Louisiana Group Launches New Effort to Dump Governor

IN 1991, Louisiana won international attention as it faced the choice of electing as governor an ex-Ku Klux Klansman, David Duke, or a former incumbent twice tried on racketeering charges, Edwin Edwards.

Although Mr. Edwards, a Democrat, easily won the election, civil rights attorney Ted Schirmer's dream was that by the end of this year Louisiana voters could say they had ultimately rejected both men. Until next year, at least, Edwards will have the last laugh.

On Dec. 14, Mr. Schirmer and volunteers from a statewide group called Recall '92 failed to produce 745,000 voter signatures calling for Edwards's removal from office. If activists had produced the signatures, a special election would have been held, which could have resulted in Edwards stepping down from the seat he has held for four nonconsecutive terms.

Already, though, a campaign for a new recall is under way. Recall '93 is expected to officially kick off at the end of January, when the new state legislative session begins. Recall '93, like Recall '92, will have 180 days in which the signatures must be gathered. Conceivably, recall efforts could be mounted through the rest of Edwards's term, which expires in January 1996.

Despite the outcome, Edwards's ratings have rarely been lower. A poll taken Dec. 1-5 by Southern Media & Opinion Research, a Baton Rouge company, shows that Edwards has a 60 percent unfavorable rating, up from 34 percent in March.

Most political experts and recall officials agreed the drive had roughly half the 1 million signatures projected by officials when the effort began in June. Edwards said last week he had "people in that organization. The idea that they have 600,000 signatures is totally inaccurate."

For Steve Lindsley, state recall coordinator, that comment was classic Edwards: "He is the most skilled politician Louisiana has seen since Huey Long. Whether he has spies in our group or not doesn't matter. As soon as he said he does, we all started to become suspicious of one another."

Recall headquarters in New Orleans is like an archive of Edwards memorabilia: There are newspaper clippings on his criminal trials (he was twice acquitted of racketeering), his reported penchant for gambling (in the mid-1980s, he was said to have lost more than $2 million in Las Vegas, Nev.), and his comments doubting chances of a resurrection of Jesus Christ. The recallers frequently mention the gambling and his allegedly lax approach to enforcing environmental violations from companies that are among h is biggest contributors.

Ironically, it has been this emphasis on the past that has proved most damaging to the recall effort, says Silas Lee, a sociology professor and pollster at Xavier University in New Orleans. "For most people in Louisiana, that stuff is just as old as dirt," he says.

Perry Howard, a former political-science professor at Louisiana State University who has written books on the state's history and politics, says the recallers also failed to consider the emotional and exhaustive fight last year between Edwards and Mr. Duke. "People were just worn out by that campaign. They settled on Edwards and now they wanted to get on with their lives."

Lindsley said the effort was also hampered by a lack of organization - only about 50 of Louisiana's 64 parishes (counties) have volunteer structures - and the difficulty of getting signatures in rural areas where many anti-Edwards voters live.

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