Democratic politician Edwin Washington Edwards cast a long shadow over the state's political history.
Democrat Edwin Washington Edwards, a politician who took pride in his Cajun heritage, casts a long shadow over the state’s political history. From his record sixteen years as Louisiana’s chief executive (1972−80, 1984−88, and 1992−96) to his ignominious eight years as an unrepentant jailed felon, Edwards’s influence on the state in the late twentieth century was unrivaled. Edwards’s flamboyant lifestyle as a high-rolling gambler and self-professed playboy, his wily ability to repeatedly evade malfeasance charges, and his unflappable charismatic populist appeal as a can-do politician prompted a wide range of emotions from his constituents—from adoration to disgust, and everything in between. He simultaneously shamed, entertained, and governed his fellow Louisianans and came to epitomize the stereotypical corrupt but colorful Louisiana politician. Edwards died at home in Gonzales, Louisiana, on July 12, 2021. He was 93.
Edwin Edwards was born on August 7, 1927, to Clarence Edwards, a half-Cajun Presbyterian sharecropper, and Agnès (Brouillette) Edwards, a French-speaking Cajun Catholic, in the community of Johnson, Louisiana, eight miles outside of Marksville. Edwards’s humble upbringing gave him compassion for the poor and unfortunate, while also fostering a countervailing taste for excess. As a teen, he briefly served as a Nazarene minister before returning to the Catholic Church.
Determined to make a name for himself, the ambitious Edwards briefly served in the US Navy Air Corps before heading to Louisiana State University at Shreveport to attend law school, from which he graduated in 1949 before opening a firm in the small town of Crowley.
Early Political Career
In 1954, Edwards won his first elective office by securing a seat on the Crowley City Council. He used this position as a stepping-stone to higher office. He next served in the Louisiana State Senate from 1964 to 1965 and then went on to win a special election for a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1965, a position he held until his growing political ambition brought him back to Louisiana in the early 1970s.
In the 1971 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Edwards used his record of racial tolerance to woo black voters recently enfranchised by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As a local boy made good, he could also count on Louisiana’s Cajun voters. In a crowded field, Edwards defeated J. Bennett Johnston in a runoff that featured both men running as reformers. He easily bested his Republican challenger David Treen in the 1972 general election. Riding high from his success, Edwards devoted his first term to bringing about badly needed political reform.
Edwards was the driving force behind an effort to replace the state’s anachronistic and unwieldy 1921 constitution. A constitutional convention that met in 1973 redrew and streamlined the document before sending it to Louisiana voters. It was overwhelmingly approved the following year. The 1974 constitution represented a significant departure from the special interest protection and cronyism built into the previous document. It contained a strong bill of rights safeguarding the liberties of African Americans, who had suffered much in the era of Jim Crow.
More important than any single factor in ensuring Edwards’s continued political popularity was his effort to alter the state’s severance tax on oil drilling, so that the impost was based on a percentage of the market value of the commodity rather than the volume pumped. As the value of oil skyrocketed during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, the state enjoyed a financial windfall. As revenue poured in, the state’s budget ballooned along with it. Between 1972 and 1980, state spending increased 163 percent.
Edwards clearly had the good times rolling in Louisiana. With a record of success that included construction of the Superdome in New Orleans, he easily won his 1976 reelection bid. He probably would have secured a third consecutive term had not the new constitution, which he so ardently championed, limited incumbents to two successive terms.
Amid the victories and flamboyance that typified Edwards’s time in office, however, unsettling allegations of malfeasance in office emerged, and some of his close associates landed in prison. Although Edwards himself escaped punishment, his reputation was clearly sullied. Charges of womanizing, excessive gambling, and political corruption prompted some to derisively call Edwards “Fast Eddie.” Despite growing evidence of impropriety, however, Edwards announced his intention to return to the statehouse.
