Tuesday night, in what very well may be the final debate of his long and colorful career in Louisiana politics, former Governor Edwin Edwards, now running for Congress, came out swinging, accusing his Republican opponent, Garret Graves, of doling out millions of dollars in contracts to family members, when Graves was the chair of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
“If I had taken all of the money through all of the years,” Edwards said, “it would be a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money my opponent and his father have taken from the state.” It was a great line, vintage Edwin Edwards, a man known just as much for the time he spent behind bars as he is for his quick, irreverent wit.
Love him or loathe him, it’s impossible to deny Edwards’s tenacity or his perspicacity. At 87, he is now remarried to a woman more than half his age, and last August, shortly before announcing his candidacy for Congress, he became a daddy, again. During the debate, Edwards, at times, demonstrated why his special brand of pragmatic populism has always been appealing in Louisiana.
After Graves wrapped up a long-winded statement about the failures of government, Edwards, repeating a portion of the stump speech he has delivered for months, delivered a stirring defense of American government. “Without the government, children would still be working in coal mines. Without the government, families would still have to work 80 hours a week just to put food on their tables,” he said (and in fairness, I am paraphrasing here, so the quote may not be completely verbatim).
Some Louisiana Democrats have never quite made amends with Edwards, and while he may talk convincingly and passionately about social justice and income inequality and coastal restoration — three issues that animate and motivate young Louisianians more than anything else, he has still struggled to bring back a machine that had elected him four times as governor. When you spend eight years behind bars, you likely disenchant some of your fiercest and most loyal former supporters, for good. In this election, the former governor cannot rely, as he once did, on machine politics; he is banking on his record, the sheer force of personality, and his ubiquitous recognition as a living Louisiana political legend.
Despite his flaws, Edwards has run an undeniably impressive campaign. After recovering from the abysmal reality TV show, once the cameras finally left, Edwards’s campaign has been remarkably, aggressively “retail,” professional, and willing to engage on any given issue — everything from net neutrality to marriage equality to abortion to the privatizations of prisons and hospitals to high-speed rail. If there weren’t for one tiny little blemish on his resume (OK, it’s more like an enormous streak of red paint), Edwin Edwards would have likely already won. His message is broadly appealing and sensible, and many Louisiana voters still love him, no matter what. But voters aren’t even listening to the message; they’re looking at the messenger.
Tuesday, Garret Graves, who had spent much of the debate pandering to the radical right and Tea Party fringe, suggested, somewhat incomprehensibly, that the American economy was strongest when Republicans shut down the government. Graves also denounced welfare benefits, which he falsely claimed paid an outrageous $25 an hour. He may have been in friendly turf, but some of his answers insulted the intelligence of his constituents. If you had muted last night’s debate, Graves would have looked sensible and charming, a boyish-looking father of three who could charge Bill Cassidy for smiling lessons. But if you had the volume turned up, you may have been under the impression that America was under attack by a small group of Mexican ISIS members plotting to steal free knowledge from our schools and free Obamacare from the white people in the suburbs who have deluded themselves into believing that they fund the government. Oh, and maybe even a couple of ObamaPhones. Garret Graves mentioned those too. Seriously.
Graves, an Alabama college drop-out, claimed that the number one thing about America is that “it was founded as a Christian nation.” That’s number one to him. To be clear, I mention that he’s an Alabama college drop-out only to remind folks that when he says, “Christian nation,” he’s also thinking, “Roll Tide.” Perhaps this seems nice and reassuring to his voters, but it’s patently untrue. More importantly, it’s just unnecessarily divisive.
Garret Graves didn’t need to do any of this; it belies the wonkishness and moderate sensibilities that many had hoped to expect from him; it seemed inauthentic and scripted.
Yet, somehow, in the final three minutes of the debate, Garret Graves delivered the strongest and most memorable closing statement in this entire election cycle. Governor Edwards had just wrapped up his case against Graves’s abysmal record as Jindal’s coastal czar, reminding the audience of the catastrophic failures of the $300 million sand berm project in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon spill and closing with contracts his father’s company had received from the government. Edwards’s claims, despite Graves’s scripted outrage, are relevant and troubling.
At first, it looked like it’d be a knockout punch, but Graves was more than prepared. When he first heard these allegations, he said, he wondered why someone with the record and the experience of Edwards would have ever repeated them. “I did some research,” Graves said, “and I found this quote from a few years from Governor Edwards. ‘Lying is a big part of my job.’” The crowd erupted. Graves said that arguments like Edwards’s were why it was so difficult to want to serve. He spoke passionately about his family, and he implied Edwards has reflexively assumed the worst in him. Quoting from The Times-Picayune (bold mine):
Graves repeated at the debate, which was hosted by the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce, what he’s often said regarding his choice to enter the race. He didn’t want to run for office, despite being asked to, until his wife Carrisa convinced him to do so because he understood Louisiana’s assets and problems and could “get things done.” He said he wondered why — like him, at a time — good people did not want to work in government.
“It’s because people step in with honest intentions and feel called to public service, (and) they get slandered and things made up about them,” Graves said.
It was strong, powerful, personal stuff, and only seconds before the debate ended and the microphones went out, Graves also said, “The Last Hayride‘s been written. We don’t need to revise it.”
Garret Graves may not be the most qualified candidate. In order to win by the largest conceivable margin, he may cynically believe it is more important to recycle discredited studies disparaging the poor than actually championing their dignity, their humanity, and their rights and those who believe, too, that the poor have been institutionally disenfranchised by the government; it’s a damn shame. Garret Graves is almost certain to win, but it is as if he learned absolutely nothing about what it means to be decent and pragmatic from a guy who has perpetually, perplexingly earned more votes than anyone else in the history of Louisiana; if he hadn’t instituted the Jungle Primary system, there’s a remote chance he would have already been elected to Congress already.
If Edwin wins, he will still always be Guvnah. If Edwin loses, he will still always be Guvnah. Either way, he ain’t going gentle.