Jim Beam column:Looking back at 2016 politics

Published 6:52 am Saturday, December 16, 2023

“What’s wrong with Jim?”

A good friend of mine said he was asked that question many times during the early part of 2016 and wanted to know why they were asking.

“Why is he supporting that Democratic governor?” they answered.

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Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards was who they were talking about who had defeated then-U.S. Sen David Vitter, R-Metairie, in the Nov. 21, 2015, gubernatorial general election.

Here is some background:

I was covering the Louisiana Legislature continuously from 2000 to 2019, and Edwards, who is from Amite in Tangipahoa Parish, was elected with 66% of the vote on Nov. 17, 2007, to represent the state’s  72nd Representative District. He was elected to a second term in the Oct. 22, 2011, primary.

Edwards was leader of the Democratic Party in the House from 2012 to 2015. After he decided to run for governor, a local attorney and major Democrat told me Edwards couldn’t win.

I had a chance to tell Edwards what the man said one day as he walked by the news desk in the House.

Edwards said he didn’t care what the man said but he was going to win the election. As I followed the 2015 governor’s race closely, I could understand why Edwards was so confident.

I had also read a great biography of Edwards written May 6, 2013, by Jeremy Alford of LaPolitics Weekly. He said colleagues of Edwards regarded him as smart, observant, and respectful, but incisive with his questions.

Alford added, “They say he’s effective in committee, unafraid to tackle tough issues and quick to challenge powerful opponents …”

Edwards said during his campaign that he would make higher education his top issue, and he delivered on that promise. Former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration had decimated university and college budgets.

I looked back at some columns I had written in 2015, the election year. In September, I wrote that Edwards and Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who was another candidate, were “more willing to put their necks on the line with reporters and others.”

In October, I said with one major exception, it was a good gubernatorial campaign. Scott Angelle, a third candidate, Edwards, and Dardenne had been civil to one another, while Vitter avoided public scrutiny and his negative and slanderous campaign had turned off many voters.

I met a couple from Amite at my church one Sunday and asked them if they knew Edwards. They said he came from a fine family, “pillars of the community.”

Stephen Waguespack, a Republican candidate for governor this year, is the former president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry that endorsed  Vitter in 2015. Waguespack, after Edwards won the runoff, said,  “The voters clearly made character a top priority … Voters are looking for leaders who are sincere and trustworthy.”

Donna, the governor’s wife, said, “Our faith has been first and foremost throughout this whole campaign and really brought us through it.”

The first major move by Edwards was to approve  expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for low-income Americans. In a Thursday interview published by The Advocate, Edwards was asked if expansion was still the best decision he made.

“No question. Over half a million working poor Louisianans have health insurance,” he said. And he added, “And without trying to be over the top, it is the sort of thing that I believe as a Catholic, as a Christian, that we are to do.”

Edwards gets high marks in race relations, I said in that same column, that appeared to be a reflection of how his parents were able to get along with everyone. His dad became sheriff in desegregation times in 1968.

Alford in 2016 said Edwards was able to win his legislative election by “convincing a House district of largely African Americans, poor voters that a white man from a relatively privileged background would relate to their lives.”

Despite what people might hear from disgruntled Republicans, Edwards has delivered on his promises and lived up to the expectations of those who elected him twice. He launched a monthly call-in radio show aimed at keeping voters informed.

It’s obvious Edwards was correct in April of 2016 when he said, “I’m convinced that there is more that unites us than divides us, and by talking with one another, we can learn from one another.”

That is how a Democratic governor and a Republican-dominated Legislature have managed over the last eight years to return fiscal sanity to Louisiana.

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