EDWIN EDWARDS AT 90
Edwin Edwards likes to tell the story about after graduating from Law School at LSU he had to decide where to set up his practice. As a native of Avoyelles Parish, the town of Marksville would have been a natural choice. However, when visiting a sister in Crowley he looked through the phone book and was surprised at the scarcity of lawyers there, far fewer than Marksville. So he made his move to Crowley where he discovered there were more lawyers than he thought. It turned out that some pages had been ripped out of the phone book.
Politically though, Crowley was no rip off — from there, he was able to parlay a political career as a state senator, followed by congressman and then, the big one, governor.
This Aug. 7 will be Edwards’ 90th birthday. He has served more time in the mansion (four terms) than any other governor. (He has also served more time in prison, eight years, for gambling related racketeering charges, eclipsing Huey Long protégée Richard Leche by three years.)
When he set his mind to it, Edwards could be a skilled governor and will always be remembered for delivering a new state constitution in 1973 after previous administrations failed. With his Cajun accent and mastery of Louisiana French he literally spoke the state’s language, but he could also talk the talk among the power people and frequently come out ahead.
For a Louisiana politician, 1927 was a significant year to be born. He arrived only four months after what is still remembered as the “great flood,” a tragedy that made the state ripe for populist appeals to the have-nots. Huey Long mastered local populism in 1928; Edwards would carry it through his career displaying both political finesse and glibness.
Edwards stories abound: I witnessed one shortly after Dutch Morial had been elected New Orleans’ first black mayor. Edwards, as governor, attended a fund raising event for Morial. Casino gambling was an emerging issue. Morial joked that he and the governor could go into the hotel’s back room and shoot some craps. Edwards responded quickly: “I may not be the smartest person in the world, but I have enough sense not to gamble with a black politician.”
Morial, usually a stern man, was doubled over with laughter. (An Edwards classic was the amorous former governor’s comparison of himself to former Klan leader David Duke: “We’re both wizards under the sheets.”)
On election night 2016, a crowd gathered at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans to celebrate the election of a different man named Edwards as governor. A security guard questioned an elderly man in the crowd until someone pointed out that that was the former governor. Related to the new governor only by political party, Edwin Edwards at least got to experience the thrill of election night at the Monteleone one more time.
Next year will be the 45th anniversary of the adoption of the state constitution that Edwards guided to passage. It is the document that has governed the state since. Power passes on but Edwin Edwards was never too far from it.