A Seasoned Politician
Edwards’s opponent in 1983 gubernatorial race, incumbent Republican David Treen, faced an uphill battle, as mounting budget deficits undermined his agenda. Treen’s staid campaign style also compared poorly with that of the always flashy and charming Edwards, whose promise to “laissez les bon temps roulez” (let the good times roll) struck a chord with Louisiana voters. The ever-glib Edwards said of his opponent, “It took Dave Treen and hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.” Elected for another four years in office, Edwards’s third term coincided with the collapse of the international oil market that sent oil prices plummeting. Louisiana had grown wealthy in the heady days of bloated oil prices, but now faced a fiscal disaster as prices hit rock bottom.
To make up for the shortfall, Edwards was forced to raise taxes—a move never popular in Louisiana. The administration, which started off with such promise, now scrambled to stabilize an eroding tax base. Compounding Edwards’s problems were continued allegations of political corruption that eventually resulted in federal prosecution. Though he was never convicted in a racketeering case from 1985-86 involving hospital contracts, Edwards’s reputation sank to new lows. While Louisianans turned a blind eye to Edwards’s chicanery during flush economic times, they proved less forgiving in the middle of an economic recession. In the hotly contested gubernatorial election of 1987, Edwards came up short in the primary against Charles E. “Buddy” Roemer. Edwards had lost the first election in his long political career, but his time in the spotlight was far from over.
When the 1991 gubernatorial election rolled around, Edwards’s name was again on the ballot. In a race that attracted national notoriety, Louisiana voters faced a choice between a former Ku Klux Klansman turned politician, David Duke, or the ethically suspect gambler, Edwards. When confronted with the unsavory task of choosing between “the crook or the Klansman,” Louisianans elected Edwards to serve a fourth term as the state’s governor by a landslide, 61 percent to 39 percent. An ironic bumper sticker from that contest advocated “Vote for the Crook. It’s important.” Among Edwards’s more memorable and characteristic quotes from the volatile campaign was a comparison of himself to his opponent: “The only thing we have in common is that we both have been wizards beneath the sheets.”
Edwards’s final term proved the most controversial, as charges of corruption finally began to stick to the so-called “Teflon governor.” Rampant Medicaid fraud proved just the tip of the iceberg, as evidence of kickbacks and bribery proliferated in conjunction with the spread of legalized gambling, euphemistically referred to as “gaming” in Louisiana. The freewheeling Edwards, who had unsuccessfully championed the return of gambling during his third term, found himself ensnared in yet another federal probe into his administration. This time Edwards could not evade the charges. Convicted in 2001, Edwards was found guilty on seventeen of twenty-six counts, including racketeering, extortion, money laundering, mail fraud, and wire fraud; his son Stephen was convicted on eighteen counts. Edwards was incarcerated for eight of his ten-year sentence in a federal prison. Six months after his release in 2011, Edwards, age eighty-three, married for the third time, to his prison pen pal, Trina Scott, age thirty-two. The couple starred in a short-lived reality TV program, “The Governor’s Wife,” on the A&E network in 2013 after Trina gave birth to Edwards’s fifth child, Eli.
Edwards’s first wife was Elaine Schwartzenburg (born 1929), whom he married in 1949 and divorced in 1989. While governor, Edwards appointed Louisiana’s then-First Lady to the Senate to fill out the three-month unfinished term of Allen Ellender, who died in 1972 while in office. Edwards said he trusted Elaine’s experience. They had four children: Anna, Victoria, Stephen, and David. He wed his second wife, Candy Picou (born 1964), in 1994 at a ceremony in the garden of the Governor’s Mansion. Edwards filed for divorce from Candy while serving his prison sentence in 2004.
In 2014, Edwards ran for a Congressional seat in Louisiana’s Sixth District. He lost to Republican Garret Graves in a 62-38 percent margin in a runoff, only the second defeat in Edwards’s political career.
Known for his quick wit and charm along with a penchant for roguish behavior, Edwin Edwards served an unprecedented four terms as Louisiana governor. Lost amid the prison sentence and numerous investigations are the important accomplishments of his time in office. From modernizing the state’s antiquated constitution to bridging the racial barrier that had divided Louisianans for most of the twentieth century, Edwards’s accomplishments should be remembered along with the factors that ultimately led to his fall from grace.