Jim Beam column: Edwards met the challenges

Published 7:31 am Saturday, January 6, 2024

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is leaving office Monday with many reasons to be proud of his eight years in office. In his farewell address in his hometown of Amite, we learned some things about him we hadn’t heard before.

Edwards talked about why he ran for governor in 2015, which was news to me. Here is what he said he told former state Rep. Sam Jones of Franklin:

“I’ll never forget the day I was sitting in the Legislature, talking to my good friend Sam Jones, telling him I’d had enough of the governor we had at the time (Republican Bobby Jindal). He was leading us into a crippling budget crisis — the extent of which we had yet to fully understand.

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“Students were fleeing the state because of the largest divestment to higher education in the country. One of the nation’s largest percentages of working poor were being deprived of health insurance that was readily available. Business-as-usual politics was holding us back.

“So I told Sam, ‘I’m running for governor.”

A local attorney told me after Edwards announced that he couldn’t win because he would only be able to get 40% of the vote. I mentioned that to Edwards one day when he walked by the reporters’ desk at the Legislature.

“I don’t care what he said,” Edwards told me. I’m going to win.” And win big he did, defeating former Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter with 56% of the vote to 44% for Vitter. Even more surprising was his close victory in 2019 when he was re-elected.

Here is what others have said about Edwards:

Clancy DuBos, political editor of the Gambit newspaper, said, “Fiscally, Edwards will rank as one of Louisiana’s most successful and responsible governors. He also has done more to improve public health care than any governor since Huey Long built the Charity Hospital System nearly a century ago.”

“Governor of disaster: John Bel Edwards led Louisiana through crisis after crisis” was the headline on a Louisiana Illuminator story by Julie O’Donoghue.

O’Donoghue said, “Over eight years, Edwards has faced a once-in-a-century health pandemic; six hurricanes; multiple bouts of catastrophic flooding; drought; a crippling state budget shortfall; two police brutality controversies, a university sexual misconduct scandal; a mass shooting of law enforcement officers; saltwater intrusion that threatened drinking water systems; and even wildfires in a typically water-soaked Louisiana.”

Joe Zehner of Metairie in a letter to The Advocate said, “Thank goodness that we had a governor who supported the advice of medical professionals and pressed for vaccinations during the pandemic. We can only hope that our next governor will be as sensible toward the health of our children.”

“Even-handed Edwards will be difficult to replace” was the headline on another letter to the newspaper from Russ Wise, a former school board member in LaPlace. Wise said Edwards has managed to carefully straddle the line and moved a backward state forward, offending extremists on both sides but generally satisfying the moderate middle.

Jonathan Martin in a Politico news story said, “Winning twice in a state where the last two Democratic presidential candidates didn’t reach 40%, Edwards forged alliances across racial and partisan lines to rebuild Louisiana’s finances and leave the state with a budget surplus and its lowest-ever unemployment rate, 3.3%.

“And while states to the east and west, Mississippi and Texas, have been battered by the closure of rural hospitals, not one such facility here has closed on Edwards’ watch because he did what his neighboring governors refused and accepted the federal dollars to expand Medicaid.”

It was fitting that Edwards in his farewell address paid tribute to his wife, Donna, who has also achieved successes of her own.

Edwards said he met Donna one day in the seventh grade, “who I knew even then, would be the love of my life.  And she’s with me tonight as she has been just about every day since.”

“Donna is a true champion for children, women and families,” he said. “From elevating the importance of music, movement, and art education, to providing a supporting network for foster children and families and working tirelessly to help prevent and raise awareness about human trafficking — she has accomplished so much for our state. And she did all of that while also preserving the history and beauty of the Governor’s Mansion.”

Edwards said he’s leaving the governor’s office as optimistic as he has ever been about the state’s future. “That breeze of hope is still blowing, and I have faith that it will continue,” he said.

Let’s hope he’s right.