La.'s gambling governor wisely folds a bad hand

ON POLITICS

June 09, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- In this age of political correctness and ever-present television cameras, most politicians are vanilla. But Edwin W. Edwards has always been Tabasco sauce.

In four terms as governor of Louisiana, the Cajun Democrat demonstrated that a politician could be often unconventional and sometimes outrageous and still survive. When he announced his retirement the other day, politics suddenly became a less interesting business.

The stories about Edwards the gambler are legion -- the governor flying to Las Vegas with $100,000 in cash in a suitcase to pay off a casino where he had been through a bad run of luck; the governor presiding over high-stakes poker games in the executive mansion in Baton Rouge and, just this year, the governor paying taxes on more than $300,000 of gambling winnings last year.

But perhaps the single most telling story about Edwards was the way he paid off his campaign debt after his 1983 re-election by charging his supporters $10,000 each to join him on a chartered-jet, week-long spree in Paris. The respectable folks were shocked, but Edwards believed that the contributors at least got a good time for their money.

"A lot of people would like to do the things I do," he once told us, "but they just don't have the nerve."

In the mid-1980s, while serving his third term, Edwards was twice indicted on charges that while he was out of office but planning to run again he sold state approvals for hospitals. The first trial ended in a hung jury and the second in an acquittal, but Edwards recognized the threat.

While waiting to go to trial he suddenly showed up at a Southern Governors' Conference in Miami. This was passing strange because Edwards never had much use for such gatherings. But we encountered him outside the meeting room shortly before 9 a.m. having a cup of coffee with the other participants. "What in the world are you doing here?" we asked.

Edwards smiled and, with a nod toward the television cameras from New Orleans stations, replied: "I'm looking respectable."

He was not always so respectable, and he was rarely politically correct. On one occasion he encountered at a large reception a black political leader known to be involved in a long-term personal relationship with a white businesswoman. Edwards and the black leader had been feuding, so as they shook hands in the center of a crowd of reporters, he said: "There's one thing you and I agree on -- we both like white broads."

Edwards' political base was built of his fellow Cajuns and the black voters who make up close to 30 percent of Louisiana's electorate. Edwards was a determined populist who advocated liberal Democratic social programs and tax policies aimed largely at producing more jobs in his state.

In the late 1970s the state prospered as the oil industry boomed. But when energy prices went south in the mid-1980s, the state was hit by a deep recession, and voters' tolerance of Edwards' eccentricities ran low. In 1987 he suffered his only defeat, losing to Congressman Buddy Roemer.

Four years later, however, Edwards was back in the game. And when Roemer failed to make the gubernatorial runoff -- in Louisiana all candidates of both parties run against each other in a so-called unified primary -- Edwards was lucky enough to be pitted head-to-head against David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman.

By this time Edwards had little support among white Protestants and his backing among Cajuns had begun to atrophy. But blacks turned out in huge numbers for Edwards and, faced with the prospect of Duke, the state establishment rallied behind him. Edwards was amused: "I got people giving me money who wouldn't speak to me three months ago," he said. Edwards suspended his gambling and behaved himself long enough to win handsomely.

He had hardly been elected, however, before the respectable folks began circulating petitions aimed at drumming him out of office. And the alienation grew even more pronounced as Edwards pressed ahead with his plan to build a casino in New Orleans and provide other gambling around the state.

As stories surfaced about his political cronies cashing in on the new industry, Edwards' negatives began to shoot up once again -- to the point that he was considered a pronounced underdog if he ran again next year. But, as they are saying in Louisiana this week, Edwin Edwards always knew when to fold 'em.

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