Populist Edwin Edwards, a ‘Cajun King,’ loved his Louisiana


NEW ORLEANS, La. — They were tough acts to follow on the stage of 20th century Louisiana politics: the arm-flailing Depression-era orator Huey Long, a senator and former governor shot to death while eyeing the presidency; country-singing Gov. Jimmie Davis, who once rode up the Capitol steps on horseback; and Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother, who cavorted with Bourbon Street stripper Blaze Starr in the 1950s.

But Edwin Washington Edwards, the high-living “Cajun King” who died Monday at 93, proved up to it, matching their deft political instincts while coolly delivering a steady supply of memorable one-liners. His deadpan jokes punctuated a career of highs and lows that spanned four terms as governor, a triumphant fundraising jaunt to Paris, economic booms and busts — and more than eight years in federal prison.

“The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy,” the lifelong Democrat wisecracked during a 1983 race against a lackluster Republican.

And, while comparing himself to his 1991 opponent, ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Edwards owned up to his own reputation as a womanizer, saying “We’re both wizards under the sheets.”

Eulogies poured in as a public viewing was prepared in the state Capitol’s Memorial Hall. Current Gov. John Bel Edwards, no relation, said Louisiana has “lost a giant.”

A native of Louisiana’s Acadiana region who took his 1972 oath of office in French and English, Edwards enjoyed renewed popularity after emerging from prison in 2011 at age 83 with his quick wit and flamboyant character intact. He soon found wife No. 3 in 32-year-old Tina Grimes, a prison pen-pal.

“I would have walked into prison a happy man had I known how it was going to end,” he said at his lavish 90th birthday bash in August 2017.

They had a son, Eli, in 2013 — Edwards’ fifth child — and starred in a short-lived reality TV show, “The Governor’s Wife.”

The federal case that led to his May 2000 conviction involved his taking payoffs from interests seeking riverboat casino licenses during his fourth and final term in the 1990s. Edwards maintained the case was built on secretly taped and misinterpreted conversations and the lies of his former cronies, who made deals to avoid jail.

But the conviction and the numerous investigations and allegations were an unavoidable stain on his legacy.

“He had eloquence, creativity, a razor-sharp mind, executive abilities that many lacked, and leadership skills that many envied. He could relate to crowds better than almost any politician I ever knew,” Louisiana State University journalism professor Robert Mann said in an email Monday. “He had everything, and yet squandered it by devoting much of his time to enriching his friends. I’ve rarely seen a wider chasm between the promise for greatness and reality.”

Edwards was born Aug. 7, 1927, to a sharecropper and midwife in Avoyelles Parish. His authorized biographer, Leo Honeycutt, wrote that his father’s ancestors were Welsh, and his mother’s were continental French. But Avoyelles was part of Acadiana — an area settled in the 1750s by French exiled from Nova Scotia by the British, and Edwards proudly proclaimed himself one of them — a Cajun.

Silver-haired and charming, Edwards was full of contradictions. Raised a Roman Catholic, he preached in the Church of the Nazarene as a teen, didn’t drink or smoke, and peppered his speeches with biblical references. Catholics and fundamentalists followed him despite his unabashed fondness for high-stakes gambling, dirty jokes and constant flirting with women.

Edwards was a consummate dealmaker, and like Huey Long, aimed his populism at the state’s downtrodden. He claimed a kind of spiritual kinship with Black people in his first inaugural address, noting that Cajuns had suffered discrimination, too. He went on to appoint more African Americans to policy-making positions than any previous governor, and spearheaded the adoption of a new state constitution.

“My dad never saw color and never turned his back on anyone in need,” said his son Stephen Edwards, who worked alongside his father in the Edwards Law Firm, according to the family statement.

Edwards had a cooler demeanor than Huey Long, and didn’t demonize powerful interests even as he went after their riches. In 1974, he seized on an oil boom to fill Louisiana’s coffers, changing the severance tax from 25 cents a barrel to 12.5% of value. He also eliminated a regressive sales tax. The moves made Louisiana the nation’s most cash-rich state while New York City was going bankrupt, said Honeycutt, his official biographer.

