Mike Foster Jr.
Murphy J. "Mike" Foster Jr., the 53rd governor of Louisiana, served from 1996 to 2004.
Louisiana’s first two-term Republican governor, Murphy James “Mike” Foster Jr. brought financial stability and a no-nonsense attitude to the executive branch of state government between 1996 and 2004. Elected as a relative unknown in a crowded field after controversial Gov. Edwin Edwards’s fourth and final term, Foster was the fifty-third person to serve as governor of Louisiana. While some remember him for a few peculiar actions—such as opposing the motorcycle helmet law or attending law school while in office—the enduring legacy of his eight-year tenure as governor was a scandal-free administration that launched substantial improvements to the state’s public education system.
Foster was born on July 11, 1930, in Shreveport, but his family moved to the St. Mary Parish community of Centerville when he was a boy. After graduating from nearby Franklin High School, he enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute, but after just one semester there he transferred to Louisiana State University, where he earned a degree in chemistry. After college he spent four years in the US Air Force before settling in Franklin. His prominent family had vast land holdings that provided extensive oil royalties, and he prospered in the family sugarcane business and served as president of Sterling Sugars, a major sugar mill. He formed a successful construction company, Bayou Sale Contractors, and was president of the St. Mary Parish Farm Bureau.
Although his grandfather, Murphy J. Foster, was governor from 1892 to 1900 and US senator for twelve years after that, Mike Foster took little interest in politics until his first campaign for public office in 1987, at age fifty-seven. In that race, Foster was elected to the state senate as a conservative Democrat, unseating the liberal Democratic incumbent, Sen. Anthony Guarisco Jr. of Morgan City. While keeping a generally low profile during eight years in the legislature, Foster compiled a pro-business voting record and was appointed chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee in 1991.
Edwards’s announcement that he would not seek reelection as governor in 1995 caused a frenzy among high-profile political figures in Louisiana. Former Gov. Buddy Roemer became the only announced Republican to enter the race; prominent Democrats lining up to oppose him included state treasurer Mary Landrieu, Lt. Gov. Melinda Schwegmann, and US Rep. Cleo Fields. Few people regarded Foster as a major candidate, as he launched a largely self-financed campaign marked by small display advertisements in newspapers throughout the state. When he qualified to run for governor, though, he changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. In doing so, he provided the state’s ever-growing conservative electorate with a viable alternative to the quirky Roemer, who had been elected as a reformer in 1987 but was voted out of office after a single term. Foster’s candidacy quickly gained momentum and financial support, which made possible a series of effective television ads painting him as “a gun-toting Christian conservative” working man—notwithstanding his moneyed pedigree. In the October primary, Foster finished first with 26 percent of all votes cast; in a logjam for second place, Fields polled 19 percent, to edge Landrieu and Roemer. Foster trounced Fields in the November runoff, 64 percent to 36 percent.
In his inaugural address, Foster decried “hogs at the trough” who exploited political connections to secure state contracts and jobs, and he pledged to conduct state business in a forthright manner without favoring political insiders. Foster stacked his administration with such results-oriented managers as Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennen, Chief of Staff Stephen Perry, and Health and Hospitals Secretary Bobby Jindal (who would later become a congressman and then governor), and under Foster’s leadership the team effectively restored a sense of integrity to the operations of state government while putting the state’s finances on more stable footing. Meanwhile, Foster made improvements in public education a priority of his administration. In six of his eight years in office, teachers received salary increases, which raised their total annual pay by about $10,000. The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) was established, using state funds to provide scholarships to Louisiana residents who attended public universities in the state. The system for channeling state money to local school boards for classroom needs was fully financed, and his administration increased salaries, construction, and maintenance at state universities.
Despite the strides made by his administration in the area of governmental ethics, Foster became the only sitting governor to be fined by the state Board of Ethics for a questionable action dating back to his first gubernatorial campaign. As he prepared to seek reelection in 1999, Foster was fined $20,000 for failing to report as a 1995 campaign expense a $152,000 payment for a mailing list of supporters of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Foster said later he bought the list as a way to keep Duke from entering the race, then decided not to use it after his own campaign gained traction and financial contributions started coming in from other sources. “I never thought it was a big deal,” he told a reporter. “Everybody was trying to buy it.” In retrospect, he said, he considered the move a mistake. News of the business with Duke, combined with Foster’s well-established conservative platform, alienated many of the state’s African American voters. Nevertheless, he was reelected by a wide margin over Democratic Congressman William Jefferson of New Orleans in the 1999 election.
While continuing to focus on education and sound financial management in his second term, Foster was criticized for lack of involvement in economic development matters. There were exceptions: when New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson threatened to move his football team out of the state, Foster worked out a deal with lucrative state incentives and payments to keep the Saints in New Orleans. He also had a hand in the relocation of a National Basketball Association franchise from Charlotte, North Carolina, to New Orleans, and he supported the use of state money to expand the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the linchpin of major convention business in New Orleans. Overall, though, observers chided the governor for his reluctance to recruit new industry and big business to Louisiana. While other governors were active cheerleaders for their states, Foster scoffed at what he termed the “ceremonial B. S.” of being governor. Instead, he indulged his penchant for spending leisure time away from the governor’s mansion, typically retreating to Oaklawn Manor, his plantation home on Bayou Teche; his luxurious fishing camp at Grand Isle; or, in season, exclusive duck-hunting clubs in south Louisiana.
Foster retired from public office at the conclusion of his second term, returning with his wife Alice to their Franklin mansion. As he prepared to leave Baton Rouge, Foster looked back on his eight years in office and took the greatest satisfaction in the new direction his administration charted for the way state government operated. “The most important thing is we changed the whole culture of doing things, not based on politics. We don’t have to worry about how somebody’s brother-in-law was getting a good deal,” he said. Others gave him high marks in some important areas but not all. “Supporters, and even some critics, credit Foster with restoring integrity to state government, stabilizing state finances and creating a solid foundation to begin repairing a badly deteriorated education system,” longtime state government reporter Ed Anderson wrote in an analysis of Foster’s tenure in The Times-Picayune. “Critics, and even some supporters, question the governor’s energy in pursuing economic development, his will to reduce the size of state government and oppose the expansion of gambling, and his willingness to expend political capital for even more drastic changes.”