Gubernatorial Overview (AAP)

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John Bel Edwards, the scion of a law-enforcement and political family, leveraged dissatisfaction with outgoing Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and his scandal-tarred Republican opponent, then-Sen. David Vitter, to win an upset victory in Louisiana’s 2015 gubernatorial race. That enabled Edwards, a Democrat, to become the only member of his party to serve in statewide office in Louisiana, which in recent years has voted heavily Republican. In office, he enacted an eclectic mix of measures, ranging from an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws.

Edwards was one of eight children who grew up in Amite, a town of roughly 4,000 residents 48 miles northeast of Baton Rouge in Tangipahoa Parish. His great-grandfather was the parish sheriff, and his grandfather, Frank Edwards, was a state legislator. His father, Frank Edwards Jr., also served as sheriff, as well as an appointee of then-Gov. Edwin Edwards (no relation). Edwards Jr. was succeeded as sheriff by his son -- Edwards’ brother, Daniel Edwards. Another brother, Frank Edwards III, serves as police chief of nearby Independence. The family had such deep political roots that it was inducted collectively into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame. (“Bel” is his middle name – a family name going back generations – and he is often called “John Bel.”)

In high school, Edwards captained the football team and was named valedictorian. He attended West Point, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, then served for eight years as an airborne ranger. He later earned his law degree from Louisiana State University and became an attorney in private practice in Amite, eschewing criminal cases because of his brother’s service as sheriff. In 2007, Edwards was elected to the state House and became a member of its leadership; he served in the chamber until he was elected governor. In the House, Edwards served on the Education Committee, criticizing Jindal’s emphasis on charter schools and Republican attacks on teacher tenure. When Edwards decided to run for governor, he was far from well-known around the state – and he was a Democrat, a toxic label for recent statewide candidates in Louisiana. He gained some traction, though, by running against Jindal’s record in office, including a projected $1.4 billion budget deficit and a seeming indifference to state issues while seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Edwards also pledged to raise the minimum wage and expand Medicaid, which Jindal had steadfastly refused to do. At the same time, Edwards blurred distinctions with Republicans on social issues, supporting gun rights and opposing abortion. A Catholic, Edwards ran an ad spotlighting how his family had ruled out an abortion after learning that their unborn daughter had spina bifida. She thrived and was married during Edwards’ first year as governor. “I don’t like being pigeonholed,” he later told the Catholic magazine America. “There are people who say, ‘You’re pro-life on abortion, so that makes you conservative, but you’re for the Medicaid expansion. That makes you liberal.’ But it’s the exact same Catholic Christian faith, at least as I understand it, that pushes me into both of those positions.”

In Louisiana’s all-party primary, Edwards faced three prominent Republicans: Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle; Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne; and Vitter. Most observers had assumed that Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal was settled business following his easy reelection to the Senate in 2010, but Dardenne and Angelle raised the issue, and it gained traction. On Election Day, Edwards, facing minimal Democratic opposition, took 40 percent of the vote, as Vitter barely qualified for the Nov. 21 runoff with 23 percent. Angelle and Dardenne split the Republican anti-Vitter vote with 19 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

Edwards and his allies kept up the drumbeat on Vitter’s past behavior – one ad bluntly compared “John Bel Edwards, who answered our country’s call and served as a Ranger” to Vitter, “who answered a prostitute’s call.” Dardenne endorsed Edwards after the primary rather than back his fellow Republican. (After his victory, Edwards tapped Dardenne for a senior post in his administration.) Edwards won the runoff, 56%-44% -- the biggest Democratic gubernatorial victory in the state since 1991’s “Vote for the crook, it’s important” race between the ethically challenged Edwin Edwards and white supremacist David Duke.

Once in office, Edwards quickly fulfilled his promise to expand Medicaid. “With the stroke of a pen, Edwards brought one of the poorest states into the fold of the largest expansion of the welfare state since the 1960s,” wrote the Texas Observer. But Edwards faced setbacks, too. By tradition, Louisiana’s governor had long played a decisive role in the selection of a House speaker, but in Edwards’ case, most House Republicans, joined by one Democrat, rejected his pick for the post, Democrat Walt Leger, and instead chose a Republican, Taylor Barras – a sign, many observers said, that the state’s once quirky political alignments were becoming increasingly polarized along national party lines. The vote for speaker foreshadowed future sparring between the governor and the legislature over the budget, which was headed toward a $943 million deficit for fiscal 2016 and $2 billion for fiscal 2017, stemming partly from a slump in petroleum prices.

