Cajun-country era ends, prison term begins

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, after years of investigations, goes to prison for racketeering.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards reported to federal prison on Monday, it capped not just an influential and controversial career but also an era in the byzantine politics of the Bayou state.

The four-term governor's journey from his country club Baton Rouge home to a prison in Fort Worth, Texas, followed a series of self-promoting farewell interviews that one headline aptly dubbed "the long goodbye."

Mr. Edwards was convicted of racketeering and extortion in exchange for state riverboat gambling licenses.

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It was a denouement many state residents thought would never happen, despite two dozen investigations and several indictments. Known for Las Vegas gambling junkets and inveterate womanizing, the smooth-talking Edwards embodied the flamboyant brand of populism practiced by Huey and Earl Long during the first half of the 20th century. Unlike the Longs, though, Edwards wasn't Baptist and he wasn't from North Louisiana. He was Cajun and Catholic, though he briefly dallied with the Nazarenes as a teen. Above all, he craved power.

But his populist style of doing business – in which power and money flowed from the state's oil and gas riches – has now dried up along with many of the wells.

"Edwards kept alive a system of populism that was dying before he was born," says John Maginnis, a longtime analyst and editor of the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly. "In many ways, Louisiana had already changed before he went to prison."

Mr. Maginnis and others cite Edwards's disastrous fourth term, which ended in 1996 with him not seeking reelection, as a sign not of waning ambition but political reality. Voters elected Republican reformer Mike Foster and the legislature began increasing funds for higher education and tried to woo businesses.

Even so, Louisiana remains among the poorest states in the country, and annually ranks at the top of the list for income disparity between rich and poor. Educational levels and social services in many areas are deplorable. The tax system, long dependent on oil revenues, needs an overhaul. Political observers say the lack of energy money, in particular, may have ushered out the Edwards governing style before federal prosecutors nabbed him.

Shifting to a new model

"When people weren't paying any taxes and the oil and gas money rolled in, you could run things like a banana republic," says Wayne Parent, chairman of the political science department at Louisiana State University. "That century of being a great breeding ground for corruption is over."

Under six-year Governor Foster, some analysts see a concerted effort to follow the model of other Southern states, centered on the quest for a more diverse job base.

"The state is working to overcome the perception that doing business here means you're going to go through a shakedown," says Barry Erwin, president of nonpartisan watchdog group Council for a Better Louisiana.

Indeed, three of the past four governors here have been business-oriented and reform-minded, says former Gov. Buddy Roemer, the only man who beat Edwards in a political race (in 1987). He hails Edwards's political gifts but says they weren't backed by substance, causing a generation of the state's best and brightest to leave the state. "He was a manipulator," Mr. Roemer says, "and he cost us a generation of growth. That's the legacy."

'Nothing left to steal'

Edwards rode highest during his first two terms, beginning in 1972. He set up a series of vocational technical schools, drafted a new state constitution and, during the heady oil boom, passed legislation basing the state's energy taxes on a percentage of market value. Hailed for liberal civil rights and a penchant for celebrating Cajun culture (he took his oath of office in both French and English), Edwards seemed unstoppable.

Unable to run for a third consecutive term in 1979, Edwards stormed back four years later. He defeated incumbent David Treen with a range of quips, answering his opponent's allusions to corruption with, "If we don't get Treen out of office soon, there won't be any money left to steal." Shortly after he beat Treen, Edwards filled two planes with supporters paying $10,000 each for a week-long trip to Paris, paying off a $4 million campaign debt in unique fashion.

While many here feel the state has been rapidly moving into a new year, the taint of corruption lingers. The last three state-elected insurance commissioners have served or are serving jail time. A former elections commissioner is in jail, and the agriculture commissioner is under indictment.

"As corrupt as Edwin Edwards was, he was just the tip of the iceberg," says Clancy DuBos, a longtime New Orleans political commentator. "The only certain thing is that he's out of business. As for the rest, that remains to be seen."

In recent weeks, the 75-year-old Edwards appeared to focus on salvaging a legacy now tarnished by conviction. In interviews he insisted he had done nothing wrong. (He has appealed to the US Supreme Court, though most in the state doubt the case will be heard.)

He peppered his public farewell with a combination of wit and fatalism, and even offered the lurid details of plans for using his frozen sperm to sire a child with his wife, Candy, 38. Asked what federal institution he wanted to be sent to, Edwards answered, "The US Mint."

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