Governors recall their terms

In a rare gathering, Louisiana’s four ex-governors Wednesday reminisced about the ups and downs of their time in office with a mixture of passion, humor and anecdotes.

Former Govs. Kathleen Blanco, Mike Foster, Edwin Edwards and Buddy Roemer appeared for a 65-minute discussion as part of the Council for a Better Louisiana’s 50th anniversary.

Roemer, who served in 1988-92, somberly recalled taking office with a state unemployment rate of 13.8 percent, dire problems in the state’s oil and gas industry and a state government with the lowest bond rating in the United States. “And it was almost overwhelming,” Roemer said.

“I would sit on the edge of my bed crying” at the end of another 17-hour day, he told the group.

Blanco said her three predecessors faced “amateur crises” compared with her administration’s grappling with hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which struck within a month of each other in her second year in office.

“To see our people so terribly wounded was one of the most powerful things that I had to do,” Blanco said.

Edwards, 85, tossed out quips at every turn, and sparked laughter and applause when he was asked to describe one crisis that made an impression on him as governor. “My crisis came after I was governor,” he said, an apparent reference to his time in prison after he was convicted of racketeering.

Edwards, who served four terms as governor, later noted that he has been a registered Democrat all his life.

“I finally found a reason to like Republicans,” Edwards said.

“I sleep with one,” he said, a reference to his wife, Trina, 33.

Foster, who served in 1996-2004, recalled worrying about a dangerous rise in the Mississippi River while he held office.

At one point, he said, he got a call at 2 a.m. from Angola Prison Warden Burl Cain about evacuating the prison because of fears of flooding.

“The river came very close to overflowing,” Foster said. “If that ever happens, it is going to make Katrina look like a Sunday school picnic.”

He added, “That was probably the thing that scared me the most.”

CABL officials said the get-together marked the first time that the four ex-governors shared a public podium to discuss where Louisiana has been and where it is going.

Blanco and Edwards are Democrats. Roemer and Foster are Republicans.

The four held office for a total of 32 years, with Edwards accounting for half of that.

The gathering was taped for statewide broadcast by Louisiana Public Broadcasting.

It was held in a packed ballroom of the Hilton Capitol Center, which CABL officials said would accommodate 470 people.

Gov. Bobby Jindal was not invited since the get-together focused on the four former governors, officials said.

Blanco, who defeated Jindal in 2003, devoted much of her time to recalling Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, including repeated trips to Washington, D.C., in an often-frustrating hunt for federal recovery aid amid partisan bickering.

“I hated Washington, I hated the people,” Blanco said. “They were playing politics.”

She also defended her then-controversial decision to focus some of the state’s early rebuilding efforts on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“That really had become a symbol of despair,” Blanco said of the domed stadium.

Roemer said that, during his term, teacher pay rose 30 percent, the state’s bond rating was improved and the budget balanced. “We cleaned it up as best as we could,” he said.

Edwards recalled the rewriting of the State Constitution during his first term, including a drastic reduction in the number of state departments, .

All four noted that power in Louisiana revolves around the Governor’s Office.

“If the governor doesn’t get behind, it is not going to happen,” Edwards said.

Roemer said he misses the ability to help people in a way that only a governor can.

Blanco cited the satisfaction of landing major economic development projects, like a tank car plant near Alexandria.

Foster noted that the office has its perks.

“What do I miss the most?” Foster asked. “The helicopter.”