Saved by The Bel?

by Jeremy Alford

While state Rep. John Bel Edwards' campaign for governor is a long shot, it could redefine Louisiana Democrats in the post-Bobby Jindal era.

While state Rep. John Bel Edwards' campaign for governor is a long shot, it could redefine Louisiana Democrats in the post-Bobby Jindal era. By JEREMY ALFORD / photos by robin may

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

That he is former military was among the first information the Capitol crowd had on John Bel Edwards in 2008, before he arrived for his inaugural session as a newly minted state representative. The rest of his dossier was pretty standard stuff: Democrat, House District 72, Amite native, Catholic, trial attorney, not related to Edwin Edwards.

When he paces the House floor lining up votes for the Democratic Caucus, he doesn't carry himself with the stiffness of a drill sergeant and doesn't bark out orders, but Edwards is definitely former military. He graduated from West Point, which has produced two presidents. He was an Army infantryman, which indicates he wanted to be a grunt.

His colleagues regard him as smart, observant and respectful, but incisive with his questions. They say he's effective in committee, unafraid to tackle tough issues and quick to challenge powerful opponents. The anti-administration policies Edwards pursued and the legislative goals he set early on quickly revealed his political stripes. They also set the foundation for his recently announced campaign for governor.

He was an Airborne Ranger, which means he volunteered to jump out of moving planes, land safely on the ground, and attack the enemy. He commanded his own rifle company in the 82nd Airborne in the 1990s. It was a fighting division, still is, with soldiers proud to wear the famous "AA" patches - "All-American" - on their shoulders.
Edwards received his first orders for a combat mission as an Airborne Ranger in 1994. Despite objections from Congress, former President Bill Clinton set into motion a military intervention after the Haitian government refused to restore democratic rule. Edwards' division was called up. "We were loaded and ready. The doors were closed and we started moving," he recalls. "We had already donned our parachutes."

Unbeknownst to Edwards, Clinton had also sent a delegation that included former President Jimmy Carter to Haiti to negotiate a surrender of the government. At that moment, most of America's ready military fleet was told to stand down. "They turned us around and sent us back," says Edwards, now 46. "I ended up being a peacetime soldier. And look, I was not one of those people who felt like their life would not be complete if they did not engage in combat. I am not going to tell you I was disappointed, because that was not going to happen without a tremendous loss of life. Not on our side - on their side."

Edwards says he knew what his job was when he boarded the plane. "I believe in fighting when necessary," he says. "It should always be a last resort, and in this case it was."

While he initially expected to pull a 20-year hitch in the Army, Edwards became a civilian just two years later. "My oldest child, Samantha, was born with spina bifida, and she had several brain surgeries over her first few years - and I was always gone, long deployments, training, and my wife had to tend to that by herself," he says. "I got to feeling like that was unfair to her and that the family would be better off if we came home. Also, at the time, the Cold War was over and the Army was getting smaller. They were asking people to leave and get out the Army if they were not absolutely sure they were staying in it for a career."

From that point on, Edwards' new career became the law and politics, with larger ambitions just beyond the horizon.

In terms of the 2015 governor's race, Edwards announced at zero dark hundred, that ambiguous military timeframe when the sun is still down, the crickets are chirping and there's dew clinging to blades of grass. Among Democrats, he remains the only committed candidate. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is said to be comfortable where he is for now. The mayor's sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, is gearing up for her own tough re-election campaign; she is the only statewide elected Democrat in Louisiana.

Bernie Pinsonat, president of Southern Media and Opinion Research in Baton Rouge, says Mitch Landrieu is the real wild card among Democrats and looms as Edwards' biggest political obstacle. "Mitch Landrieu would be the strongest candidate. He has already held statewide elected office," says Pinsonat. "It doesn't matter what John Bel Edwards does. If Mitch decides to run, Edwards becomes a non-candidate."

Jim Bernhard, former CEO of the Shaw Group in Baton Rouge and one-time chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, is rumored to be considering the race, especially following whispers that President Barack Obama had him on the short list for energy secretary. Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell is a perennial maybe candidate, too, with a populist twist.

"There will be others," says state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans, current chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party. "I have heard interest from different people, although I can't reveal who they are."

Edwards believes he'll have company, too. "We're not lacking. The bench is there," he says. "The question is whether these folks will want to get in the game. I am truly impressed by the quality of talent." He adds that statewide Democratic candidates could easily emerge from the Legislature, most notably Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger of New Orleans and Sens. Eric LaFleur of Ville Platte and Rick Gallot of Ruston, as well as from mayor's offices in Alexandria and Baton Rouge. "I don't know what these people want to do, but they're capable."

It's a different picture on the Republican side, where likely candidates are already stacking up: Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Treasurer John Kennedy, state Sen. Gerald Long of Winnfield, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, among others.

