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Edwin Edwards Will Live Forever

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Outside the courthouse after Edwards's fraud indictments, 1985.  

Edwards was not unlike his most famous client, Carville said. “Some politicians like politics, and some don’t. Barack Obama, the last thing he wants to do at 86 is run for office. Bill Clinton, tell him there’s an open seat and he’s off. That’s the way these guys are. It’s in the blood. What’s Edwards lost, one election in 60 years?”

Nonetheless, Carville did not like Edwards’s prospects in the Sixth District. “He might make the runoff. But that’s it. There’s no way a Democrat, much less an old-line populist like Edwards, can win there.”

“So Carville thinks I’m gonna lose, huh?” Edwards said with a tight smile. “All I know is there’s nine Republicans in the race and me. That makes it almost a fair fight.” Besides, Edwards was ahead, hovering around 40 percent, not bad in tea-party country for an octogenarian ex-con who didn’t mind saying Obamacare might actually have some good ideas in it.

The big issue was Edwards himself. He was fresh from the same pen as Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, Enron’s Andrew Fastow, Alabama governor Don Siegelman, and who knew what other variety of pond scum. When the Sixth District came into being in 1875 during the Reconstruction, its first congressman was the freedman Charles Edmund Nash. Nash lasted one term before being swept out in the face of the retrenchment of white power. The state did not send another African-American to Congress for 114 years. Still, how did the good people of the Sixth District feel about being represented by a man with a sordid past like Edwin Edwards?

It was a vexing question. Sixteen years in the Statehouse and eight years in the Big House sounded like an unbeatable record, but plenty of states had crooks in elective office. The difference in Louisiana was the perceived tolerance—some might call it celebration—of public malfeasance. Such was the case in Destrehan, St. Charles Parish, where Edwards and Trina arrived accompanied by a motorcade of Harleys supplied by the Jerusalem Shriners to judge a crawfish festival along with Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and ex–heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield. (“I was ringside in Vegas when Tyson bit his ear off,” EWE said.)

After making a little speech that he ended in French, exhorting, “Lâche pas la patate,” which translates to “Don’t drop the potato” or Cajun for “Hang in there,” Edwards was approached by a middle-aged woman from Luling, right across the Mississippi.

“I hate Democrats, but I’m voting for you,” the Luling woman said. “All y’all steal. But you were honest about it. You were gambling, you said you were gambling. You didn’t sneak around, hide nothing. You never took from the taxpayers, just from the fat cats.” Asked why Louisiana voters seem so willing to forgive Edwards his past transgressions, the woman said, “Well, he’s one of us.” Then she hugged Trina, imploring, “Don’t let this weasel get away.”

Still, problems loomed for the Edwards campaign. In 1984, Edwards helped pay off a $4.4 million campaign debt by charging over 600 of his closest supporters to join him on a trip to Paris. For $10,000 a pop, everyone got to go to the Eiffel Tower, travel to Monte Carlo and the Champagne region, and go by Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors. At that moment, EWE had only two people working in his office, Trina and her friend Rachelle, whom she’d met at ­cosmetology school in Opelousas. To raise funds, Edwards was thinking of selling his RV to a man in Montana.

Beyond that was the fact that Edwards had not run a campaign since 1991, before smartphones, almost all e-mail, super-PACS, and just about every accouterment of ­modern-day politicking. Not that social-media algorithms appeared to be uppermost in the mind of Edwards or his lunch partners, Harvey Gaspard and two guys named Paul and Ricky, whose family ran a lounge and liquor store in St. Francisville.

The governor ordered a club sandwich, so everyone else did too. Paul, a large man with an air of swampland gravitas, talked about his hunting trip with his good friend Burl Cain, the storied warden of Angola prison, a.k.a. the Farm, the largest maximum-security facility in the country. Then he pulled out a flyer for Craig ­McCulloch, one of Edwards’s opponents. It was split down the middle into red and blue halves. On the red side was McCulloch, a tough-love/military/Christian-looking type. The blue side was Edwards, his picture looking like it’d been ripped from the post-office wall. On McCulloch’s side it said, “Businessman, 30 Years.” Under Edwards it read, “Convicted Felon, 8 Years.”

“He’s some kind of chiropractor. A physical therapist,” said Ricky. “You know, mad as hell. Wants to get the ­government off his back,” Paul put in.


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