Jim Beam column:Edwards was right man for the job

Published 6:42 am Saturday, October 21, 2023

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards will be leaving office Jan. 8 and he is turning over a state to Republican Gov.-elect Jeff Landry that is in much better financial shape than Edwards found it in 2016. Edwards inherited a $2 billion deficit from former GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal and Landry will inherit a state with surplus funds and savings accounts.

Jay Dardenne, Edwards commissioner of administration, said Landry will inherit a budget surplus ($330 million) for the fiscal year that ended on June 30 and state savings accounts that have $3 billion.

The Legislature played a role in approving the taxes needed to put the state on an even keel, but Edwards provided the leadership. Looking back over Edwards’ first year in office, it is easy to see why he has been successful.

Email newsletter signup

Jeremy Alford of LaPolitics Weekly wrote a 2013 biography of Edwards and it explains a major reason why he has succeeded. Alford said, “His colleagues regard him as smart, observant and respectful, but incisive with his questions They say he’s effective in committee, unafraid to tackle tough issues and quick to challenge powerful opponents…”

The governor’s West Point training enhanced his leadership skills that made it possible for him to direct the state’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes and other weather events that hit the state over the last eight years.

Alford said Edwards was able to win his election as a state representative by “convincing a House district of largely African American, poor voters that a white man from a relatively privileged background would relate to their lives…”

One of Edwards’ most controversial early decisions in the view of many Republicans was the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, the health-care program for low-income Americans. It was expected 200,000 Louisiana citizens would benefit, but more than 400,000 now have health care coverage.

The GOP’s right wing has had a difficult time accepting the fact that Edwards has been the governor for eight years and that he is a Democrat. I said in a February 2016 column that Landry, attorney general at the time, had suddenly anointed himself as the new spokesman for the Republican hard-liners.

Landry has stirred controversy since the first day he landed in office. His public relations machine has been working overtime to portray him as the state’s chief protector and defender. He took over David Vitter’s Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority PAC that helped engineer the GOP takeover of the Legislature.

The AG quickly became Mr. Conservative and the Republicans favorite candidate for governor in 2019.

Jason Dore, executive director of the state GOP machinery in 2016, said Republican victories in 2016 congressional races marked the end of Edwards’ job as governor.

“This is a deep red state,” Dore said. “It was a perfect storm that got him (Edwards) elected, and the results of that (election) are going to be him being unelected in 2019.”

Citizens had a much different viewpoint. Southern Media & Opinion Research in its 2016 poll found Edwards had a comfortable 62.8% approval rating, and only 33.6% rated him unfavorably. That compared to a 45% favorability rating in the spring.

The final solution to the state’s money problems didn’t come until the third special legislative session in 2018. That is when the Legislature approved a 0.45% increase in the state’s 4% sales tax that expires in 2025. The tax was expected to raise $500 million annually.

Republican conservatives have consistently tried to end the tax before 2025. Many of them have said the state is going to experience a fiscal cliff when the tax goes off the books, but most of them oppose keeping it there.

I said in February of 2016 that the actions Edwards took over the next four years would determine whether voters would think he deserved another term. I also said he should be given ample opportunity to try and serve the state’s best interests.

The Republican conservatives who belonged to what was called the “Gang of No” fought him at every turn, but he kept his steady hand on state government.

Landry decided not to run for governor in 2019 and Edwards faced Republican Eddie Rispone, a relatively unknown but major GOP donor, in the runoff. Edwards was re-elected with 51% of the vote on Nov. 16, 2019.

Some readers have been critical of my support for Edwards, but I have no reservations in saying as I said in 2016 — he is exactly the governor Louisiana needed at this time in its history.