The Transient Luck of John Bel Edwards
Scott McKay
by

A week ago, Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat released a survey that all but ruined Christmas for Louisiana’s Republicans, and particularly those considering a run at the state’s highest political office when it next comes up for election in 2019.

Namely, that the state’s current governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat in a deeply red state, is sitting on a lofty 65 percent approval rating.

Edwards’ enviable numbers have been borne out in other polls, though some scoffed at Pinsonat’s 65 percent mark. Whatever the number, it’s clear he’s riding on a cloud with Louisiana’s voters.

What’s not clear is why.

Normally, one would think a Democrat governor of a conservative state, if he were to be anything but a dead political duck, would have to embrace an old-school Southern or Western conservatism. Edwards has done little of this; his first act as governor was to wholeheartedly embrace the Obamacare Medicaid expansion without even so much as negotiating better terms for it as governors in states like Arkansas had done. The state’s Medicaid rolls have swelled with 440,000 new enrollees as a result, a fact Edwards touts as a major victory despite the looming fiscal catastrophe it has foretold. His next act was to demand some $2 billion in tax increases to resolve a budget deficit left over by his predecessor Bobby Jindal — which the Republican-led House of Representatives acceded to, with the condition those tax hikes come via the state sales tax, now the nation’s highest. Edwards’ constituency, largely comprised of the state’s poor, were the hardest hit.

Then came massive floods in several places around Louisiana in the spring and summer of 2016. Somehow Edwards came out of those tragedies looking like a competent leader; for that he’s indebted to the citizen volunteers comprising what became known as the Cajun Navy, who without the help of government and often in spite of it managed to evacuate and feed those who needed it. That Edwards’ performance in securing federal flood aid has been nothing short of a pathetic disaster has never registered with the people of Louisiana, either because of very low expectations or, perhaps more probable, ignorance brought on by nonexistent media coverage.

It’s that media coverage which has been most revolting for the state’s conservatives. Edwards has been treated as a conquering hero by the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Baton Rouge Advocate, both of which have treated his critics as petty political grifters without substance when the issues raised would be treated as grounds for resignation in the case of a Republican governor.

For example, in early 2016 Edwards appointed as the executive counsel to the State Licensing Board for Contractors a convicted felon and former Democrat state senator named Larry Bankston, who served 41 months in the federal funhouse on bribery and corruption charges, and Louisiana’s Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry raised hell over the appointment. Landry’s objection was treated as a partisan attack on Edwards by the state’s media, and he was eventually persuaded to back down with assurances Bankston’s “problems” were long past and he was in good standing presently. No sooner was Bankston ensconced in that position than the floods came, and Bankston intervened to blow up a contract for administration of federal flood recovery dollars over a dubious licensing issue — and it was soon learned his son was the employee of another company who’d lost the bid for that contract and would be poised to benefit.

Edwards was challenged on this subject during a humiliating performance in front of the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill, an episode which would have politically killed him had he been a Republican. It wasn’t the last of his pratfalls — he’s clearly the least effective governor in the state’s modern history in terms of implementing his agenda, and the embarrassments have been as multitudinous as they’ve been either favorably covered or ignored by the state’s media. Just lately there was a sexual harassment scandal which would have felled a Republican for certain; not with Edwards and his ink-stained sycophants in tow.

That’s how you get to 65 percent despite your state being rated the worst-run in the country and its economy being the worst-performing in the union.

But as lofty as those approval numbers for Edwards might be, they’re fleeting. We know this because Louisiana’s history is not on his side — no Democrat has been re-elected as Louisiana’s governor since Edwin Edwards, who isn’t related to John Bel, managed to achieve that feat in 1975 amid a booming, oil-driven economy. And further, every one of the state’s governors since 1980 has finished his or her time in office mostly despised by the state’s public. Jindal rode approval ratings in the high 70’s at one point in his term before dropping into the 20’s on his way out; before him Kathleen Blanco was so unpopular she didn’t even run for re-election.

But we also know it because conditions don’t favor this political high-wire act, regardless of the free pass he’s been getting. To wit…

  • Edwards’ brother Daniel is the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, a locality two parishes east of Baton Rouge which the Edwards family has largely controlled for about a half-century. Daniel, one year ago, had his laptop computer taken away by the feds as part of a raid on the sheriff’s office in Hammond, amid an investigation into drugs mysteriously disappearing from the evidence locker on their way to the street. It seems the sheriff was friendly with an individual who headed a DEA task force in New Orleans rife with former Tangipahoa Parish sheriff’s deputies which was perpetrating the steal-and-deal scam. But the investigation has gone quiet of late, mostly because the Eastern District of Louisiana awaits the appointment of a new U.S. Attorney to spearhead it. The rumors of how deep the corruption goes back home run very deep, and if that investigation were to heat back up under new management there’s no telling how interesting things may get.
  • Louisiana’s atrocious economic performance didn’t begin with Edwards. The latest round began with Jindal, and it came mostly thanks to low oil prices. But when the governor is huddling with a cabal of trial lawyers in an effort to drum up lawsuits by local governments blaming oil companies for the loss of the state’s coastline (a claim which has already been discarded by the federal courts), the oil and gas industry won’t come back. And without oil and gas, Louisiana will stay in the economic doldrums. This would be a problem for any governor as re-election looms, but it’s especially troublesome when the national economy begins to lift off as it’s currently doing. Throw the implementation of just-passed tax reform into the mix, and you might just have a boom on your hands… everywhere but Louisiana. That’s where economics and politics form a deadly combination — it’s one thing when your economy is stagnant and so is that of your neighbors, but when they’re booming and you’re standing still you start having outmigration problems. This has already begun; it’s going to get much, much worse and Edwards, with his taxes and his lawsuits, won’t be able to escape blame.
  • Edwards’ “signature achievement” as governor to date is presiding over a bipartisan package of criminal justice reforms, intended to relieve the fiscal and public-relations problem of having the highest incarceration rate in America, earlier this year. But Edwards’ focus in pushing the reforms was simply to drive a number — specifically 5,500 prisoners released — that would drop Louisiana below Mississippi in incarceration rates. Other states, like Texas and South Carolina, practicing criminal justice reforms focused on building support systems aimed at staving off recidivism before any mass prisoner releases, and that’s not exactly what Louisiana has done. Instead, this fall there were 1,900 prisoners let out of Louisiana jails without an overwhelming amount of vetting done. This has led to a few high-profile cases like one in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, where a career crook named Smokey White had within a week of his release obtained an illegal gun and used it to stick up a construction crew, making off with some $900 in cash. White, 24, had just spent four years in prison for simple burglary — an offense 64 counts of which he’d had on his record. It’s inevitable another of Edwards’ alumni will kill someone, and then he’s going to have a problem.

What’s true at this point is while the approval numbers are indeed impressive for Edwards, that support is no more than an inch deep given the lopsided Republican victories for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race and John Kennedy in that year’s Senate election. So far it’s also true the state’s voters don’t give a damn about politics at the moment. After epic political wars in the 2014, 2015, and 2016 cycles Louisiana had a special election for state treasurer this fall — and turnout for the runoff won by Republican John Schroder was less than 13 percent.

Edwards would love that voter disengagement and ennui to continue, but it won’t. The real question is who’ll be waiting to take advantage in 2019 when his fall finally comes.

 

Scott McKay
Scott McKay
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Scott McKay is publisher of the Hayride, which offers news and commentary on Louisiana and national politics.
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