Earlier this month, there were no Democrat governors in the Deep South. And just two weeks after that changed with the inauguration in Louisiana of John Bel Edwards, a trial lawyer and two-term back-bencher in the Louisiana House of Representatives who pulled off a 56-44 thrashing of Sen. David Vitter in the November runoff election last year, it’s beginning to be fairly clear why.
Edwards was the beneficiary of an almost perfect storm. He was the only Democrat in a field of four major candidates, and the three Republicans spent time beating each other up — or, more to the point, two of the Republicans (Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne) spent months attacking Vitter and Vitter returned fire in turn. That meant Edwards had a glide path into the runoff in Louisiana’s jungle primary without being vetted or even having attention paid to him. And when he ran a relatively strong 41 percent in the primary against Vitter’s weak 23 percent without a single punch having been laid on him, all Edwards had to do was to bring up, repeatedly, the long-in-the-tooth scandal about the latter’s dalliances with hookers.
When Dardenne endorsed Edwards, which ultimately netted the Republican a $237,000-per-year job as the new governor’s Commissioner of Administration, and Angelle refused to endorse in the runoff, the combination was too much for Vitter to overcome in a short four weeks between the two polling dates. Louisiana, which is one of the reddest states in the country, had turned its governor’s mansion blue.
But while Edwards was pulling off a stirring Democratic triumph, the rest of the November ballot was a wipeout for his party. When it was over Republicans held 26 of 39 seats in the state Senate and 61 of 105 seats in the House, and Republicans won landslide victories in all the other statewide races — including that of Attorney General, where former Tea Party favorite congressman Jeff Landry knocked out ethically challenged incumbent Democrat-turned-Republican Buddy Caldwell. (More on that development in a future column.)
Given the circumstances, Edwards — who had run a substanceless campaign focused solely on Vitter’s personal failings while offering only a pantomime of himself as a conservative Democrat allegedly pro-life and pro-gun with a military background from having attended West Point — would be expected to recognize his environment and continue his act.
Instead, he raced to show his colors, claiming that his victory had given him a “mandate” for a number of Democrat policy nostrums and before even being inaugurated offered up a dutiful decision to accept the Obamacare Medicaid expansion — an entirely unwise decision given that the 100 percent federal supply of funds the president offered to pay for the expansion lasts only until the end of 2016 and then the state will be on the hook for 10 percent of the cost to provide bad government health insurance for some 300,000 people.
This, at the same time Edwards began to screech about a state budget deficit he projects at $1.9 billion, on top of a $750 million deficit he claims to have inherited from his much-maligned predecessor Bobby Jindal. The size of the deficit he reports isn’t quite a proven commodity; Edwards was able to claim he’d shrunk the midyear deficit by $488 million through sweeping money out of dedicated funds into the general fund and raiding Louisiana’s “rainy day fund,” actions Jindal used to balance the state’s budget nearly every year since the state’s post-Katrina revenue bonanza began to dissipate to the great criticism and consternation of Edwards and others among his critics.
For Edwards to take such a rough fiscal climate, largely arising from the collapse in oil prices having ruined Louisiana’s severance tax revenues and short-circuiting the state’s economy at large, and piling on an additional Medicaid cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars without first bargaining with the Obama administration for a better deal, showed that it was amateur hour.
That continued when the “pro-life” governor-elect nominated Dr. Rebekah Gee, an LSU professor and a longtime pro-abortion activist, as his new Secretary of Health and Hospitals — which wiped out any pretense of truth behind his campaign posture on the issue. Louisiana’s pro-life activist community declared war on Edwards after that appointment.
And then, Edwards committed one of the most egregious blunders in current American politics.
Tradition holds that Louisiana’s very powerful governor plays a major part in choosing the leadership of the state legislature — and in particular, the selection of the Senate president and Speaker of the House. This is subject to limits, though, as previous governors have usually guided the process rather than dictating it. And Edwards is a Democrat governor with a deeply Republican House, so when the 61 Republicans sent him a statement that they would be voting for a Republican Speaker, prudence indicated he should pick one of the handful of Republican House members who had either endorsed him in the runoff or attended his election-night victory party. At least one, Republican Chris Broadwater, would have had little trouble achieving a majority.