For his part, Edwards is right now running against a Republican who won't even be in the race: Gov. Bobby Jindal, who's nearly halfway through his second and final term. With favorability ratings lower than Obama in Louisiana, Jindal is in a free fall following legal challenges to his landmark education and retirement reform packages, poor performances on the national presidential circuit, and a tax-swap plan that was pronounced dead before the current legislative session even opened. The governor's budgets, always accompanied by shortfalls and mid-year cuts, are likewise causing him political heartburn.

Jindal has upset teachers, state workers, unions, working families - and even middle-class moderates with kids in or considering state colleges and universities. That has created a perfect political opportunity for someone like Edwards, an unrelenting critic of the administration, to swoop in and promise to play the role of hero. "I think it's clear to people in this state that the governor has placed personal ambition above their welfare," he says. "His policies more than anything are causing people who have voted Republican over the last few election cycles to realize there is a cost associated [with such a vote]."

Pinsonat agrees. Republicans have been on a roll since 2011, he says, claiming the state House, Senate and all but one statewide office (including the federal seats). But Jindal has recently become a liability. "His cuts to hospitals and higher education and mental health facilities and all that may or may not affect that race," the pollster says. "It could help push lower and middle income voters away from Republicans and make this thing achievable. That is something to be watched, and it is showing up in polls. But that's right now. The election is a long ways off."

Jason Doré, executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, notes that Edwards, should he be the lone high-profile Democrat, has a decent shot of making the runoff against the top GOP vote getter, given history and the nature of the state's jungle primary. But the lawmaker's constant opposition to Jindal's policies and support for Obama's will help Republicans paint him in a fashion that has sunk other Democratic candidates with more skin in the game.

If Edwards tries to fit himself into the mold of a conservative Democrat, Doré says, it won't resonate with voters. "John Bel Edwards just doesn't seem to be embracing the mantle of conservative Democrat," he notes. "That will become more apparent in the runoff, when it will be a clear choice between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat."

Dem party chair Peterson, for one, says next year's re-election campaign of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu will be a better litmus test for Edwards' hopes. "No question. It will be telling. There's no tap dancing around that," she says. "We're going to have to start building momentum with that race."

For Edwards to transform barely two terms in the state House into at least four years in the Governor's Mansion, he needs to introduce himself to voters early - before Republicans can define him as an Obama patsy. He says he's sturdy on both fronts, but until the campaigning really starts, he remains largely an unknown.

Edwards comes from old political stock. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all popular sheriffs in Tangipahoa Parish. So popular that his younger brother Daniel, who inspired him to be an infantryman, is now the fourth generation to wear the badge. Not to be outdone, his older brother Frank is police chief in Independence, and he has a sister-in-law on the bench.

He spent a good deal of time in the woods and in the duck blind with his brothers, who recall the state representative bragging - long before he fired as an expert marksman on the range - that he could "outshoot Davy Crockett" and take down any game. "That's probably true," Edwards says with a laugh. "As a kid, if a duck fell, I would claim I shot it."

His mother claimed his fourth grade teacher sent home a note one day calling him a "born leader." Edwards later made his mark on the local football team and married his high school sweetheart.

With the goal of attending law school, Edwards was late to apply for West Point, but he was aided by recommendations from former U.S. Sens. Russell Long and J. Bennett Johnston. "I didn't know either of them personally, but they certainly knew who my dad was," Edwards recalls. He was also elected by his fellow cadets to serve as vice chairman of investigations for the Honor Committee, which oversaw conduct hearings and rendered rulings.

He left the military for a new start as a small-town attorney. Given his career choice and family background, it was only a matter of time before Edwards made the leap into politics, which he did by winning a House district that is largely African-American and poor. He garnered 66 percent of the vote in 2007 and 83 percent four years later. In his first year as a lawmaker, he landed a chairmanship over a select committee on veteran affairs. By his third session, he had risen through the ranks to chair the Democratic Caucus.

He passed a tough bill early on, prescribing how war veterans' homes and care facilities can be used, and he crafted new protections for victims of child pornography. Edwards also made a name for himself second-guessing the Jindal Administration's priorities on everything from teacher tenure to public retirement benefits.

Peterson says Edwards exemplifies the kind of "American values" that resonate across party lines, even if some people disagree with his politics. "These are values we have in common," she says. "It's an entry point to talking about common interests."
While that may be a good political introduction, Pinsonat says poll numbers today show a tough challenge for any statewide Democratic candidate, regardless of his or her story, adding, "It's not impossible, but it would be a difficult task because of the demographics of Louisiana."

In addition to the poll numbers and recent trends, history is not on Edwards' side. No candidate in modern times, if ever, has moved directly from the House of Representatives to the Governor's Mansion. If Edwards succeeds, or even comes close, his candidacy could be transformative for the Dems.

