Well-Known Felon Still Draws a Crowd, but Louisiana Has Moved On
If the test of a first-rate intelligence, as F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed, is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, there was the whiff of brilliance amid the scent of barbecue and fry-grease at the 75th International Rice Festival.
On Saturday morning, the voters here in Acadia Parish woke up, went to their polling places and by a three-to-one margin voted to give the Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, a second term, heartily endorsing his honor-student image and his tax-averse, avidly pro-business platform. That done, they came here to the parish seat to cheer on the grand marshal of this year’s rice festival parade — perhaps the country’s most famous populist ex-convict and the last heir of Huey Long.
“Most of the time I’m Republican,” said Milton Trahan, a 61-year-old crane operator wearing an “I Voted” sticker. But, Mr. Trahan said, “if he’d had his name on the ballot, he’d have won.”
Mr. Trahan was speaking of Edwin Edwards, a Democrat who served four terms as Louisiana’s governor and one 10-year sentence on federal bribery and racketeering charges, and who had just taken the festival stage in front of the parish courthouse.
“As you know, they sent me to prison for life,” said Mr. Edwards, who turned 84 in August but whose humor is still cornstarch-dry. “But I came back with a wife.”
He had delivered that verse before, but it always got a laugh, as everyone knew of the wife: Trina Grimes Scott, whom Mr. Edwards married in July and who is 51 years his junior (a reality show about their marriage was in the works, but it seems to have been shelved).
In other appearances, Mr. Edwards had followed this line with far more ribald lyrics, but this was a family crowd. He ended with a few words in Cajun French.
The ceremonies at the rice festival in Crowley were only slightly less suspenseful than the election going on around the state.
Technically, Saturday’s election was a primary, of the nonpartisan, everyone-against-everyone Louisiana variety. (Mr. Edwards instituted the so-called jungle primary system in his first term, a strategic move that backfired for the Democrats and earned him the wry nickname “Father of the Louisiana Republican Party.”)
But for most races, a runoff was not going to be necessary. The Republican state treasurer ran unopposed, and most other Republican statewide officeholders, including Mr. Jindal, might as well have. There was a tight race between two Republicans for lieutenant governor; one of them won.
There are, to be sure, old Edwards allies who are still in power, like State Senator John Alario, the dean of the Louisiana Legislature. Of course, he switched parties and became a Republican last year. “I think politics has passed him by,” Mr. Alario said after a birthday roast of Mr. Edwards at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans this summer.
“What you saw were lots of elderly people,” Mr. Alario said of the crowd at the roast. “You didn’t see a whole lot of youth there, other than his new wife.”
Indeed, populism in Louisiana these days is mostly of the Tea Party brand, and any politician who hopes to survive knows that wisecracks about political skullduggery or skirt chasing, no matter how well-turned, are to be uttered only in private. Political malfeasance became a lot less funny after Hurricane Katrina, and politicians who have been caught engaging in the bawdier sort of malfeasance, like Senator David Vitter, have survived by changing the subject, not joking about it.
“With the economy the way it is, it’s hard to take a lot of this with a sense of humor,” said C. B. Forgotston Jr., a longtime gadfly in state politics. “I don’t think we’re back to the days when people don’t want good government, they want good entertainment. It’s just too expensive.”
Still, here on Saturday the booth selling “Edwin Edwards President 2012” T-shirts was doing a brisk business; the children’s sizes were already sold out. Along the parade route, people held up “EDWARDS GOVERNOR” signs that someone had kept around for 20 years. Women clambered for autographs and men for handshakes.
Granted, Mr. Edwards first made his name in Crowley, beginning his political career with a race for the City Council in 1954. And everyone seemed to have a relative who had at one point been in Mr. Edwards’s employ.
But it is more than just familiarity, explained Jacinda LeJeune, 49, who works at a steel company in Lake Charles (and whose uncle was once on Mr. Edwards’s security detail).
She watched Mr. Edwards, who had bared his suspenders and shirtsleeves in the hot afternoon and was waving from the back of a convertible, and she pointed out how different he was from all the other politicians.
“We all knew he was going to steal,” she said. “But he told us he was going to do it.”
Thanks to the NY Times for this story.