Edwards-Duke runoff in La. dismays some It's supremacist David Duke vs. Edwin Edwards.

October 21, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

NEW ORLEANS -- After voters put two of Louisiana's most controversial politicians since Huey Long into a Nov. 16 runoff for governor, Louisianians were left asking themselves: How did it happen?

How did they end up with a choice for governor between David Duke and Edwin Edwards?

"What a disaster!" said Raul Bencomo, a lawyer in New Orleans. "The only thing that would be worse is if Duke wins."

Political analysts don't think that will happen. But, as Duke was only too eager to point out yesterday, the political establishment has consistently underestimated his appeal.

Duke is a former Ku Klux Klan leader, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of White People and dabbler in neo-Nazism. As recently as two years ago, he peddled books out of his state office claiming that the Holocaust was a hoax.

Duke, a state representative, ran as a Republican and, although disavowed by President Bush and the rest of GOP officialdom, finished second in Saturday's open primary with 32 percent of the vote.

Democrat Edwards, running on the old-style New Deal coalition of blacks, labor and liberals, finished first with 34 percent of the vote. Edwards, the only three-term governor in Louisiana history, is a flamboyant Cajun who was ousted four years ago by an electorate fed up with a governor who flaunted his marital infidelity, his penchant for gambling and his reputation for old-fashioned Louisiana graft.

Left in the dust was Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer, who finished third with 27 percent of the vote.

In Louisiana, all candidates run in the same primary regardless of party; if no one gets more than 50 percent, the top two vote-getters meet in a runoff.

Roemer, then a Democrat, unseated Edwards four years ago with a promise to clean up Louisiana politics. He delivered, and his administration was scandal-free. But Roemer treated legislators in Baton Rouge with contempt, became moody and unpredictable after his wife left him, switched parties earlier this year and then ran a halfhearted and ill-conceived campaign.

In the end, he met the same fate as Sam Jones in the 1940s, Robert Kennon in the 1950s and David Treen in the 1980s -- reform governors who, like Roemer, were retired by the voters after just one term.

"I never liked Buddy, but I certainly voted for him yesterday," said Elizabeth Rickey, a Republican who launched organized opposition to Duke within the Republican Party. "What happened yesterday just makes me sick."

Duke and Edwards did not overcome their reputations; they didn't have to.

"There's not a thing in his past we don't know about," said a Duke voter, contractor Jon Procell of Metairie. "His past don't bother me at all."

Likewise, Edwards supporters had no illusions that Edwards was any kind of choir boy.

"I vote Democrat," said Joe Guidry, a New Orleans shoeshine man. "Edwin cares about the black man, and that's what I care about."

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