not because I don’t agree with the intent of the legislation, but I feel … it’s too fraught with pitfalls and unknown dangers.”
Edwards added he likes certain parts of the law, including provisions that stop insurers from denying coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions and a rule that allows children to stay on their parents’ health care plan until age 26.
Edwards later switched gears and criticized Gov. Bobby Jindal for not embracing Medicaid expansion, the part of Obamacare that offers funding to states that extend health insurance to the working poor.
Jindal has steadfastly refused to accept those funds, arguing that Louisiana won’t be able to afford the program several years down the line once the federal government scales back the amount of money given to states.
Edwards has said he believes Jindal won’t accept the money because he wants a clean record nationally of having rejected anything related to President Barack Obama.
Edwards countered that Medicaid expansion is something even conservatives should embrace, saying insured people eventually pay the tab when people without insurance get sick and turn up in hospital emergency rooms.
“They’re not going to sit home and writhe in pain and wait to die,” Edwards said. “They’ll show up at the emergency room, where hospitals are required to take them. … For some reason, the governor of this state has declined to accept this money.”
Edwards said he’ll work to override Jindal’s decision if he’s elected to Congress. He added that he has trouble sleeping knowing as many as 400,000 working poor in Louisiana don’t have health coverage.
He also said he would work to get himself assigned to committees dealing with public works and agriculture, so his voice will be heard on matters dealing with farmers and the petrochemical industry.
Throughout his speech, Edwards displayed his trademark confidence and wit, routinely speaking as if he has the election already wrapped up. Other times, he said he expects to end up in a runoff with one of the many Republicans running against him.
He said he expects that his name recognition will give him a boost over lesser-known candidates, but added that he wants to raise between $1 million and $2 million, just in case.
If Edwards was to beat out a crowded congressional field in the fall election, it would be his second stint in Washington, D.C.
He was previously elected to the U.S. House in the 1960s, winning three full terms in 1966, 1968 and 1970, before returning to Louisiana to run for governor in 1971.
In an interview last year with veteran broadcaster Larry King, Edwards said he would’ve become one of the nation’s most powerful lawmakers had he decided to stay in Congress in the 1970s.
Since his release from prison, it’s been a busy three years for the former four-term governor.
After prison, Edwards moved into home confinement and then supervised release. He later married his third wife, Trina, 35.
In 2012, the 86-year-old was hospitalized for pneumonia, In August 2013, he celebrated the birth of his fifth child, Eli Edwards.
Later that year, he landed a short-lived reality show on A&E. But after three weeks and a dwindling viewership, the network yanked the “The Governor’s Wife” from the airwaves, putting an end to a show that was widely panned by critics and supporters alike.
To many, the timing of Edwards’ congressional run fits perfectly with his reputation as someone comfortable in the spotlight.
But even if his campaign is just a ploy, LSU political science professor Kirby Goidel said there is a slight chance that Edwards catches a break.
“It would take a highly unlikely dynamic for him to come out and win, but I wouldn’t rule it out completely,” Goidel said. “Maybe he gets lucky and gets into a runoff with one of the weaker candidates.”
Like other strategists, Goidel agreed that Edwards’ candidacy adds excitement to the race, but he said he’s not sure if it will be an overall positive for the state.
“The most positive take is because he’s running, he attracts greater national attention, which could be good for Baton Rouge and good for Louisiana,” Goidel said. “What’s more likely is that people look at this as another example that, in Louisiana, anything can happen. It could be looked at as Louisiana corruption and old-style politics.”
Louisiana has a vacant congressional seat because Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, is running for the U.S. Senate, challenging incumbent Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Edwards, who lives in Ascension Parish, will be joined in the race by LaPlace real estate broker Richard Dean Lieberman, who is running as a Democrat, and several Baton Rouge area Republicans, including: the Jindal administration’s former point man on coastal restoration, Garret Graves; small-business owner Craig McCulloch; educator Charles “Trey” Thomas; tax lawyer Cassie Felder; state Sen. Dan Claitor; business owner Paul Dietzel II; and Robert Bell, a retired U.S. Navy Reserve officer and Tea Party of Louisiana columnist who calls himself Captain Bob.
Based in south Baton Rouge, the 6th District also includes all or part of Ascension, Assumption, East Feliciana, Iberville, Lafourche, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. John the Baptist, Terrebonne and West Baton Rouge parishes. The district also is shaped to lean more conservative than it did before. The district, with 358,555 registered voters, is 74 percent white and 33 percent Republican, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
The GOP-dominated Louisiana Legislature in 2011 realigned the 6th District lines to the point that it became the butt of jokes on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” a political satire program on the Comedy Central television network.
The Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office’s statistics says about 64 percent of the registered voters in the 6th Congressional District in 2010 were white. Nearly 40,000 black residents, mostly from north Baton Rouge, were shifted to the New Orleans-based minority-majority seat of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana congressional delegation’s only Democrat.
The redrawn 6th District lost some of north Baton Rouge and chunks of West Baton Rouge, Ascension and St. James parishes. But the district now moves farther south to snatch up parts of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.