This past week there was a congressional tragedy: Jackie Walorski, a member of Congress from Indiana, was killed when the SUV she was riding in suddenly veered into another lane and crashed into an approaching vehicle. Two of her staff members and the driver of the other vehicle also died.

Among the many tributes made to her by members of the House, New Orleans area’s Steve Scalise, the House minority Whip, said that Walorski “was a champion for the people of Indiana, and she will be remembered for her kindness, tenacity, and commitment to helping others.”

 

That tragedy brought to mind another disaster involving a congress member, this one from Louisiana. Beyond the personal loss, the accident would have major repercussions for the state over the years.

On July 1, 1965, T.A. Thompson, a Democrat who represented what was then Louisiana’s seventh congressional district (roughly the Cajun country), was killed near Gastonia, North Carolina. His vehicle collided into the back of a truck.

Politics is always quick to fill a vacuum, or at least to speculate on who might fill that vacuum. A special election was called to assume the position. Among the office-seekers was a flashy State Senator from Crowley named Edwin Washington Edwards.

Folks had never seen such a candidate.

He was blond and handsome; bilingual with a fluent Cajun accent; witty, and very smart. He also mastered politics.

Edwards won the election and went to Washington. Being a member of Congress gave him a much higher profile then he would ever have in Crowley. Years later, Edwards would admit that he was not a very good congressman. He served seven years and could have been leadership material but he was bored. He had another calling.

That, of course, was the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge. In 1971, he was one of several candidates in a regularly scheduled election. 

Most often, winners of the gubernatorial election had come from the upper part of Louisiana—someone whose upstate vote would put him into a runoff and then he would court the New Orleans vote to win. True to form, Edwards’s runoff opponent in the decisive Democrat primary was Shreveport State Senator J. Bennett Johnston, who ran as a reformer. This may be apocryphal but the buzz has been that the duck hunting season had just opened and LSU was playing Ole Miss in nearby Oxford, Mississippi that day, so the upstate voters were just not paying attention. The turnout among the voters that Johnston needed was low.

With that came the entry of a new political force in Louisiana politics. After serving his first four years, Edwards would be elected to a second term before having to step aside aside because of term limitations. He ran again four years later in ‘84. In all he would serve 4 terms, more than anyone ever had.

In his first term he pushed through a new state constitution, something that other governors had tried and failed. In ’84, the World’s Fair in New Orleans was in financial trouble but he helped save it. The economy was good. Edwards might have been a totally revered governor except that he was almost continually under federal investigation for something or the other. Eventually, he would be found guilty but not until after he was out of office. He received a 10 year sentence but came back just as robust as the day he left Crowley. He even got his own reality TV show.

His last election was in 1991, a campaign of global interest when his opponent was former Ku Klux Klan boss David Duke. Edwards, who also had a reputation as a philanderer, was always a great quipster. One of his greatest lines came when he was asked to compare himself to Duke: “We’re both wizards under the sheets.”

We don’t want to be dramatic but were it not for circumstance we wonder what the future might have been. Thompson, had he lived, might have been a leader in Congress. Edwards might have run for governor anyway but as a state senator, without the panache and name recognition of being a congressman, he would not have had as high of a profile. Bennett Johnston would have most likely been elected governor. Soon after Johnston’s defeat there was a vacancy in a Louisiana U.S. Senate seat. Johnston ran and was bolstered by the name recognition he had gotten from his gubernatorial run. He served 25 years and was a powerful and effective Senator. (I once asked Johnston if in retrospect he was glad he lost the gubernatorial race, which, in effect, propelled him to the Senate. He just smiled.)

If there is any lesson it is that in politics, as in life and highways, there are many sudden turns. We should always keep an eye on the road.

 

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