In his campaign for governor, Edwards says he will make higher education his top issue. "We're dismantling our most important institutions that people rely on," he says. "It's not helpful when you are trying to graduate students on time and retain teachers and you don't give the universities enough money to accomplish that."

The issue is polling strongly right now, chiefly due to Jindal's funding reductions in recent years. A Southern Media poll taken just before the session found that nearly 80 percent of Louisiana voters opposed further cuts to higher ed. The numbers are nearly identical on health care, another important campaign plank for Edwards.

To get his bio and ideas out to voters, Edwards will need money. Lawmakers are banned from fundraising during legislative sessions, but Edwards hosted an event in Hammond before the current session convened. He says it brought in, along with smaller fundraisers preceding it, more than $300,000. In 2012, he raised just $61,000 and went into 2013 with about $37,000 in the bank. The campaign will need millions to compete effectively for governor, but his recent efforts show there is potential, Edwards says.

He raised only about $9,300 last year from political action committees, and spent just as much on polling with the Kitchens Group of Florida. Financial disclosure forms on file with the Ethics Administration show he has received food and lodging from groups like AT&T and the Farm Bureau while delivering speeches he described as focused on budget challenges.

Edwards' largest donors by far are attorneys, which speaks to his own calling as a trial lawyer. He refers to his business as a "plaintiff's practice." Pinsonat says business and industry won't see a distinction. "His profession is a trial lawyer, and Louisiana is not a friendly state [for trial lawyers], one of the top three in that regard," the pollster says. "He will certainly be up against it with the business community, and they will be throwing money at it."

Edwards says most of his clients are small businesses and he doesn't specialize. "In a small town, you can't specialize too much or you'll starve to death," he says. He adds that he avoids cases that overlap into law enforcement so as not to create conflicts with his brothers.

His personal financial disclosure form shows he has represented clients before state departments since being elected, but Edwards says that kind of work did not start with public office. "There were times when someone would have a dispute with the Department of Revenue and I would write a letter or make a phone call," he says. "I had done it on a few occasions before becoming a state representative."

The first time Edwards ever had to raise money on a large scale was in 2011, when he toured the state helping House Democrats maintain their seats. In some respects, that was a trial run for his planned gubernatorial campaign. With Jindal handpicking candidates and Vitter shepherding his own GOP committee, Edwards knew Democrats would eventually be outspent 4-to-1 in the last statewide campaign. But he worked it for the caucus full-time.

Dems lost their House majority in 2011 while Edwards was caucus chair, but that was because several representatives switched parties. On Election Day, Democratic candidates actually fared very well - holding onto every challenged seat. "We didn't get any really big dollar donations," Edwards says. "It was a multitude of smaller donations. It's the hardest way to raise money, but it puts you into contact with the most people."

On at least one hot-button issue, Edwards aligns with other moderate-to-conservative Democrats in Louisiana: he is pro-life, with exceptions for cases involving incest or rape. He is also pro-gun and opposes legally recognizing gay marriage. On the other hand, he believes the science supporting global warming and doesn't believe creationism should be taught in public schools. "I send my kids to catechism for that," he says.

There's a lot of talk about applying the "John Breaux Democrat" label to Edwards and other like-minded Dems. Breaux was a former U.S. senator from Louisiana, now a top-shelf lobbyist on K Street in Washington, who excelled at voting along conservative and moderate lines on the Hill to placate his base back home. The relatively few Louisiana liberals stayed loyal to him because, well, he was a Democrat.

Doré says Edwards deviates too much from the Breaux model and won't be able to use that template in the coming months to create a campaign message. "I just don't see it," he says.

Bob Mann, LSU's Manship chair in journalism, knows the thread all too well. He served 17 years as state director and press secretary to Breaux and also worked for Russell Long and J. Bennett Johnston. "When people talk about John Breaux Democrats, that's a problem," he says. "[Breaux's] not around anymore."

Plus, members of Congress have an easier time straddling the fence than a governor, Mann adds. The conservative label could cause trouble for Edwards, especially against a Republican like Vitter. "You're just not going to outdo David Vitter, in terms of being conservative, in Louisiana," Mann says.

Edwards counters that he has been there before. He had to prove himself in the shadow of a political family and then later in the Army. But his biggest challenge may have been convincing a House district of largely African-American, poor voters that a white man from a relatively privileged background would relate to their lives, something he accomplished thanks in large part to his father's relationship with the community while he was sheriff. There was still KKK activity many years ago, Edwards says, but his father, among other things, appointed African-American deputies.

Now Edwards has to do the mirror image of that kind of bonding with a statewide electorate that is mostly white, middle class and loves voting Republican, even if they aren't registered as such. Edwards says he is standing pat with his party, no matter what. In doing so, he could define what the next John Breaux Democrat looks like.

"It has never occurred to me to switch parties, not that I am 100 percent happy with the Democratic Party," he says. "But I know I would never be happy as a Republican. The message they have is not something I could believe in."