Gov. Mike Foster was a gentle political giant who gave each of us some of the best years of his life, and our children and grandchildren are reaping the benefits.
Voters were asked in an exit poll after the 1995 runoff why they cast their ballots for Foster, and he didn’t let them down. They said they made their choice based on strong leadership, his stands on the issues, his honesty and trustworthiness and his willingness to shake things up.
Foster went against the advice of his political experts when he decided to run a series of newspaper advertisements during the campaign. However, Roy Fletcher, the political consultant who handled Foster’s campaign, said that those newspaper advertisements gave people an idea of who he was.”
Fosters’s grandfather, Murphy Foster, was Louisiana’s governor from 1892 to 1900, and his grandson had some sense of what the job involved.
“Re-election is not something that’s high on my agenda,” Foster said. “If it works out, fine. But that’s not what will be on my mind.”
Mark Drennen was Foster’s commissioner of administration and budget adviser, and he told me once how things were different. Drennen said Foster had a four-rule test for every action taken by his administration:
Is it legal? Is it ethical? Does it just make good common sense? Is it in the taxpayers’ best interest?
By June of 1996, his first year in office, Foster had an approval rating of 73.5 percent, highest of any governor in the nation.
Pollster Bernie Pinsonat said of Foster, “He has a connection with voters that is real. He’s the kind of guy that everybody in the state would like to have as a next door neighbor. They just think he’s one of them.”
Foster said later, “I’m simply doing what I said I would do: trying to make this state a place where families and businesses, especially small businesses can grow and prosper, a place people can be proud to call home.”
My first personal experience with Foster came during a legislative session I was covering. Vic Stelly of Moss Bluff was a local state representative at the time, and he walked over to where I was working and said the governor would like to see me.
“I’m pretty busy right now,” I told Stelly, who walked back to his desk. However, he came back in a few minutes and just said, “Jim, he is the governor.”
That really got my attention and I quickly made my way to Foster’s fourth-floor office. The governor and I spent some quality time together, and it was just the two of us trying to become better acquainted. That is rare for most public officials who like to have public relations or other staff members present.
Sitting down and chatting with Gov. Mike Foster for an hour and a half, I could understand why the man continued to register a phenomenal voting approval rating after nearly two years in office. What you saw is what you got. Foster was down-toearth, and he didn’t pull any punches. His willingness to take a stand, even when you disagreed with his position, was refreshing.”
I told Gov. Foster that eight years of integrity and progress by his administration could set a pattern that future governors might find difficult to change.
Foster’s support of a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk boys and girls, was one of his major achievements.
“According to our secretary of corrections, research clearly shows that the lowest prison populations are found in the states with the best pre-K programs,” Foster said. “If we had a choice, would you rather spend money on educating children or on incarcerating criminals?”
Foster supported two other major education initiatives that are part of his legacy. He supported creation of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS scholarships) and creation of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System that serves those not needing a four-year college degree.
Support of Vic Stelly’s plan to swap income taxes for state sales taxes on food, prescription drugs and utilities was another smart move by Foster. When voters approved the plan in 2002, Foster called it the upset of the century.
Unfortunately, legislators repealed the income tax increase part of the Stelly plan in 2008, and that created eight years of state budget and financial instability. Gains made in K-12 and higher education during the Foster and Gov. Kathleen Blanco years were wiped out during the Bobby Jindal administration.
Budget problems weren’t solved until Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Legislature in 2018 increased the state sales tax by 0.45 percent.
Having covered the state’s governors since John McKeithen’s second term in 1968, I am convinced that Foster’s eight years recorded some of the most significant achievements during those 52 years. However, most of all, he will be remembered as a country gentleman who loved his state and served it well.