Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards Dead at 93
Edwin Edwards, the colorful, flamboyant former congressman and four-term governor of Louisiana who spent time in federal prison on racketeering and extortion charges, has died.
Edwards died early Monday morning at his home in Gonzalez with his family by his side. According to a statement issued by Edwards biographer Leo Honeycutt, Edwards died from respiratory problems from which he had suffered in recent years. He was 93-years-old. Edwards would have turned 94 next month.
Edwards put himself in hospice care last week. At the time, he said his entering hospice didn't mean he was dying. Rather, he said, it was a matter of giving himself better care.
“Since I have been in and out of hospitals in recent years with pneumonia and other respiratory problems, causing a lot of people a lot of trouble, I have decided to retain the services of qualified hospice doctors and nurses at my home," Edwards said in a statement last week.
In the statement, Honeycutt said Edwards had stopped eating two days ago. Edwards stopped breathing at 7 a.m. Monday. According to Honeycutt's statement, Edwards's said shortly before he died:
“I have lived a good life, had better breaks than most, had some bad breaks, too, but that’s all part of it. I tried to help as many people as I could and I hope I did that, and I hope, if I did, that they will help others, too. I love Louisiana and I always will.”
Edwards served four terms as Louisiana governor. He served from 1972 to 1980, again from 1984 to 1988, and finally from 1992 to 1996. Prior to that, Edwards served as a Crowley city councilman, state senator, and congressman from Louisiana's Seventh Congressional District. In 1980, after leaving the governor's office, he served several months as a justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court, making him one of the few men to serve at the highest level of all of Louisiana's governmental branches.
“He was this generation’s Huey Long,” Honeycutt said. “He cared about people who didn’t have a voice and he stood up to those who did. He accomplished everything on the list of the Public Affairs Research Council within his first term, including defeating energy interests in 1974 when he changed the severance tax from 25-cents a barrel to 12.5% of value. That change made Louisiana the most cash-rich state in the nation at the time while New York City was going bankrupt.”
“My dad never saw color and never turned his back on anyone in need," Edwards's son Stephen said. "He helped all -especially me. He was an infallible pillar of strength but he kept a piece of tremendous pain for the rest of his life for the murder of his baby brother Nolan. Dad’s successes made him a legend but his losses made him human and his humanity made him easy to love. Louisiana has lost the love of its life. Goodbye, Dad.”
“I am heartbroken at the loss of my father," Edward's daughter Anna said. "He was a profound influence in my life and I will always miss him. His passing will create a huge void, but I sincerely thank everyone who expressed love and concern. He touched the lives of many fellow Louisianans and I know he will be remembered with great fondness.”
Edwards's wife Trina said her husband's last words were to their seven-year-old son Eli.
“Eli told him every night, ‘I love you,’" Trina said. "And he told Eli, ‘I love you, too.’ Those were his last words.”
Edwin Washington Edwards was born on August 7, 1927, in Avoyelles Parish to a half-Creole Presbyterian father and a French-speaking Catholic mother. Edwards initially set out to be a preacher, delivering sermons in his youth at a Marksville church. After returning home from a stint in the U. S. Navy Air Corp during World War II, he received his law degree from LSU, married Elaine Schwartzenburg, and moved to Crowley to open his law practice.
Edwards entered politics in 1954 when he ran for and won a seat on the Crowley City Council. Edwards held that seat for 10 years before winning a seat in the Louisiana State Senate, upsetting the incumbent, Crowley businessman Bill Cleveland. Two years later, voters sent Edwards to Washington, electing him as the Seventh Congressional District's representative in a special election. Edwards would be reelected to that seat three more times.
Edwards entered his first gubernatorial race in 1971, joining a crowded Democratic primary field that featured future U. S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, congressmen and Long Family cousins Gillis and Speedy Long, Lieutenant Governor Clarence "Taddy" Aycock, and former Governor Jimmie Davis. Edwards and Johnston, who both ran on reform platforms, reached the runoff. Edwards beat Johnston in that runoff by less than 4,500 votes. Edwards credited his win to African-American support in New Orleans. In February 1972, Edwards beat Republican candidate Dave Treen in the general election to win his first term as governor.
During his first four years in office, Edwards ushered in changes still felt today by Louisiana residents.
Edwards championed the creation of a new state constitution to replace the 1921 state charter. He called a constitutional convention in 1973. One year later, voters approved the new constitution, which took effect in 1975. That constitution is still in force today.
Edwards restructured the state government, scrapping more than 80 agencies and remodeling what was left of the state government after the federal government.
