In 1991 a gubernatorial candidate named Edwards overcame a divisive politician named David, then a state representative in Jefferson Parish’s House District 81. The contest became known as “The Race From Hell.” Last week, 24 years later, voters selected another Edwards, also a Democrat, to serve as governor. They did so by rejecting the ultra-conservative campaign of another completely different David who got his own political start in House District 81.
From Edwin Edwards to John Bel Edwards, and from David Duke to David Vitter (the latter actually helped push the former further out of the Republican mainstream), the 2015 gubernatorial election was a reminder that the past is never dead; it’s not even past. William Faulkner penned that profound declaration, and like Hemingway, Capote and other literary giants, one of his favorite haunts was the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter — the same place Gov.-elect Edwards held his election night party, and where former Gov. Edwards always held his.
Saturday evening after giving his victory speech, Gov.-elect Edwards held forth from a suite above the Monteleone ballroom trying to finish a modest dinner — a bite or two, then well-wishers, another bite, then hugs and handshakes. It took him almost an hour to finish his victory meal. “This is the first cheeseburger I’ve had in a long time,” he remarked to one of his brothers while taking sips from a beer. His mother sat in the middle of it all, beaming, amongst her other children. There was a sense of purpose and accomplishment in the air, and all of those on the inside seemed eager to breathe it in as much as possible and as quickly as possible.
Unlike former Gov. Edwards and others of recent history to precede Gov.-elect Edwards, he will not get to enjoy a prolonged honeymoon period, that stretch of time where passes are handed out by the press, special interests, the political class and voters. John Bel Edwards had no other choice by Sunday morning than to begin governing immediately, something he had actually already started two days before the runoff vote when he asked lawmakers to reject Gov. Bobby Jindal’s deficit reduction plan.
Rough waters are ahead for the man who made history this past weekend. As Gov.-elect Edwards and his supporters were basking in the rays of an impossible mission made possible, Republicans were already quietly discussing 2019 and the next race for governor. There are already at least a dozen conservative House members who will be dedicated to softening the governor-elect up over the next four years, especially on issues that appear slightly blue to their red motives. “Edwards espoused many of our conservative positions in order to get elected, and it’s our hope that he continues to abide by them as he governs,” Roger Villere, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, said on election night.
Gov.-elect Edwards finds himself walking a fine line and decisions he will make in the coming weeks will determine if that line starts to give a bit in terms of wiggle room, starting with his pick for House speaker. It’s a Republican body that the Democrat will have to successfully sway to move his revenue and budget ideas in the spring. Just as he created a unique campaign model, his team will have to find creative ways to govern as well. His choice of term-limited state Sen. Ben Nevers as chief of staff sends such a signal; it’s not usually a position former lawmakers are tapped for and shows the governor-elect knows how important the Legislature will be to his still-to-be-shaped legacy.
Work has also already begun on the policy agendas for Gov.-elect Edwards’ special and regular sessions, which represent the true minefield. He survived the campaign without having to get too deep into specifics, but the next administration will surely have to tackle a number of issues that have influential stakeholders attached. The business community, which opposed his candidacy, is already nervous about what he might bring forth. And while they’re eager and willing to move into this brave new world with open minds, they’re also cagey and primed for conflict, should it come to that.
From within his own party, Democratic supporters were anxious to see him expand the Medicaid program in Louisiana on day one in office, which was a major campaign promise. But his announcement the first day after the election that the expansion would be delayed due to potential legal problems connected to legislation passed this year resulted in heads being scratched. The governor-elect, though, remains committed to the expansion.
Another immediate battlefront will be eduction, with Gov.-elect Edwards already saying he wants to see a replacement for Education Superintendent John White, who is hired and fired by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. There appears to be a major split between the next administration and the next BESE board, one that promises fireworks over the same high-profile issues that have defined education politics over the past four years.
The Edwards honeymoon may be fading quickly, but the man’s place in election history is set. He is the first statewide Democrat elected in seven years, the third governor elected since 1972 to share the same party as the sitting president and the fourth to win a runoff despite the opposing party’s candidates claiming more votes in the primary. But how he will write the rest of his gubernatorial history is what matters most — and it will be the political challenge of his life. After this stunner of an election cycle, those are the kind of odds John Bel Edwards knows all too well.