In February 2016, Edwards took the unusual step of making a televised budget address, warning of cuts to health care and higher education. He proposed hiking the state sales and cigarette taxes; reallocating some of the BP oil spill settlement money; and drawing down the rainy day fund. A 2016 special session fell short of revenue targets, but did accomplish a fair amount, including a temporary sales tax through 2018, a cigarette tax hike and corporate income tax changes.

Edwards won plaudits for his handling of two crises. One was the racial strife in Baton Rouge, which was sparked by the police killing of Alton Sterling, an African-American man, it continued with days of protests, and culminated almost two weeks later with the ambush murders of three law enforcement officers. (A few months earlier, Edwards had signed the nation’s first “Blue Lives Matter” law, making the killings of police a hate crime.) Louisiana also suffered two rounds of floods – in the northern part of the state in March, and in the southern tier in August, the latter causing an estimated $8.7 billion in damage. In his handling of both episodes, Edwards “was a voice of calm and confidence,” Louisiana State University professor and liberal newspaper columnist Robert Mann wrote.

Edwards faced other challenges. After issuing an executive order protecting LGBT state employees, Edwards sparred with Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry over its implementation. Landry refused to sign dozens of legal contracts for the state as long as they contained the protections. In December 2016, Edwards’ order was overturned in court. The two continued to spar as Edwards’ term progressed – over an Edwards-supported delay in executions due to a lack of lethal injection chemicals, and over Landry’s decision to join a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act. (Landry announced that he would not challenge Edwards in 2019.)

Edwards pleased social conservatives by signing several bills on abortion, including one in 2018 that banned abortions after 15 weeks, punishable by prison for the medical practitioner – the most stringent law in the nation, along with one enacted in neighboring Mississippi. But the laws were blocked in the courts. On criminal justice, Edwards in 2017 signed a package of 10 bills that curbed mandatory minimum sentences, overhauled drug sentencing, expanded alternatives to incarceration, and limited the most serious sentences for juveniles. The changes made an impact in their first year, as Louisiana fell from the top ranking in incarceration rate for the first time in years. Meanwhile, working with the legislature, Edwards managed to avoid a “fiscal cliff” that threatened funding for a wide range of popular programs; it stemmed from $1.4 billion in expiring tax changes that was set to hit on July 1, 2018. After multiple special sessions, the governor and the legislature finally reached an agreement in June 2018, just days before the cliff was to hit, that extended part of the sales tax hike through 2025.

A side effect of Edwards’ efforts on criminal justice was to bring Edwards closer to the Trump administration, which had pursued a national criminal-justice overhaul that was eventually enacted in late 2018. Edwards joined a criminal justice summit at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster New Jersey, and he became the only Democratic elected official to attend a White House state dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron. Edwards returned the favor by inviting Trump to visit the state penitentiary at Angola to see the laws’ impact in person. Such connections to the White House could pay dividends for a Democrat seeking reelection in a state where Trump won overwhelmingly and remained popular. “It’s not that I don’t ever disagree” with Trump, Edwards told America magazine. “I just don’t go out in public and blast the president, because I don’t think it would be helpful.”

As he looked ahead to his 2019 reelection campaign, Edwards maintained strong approval ratings. He spoke of making a teacher pay raise a top priority for his next term – a natural issue for a longtime ally of teachers’ unions. Edwards signed a "fetal heartbeat" bill supported by social conservatives; while national democrats decried his position, it took a potent issue off the table back home. Perhaps his strongest potential Republican challenger, Sen. John Kennedy, opted against a run, but at least two Republicans jumped in the race: Rep. Ralph Abraham and deep-pocketed construction magnate Eddie Rispone.

Copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition set to be released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visitwww.almanacofamericanpolitics.com

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