Edwards also pushed a bill through the state legislature changing Louisiana electoral system. The legislature approved Edwards's plan in time for the 1975 state election, putting in place the "jungle primary"/runoff system the state uses today.
Edwards first two terms coincided with the oil boom of the 1970s, allowing Edwards to balance the state's budget while expanding education and healthcare programs.
Edwards did not seek reelection in 1979 because of term limits, but he made it clear he would run again in 1983. He did, beating his successor Dave Treen. The campaign, which cost more than $18 million dollars between Edwards and Treen, was notable for Edwards's one-liners and cracks at Treen. Edwards said to reporters that the only way he could lose to Treen is if he "were caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl." Edwards also joked that Treen was "so slow it takes him an hour-and-a-half to watch 60 MINUTES."
The campaign was brought to a halt several months before the election after tragedy dealt Edwards a major blow. Edwards's younger brother Nolan was shot and killed in his Crowley law office by a disgruntled client--a client Edwards had pardoned in his second term. Despite his loss, Edwards finished the campaign strong and beat Treen in the election.
Edwards's third term was marred by an oil bust and numerous scandals that led to a federal indictment.
To make up for the loss in oil revenue caused by the bust, Edwards pushed through a package of tax increases, including hikes in the state sales tax, business taxes, and gasoline taxes which hurt his popularity among Louisiana voters.
Edwards's popularity also took a hit from two trials on mail fraud, bribery, and obstruction of justice charges stemming from state government approval of health care contracts. The first trial, held in 1985, ended in a mistrial. The second trial, held in 1986, ended with Edwards's acquittal.
Still, the damage was done, and Edwards suffered his first electoral defeat in the 1987 gubernatorial race. Congressman Buddy Roemer finished first in that year's primary, beating Edwards by five points. Instead of risking a landslide defeat in the general election, Edwards conceded the race, allowing Roemer to win the governorship without forming a consensus. In the process, Edwards laid the groundwork for his next political comeback.
Edwards entered the 1991 gubernatorial race as a major underdog-- so much so that the SHREVEPORT JOURNAL wrote that the only way Edwards could win was if he ran against Adolf Hitler.
Those words turned eerily prophetic, as Edwards made the runoff against neo-Nazi David Duke. Some of Edwards's usual political foes, including Treen and Roemer, moved to his corner, endorsing him in the race over the former Ku Klux Klan leader. Edwards again used his wit to his advantage in the campaign, quipping that all he had to do to beat Duke was "stay alive." Edwards also told journalists that he and Duke had only one thing in common--they were both "wizards under the sheets." Edwards went on to win a landslide victory over Duke in the runoff, claiming an unprecedented fourth term as governor.
Edwards returned to the Governor's Mansion without Elaine Edwards by his side. Years of Edwin being a ladies' man took a toll on their marriage. In 1989, Elaine moved out of the family home and filed for divorce, ending their 40-year marriage.
Edwards spent most of his fourth term fighting for casino gambling in Louisiana. In 1992, shortly after the start of his fourth term, Edwards convinced the legislature to allow a large land-based casino in New Orleans. He also appointed the board that would hand out the state's 15 riverboat casino licenses. Those licenses would ultimately lead to Edwards spending time in prison.
In 2000, a federal jury convicted Edwards on 17 counts of racketeering, mail fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering for extorting nearly $3 million from companies that applied for casino licenses during his final term in office. Edwards became the second Louisiana governor to be convicted on federal charges, with his guilty verdict coming nearly 60 years after that of former Governor Richard Leche. Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which his lawyer called a "death sentence."
Edwards served eight years and three months in federal prison before being released in 2011. During that time, he divorced his second wife, Candy Picou, whom he had married in 1994 while still in the Governor's Mansion. His probation ended early in 2013 because of good behavior.
Nine months after leaving jail, the twice-divorced Edwards married Trina Grimes Scott, who was 51 years his junior, in a New Orleans ceremony. In February 2013, the Edwardses announced that Trina was pregnant. That August, their son Eli was born.
That same year, the Edwards family starred in the A&E reality TV show THE GOVERNOR'S WIFE. That program lasted only eight episodes.
In 2014, Edwards made one final run for public office, seeking a return to Capitol Hill by running for the Sixth Congressional District seat based in Baton Rouge. Edwards took first place in the primary, but he lost in the runoff to Republican Garrett Graves, ending Edwards's political career.
Edwards is survived by his wife Trina; one of his ex-wives, Candy Picou; and his children Anna, Victoria, Stephen, David, and Eli. He was predeceased by his parents Clarence and Agnès; brothers Nolan, Allen, and Marion; and his ex-wife Elaine.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
To read the tributes and condolences to Edwards posted by Louisiana state officials, click here.