Instead, upon being delivered the statement by the GOP delegation, Edwards publicly backed Walt Leger, a left-leaning New Orleans Democrat who is personally well-liked by the members of the House but who was wholly unacceptable ideologically to an overwhelming number of the Republican majority.
Rather than come to a compromise early in his transition period, Edwards wasted more than a month attempting to twist arms of Republicans in order to install a Democrat speaker, and Leger could not get the 53 votes needed for a majority. The initial Republican choice, Cameron Henry (who would have been Vitter’s choice for Speaker), battled Leger to a standstill throughout the transition period — and then on Inauguration Day, when the House met to choose its speaker, the “divisive” Henry gave way to slightly less-conservative Republican Taylor Barras and backed him on the second ballot. Barras beat Leger 56 votes to 49, with 54 of those votes coming from Republicans, and Edwards had been dealt a debilitating defeat.
And on Thursday, Barras released his committee assignments. Those reflected the overwhelmingly Republican nature of the House — 12 of the 16 House committees would be chaired by Republicans, one by Neil Abramson, the only Democrat who didn’t vote for Leger (and who is rumored to be close to switching parties to Republican soon), and three others to be chaired by Democrats in areas unlikely to produce key legislation.
And the Appropriations committee, with its hands around the throat of that state budget Edwards wants to balance with some $2 billion in new taxes, will be chaired by Cameron Henry, Vitter’s ally.
Meaning that Edwards’ legislative agenda is, for all intents and purposes, dead before he’s even taken office. He’ll govern as he’s allowed to by the Republicans in the House, or at least much more so than any of his predecessors.
That was his first day in office. On his fourth day it wasn’t just state capitol insiders laughing at him. Edwards gave a speech to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, a largely Republican group containing most of the state’s most influential private-sector leaders, and proceeded to take credit for a meeting he’d had the night before with President Obama, who had paid Baton Rouge a visit. In that meeting, Edwards said he’d shown Obama a stretch of I-10 through downtown Baton Rouge that is the only piece of interstate highway in the entire country containing only one lane, and secured Obama’s assent to fixing the problem.
This was received well by the audience, but there was a problem — the road project Edwards expressed support for had already been addressed by Congress in the FAST Act signed by Obama in early January, with the work to put it in the bill done by a pair of Republicans, Baton Rouge congressman Garret Graves and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Staffers of the pair immediately protested Edwards’ Stolen Valor claims of lobbying success.
But the punch line was yet to come, because by the night of Edwards’ speech, Baton Rouge’s Democrat mayor Kip Holden, who had been Edwards’ running mate in the fall as the Democrats’ candidate for Lt. Governor, went howling to the media that it was he, and not the governor, who had raised the issue of the insufficient interstate. And Holden backed his claim with the fact that Obama, in a speech in Baton Rouge, had mentioned Holden and not Edwards as the one who had made the effort to discuss the roadway.
Finally, Edwards had railed against the “exorbitant” staff salaries Jindal’s aides had received — but as it was revealed this week he’s paying his own staffers the same or more than Jindal did. This while presenting a raft of proposed tax increases to the public, to include a 20 percent increase in Louisiana’s sales tax rate which would make combined state and local sales taxes, long decried as “regressive” by the state’s Democrats, the highest in the country.
He’s been in office for a short time, but it’s already clear Louisiana has a mess on its hands. Jindal, who left office with a brutally low approval rating, is already smiling at the prospect history will treat him well in comparison to his successor. And with rumors circulating that Texas governor Greg Abbott is leasing office space in Baton Rouge he’ll be staffing with economic development headhunters aiming at pilfering businesses to relocate in the Lone Star State, the urgency of replacing Edwards in 2019 with someone who looks a lot more like a Southern governor has already settled in.