Edwards left office in 1980 wildly popular but constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term, and returned in 1984 after defeating David Treen, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction and the target of some of his sharpest barbs. Edwards called him “so slow it takes him an hour and a half to watch ’60 Minutes’.”

Tragedy interrupted that campaign when his youngest brother, attorney Nolan Edwards, was murdered by a disgruntled client who later killed himself. The client, who did time on drug charges, had been pardoned by Edwin at Nolan’s behest.

After the campaign resumed, a grieving Edwards won in a landslide, then paid off the debt from a $14 million campaign by chartering a $10,000-a-head trip to France for friends and supporters.

“I’ve wanted all my life to be a king, and now I can be,” he quipped during their stop in Versailles.

But oil prices plummeted during his third term, and Edwards pushed through $700 million in unpopular taxes.

And there was scandal, as there had been for years: Grand juries had looked into his finances in the 1970s; there were congressional hearings; he admitted that he and his first wife Elaine had received $20,000 in 1971 from South Korean government agent Tongsun Park while he was in Congress; and his disgruntled former aide Clyde Vidrine wrote a book in 1974 accusing Edwards of exchanging high-level jobs for campaign contributions.

Edwards seemed impervious to it all until 1985, when he was indicted on federal racketeering charges involving investments in hospitals and nursing homes. Partly to poke fun at the trial’s slow pace, he arrived at the New Orleans courthouse one morning in a mule-drawn carriage.

A mistrial and an acquittal followed, but his fortunes had waned. Running for re-election in 1987, he earned the runoff against then-Democratic Rep. Buddy Roemer, only to withdraw in the face of certain defeat.

Analysts wrote him off as politically dead. But they hadn’t foreseen Roemer’s downfall after he backed a tax overhaul rejected by voters — or the rise of Duke, who had narrowly won a state House seat and was building a significant hard-core power base on the right.

Louisiana was trending Republican by then, but Roemer didn’t help himself by switching parties. Edwards and Duke each got a third of the vote before Edwards won the 1991 runoff in a landslide, aided by fears of economic ruin if an ex-Nazi reached the governor’s mansion.

“Vote for the crook. It’s important,” read one popular bumper sticker.

Edwards hoped to burnish his image but again found himself under federal indictment after retiring following his fourth term. This time, witnesses included former cronies such as Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who lost his beloved San Francisco 49ers after accusing Edwards of demanding a $400,000 payoff for help with a casino license.

Even some of Edwards’ opponents decried the 10-year sentence he received as a result of the trial. They included Treen, who, who until his death in 2009, pushed unsuccessfully for Edwards’ early release.

Edwards’ last attempt at a political comeback failed: He earned a runoff spot in a south Louisiana congressional race in 2014, only to lose to Republican Garret Graves. His critics called that last race a fool’s errand, given his advanced age, GOP gains and his penchant for scandals.

Edwards had four children during a 40-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, the former Elaine Schwartzenburg. They divorced in 1989. Five years later, he married Candy Picou; he was 66, she, 29. That marriage lasted 10 years; prison drove them part. He said in a message from behind bars that his wife “just cannot handle the stress and depression of this forced separation.”

Edwards died of respiratory problems with family and friends by his bedside, family spokesman Leo Honeycutt said, days after entering hospice care at his home in Gonzales, near the Louisiana capital.

“I have lived a good life, had better breaks than most, had some bad breaks, too, but that’s all part of it. I tried to help as many people as I could and I hope I did that, and I hope, if I did, that they will help others, too. I love Louisiana and I always will,” were some of his last words.

Edwards had made clear he had few regrets, and much to be thankful for.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful my life has been,” Edwards told friends and admirers who paid $250 apiece to attend his 2017 birthday celebration. They were treated to some familiar stories, such as Edwards’ claim that he once asked Pope John Paul II to hear his confession when the two met at the White House.

“He declined,” Edwards said. “Because he said he’d only be in town three days.”

AP writer Melinda Deslatte contributed from Baton Rouge.

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