Edwin Washington Edwards, Louisiana’s Larger-Than-Life Four-Term Governor, Dies At 93
Edwin Washington Edwards, the former Louisiana governor who served four terms in the governor’s mansion and eight years in federal prison, died Monday at his home in Gonzales, La. He was 93.
According to family spokesperson Leo Honeycutt, Edwards was surrounded by friends and loved ones when he finally succumbed to the respiratory problems that had plagued him in recent years.
“I have lived a good life, had better breaks than most, had some bad breaks, too, but that’s all part of it,” Edwards said in his final hours, according to Honeycutt’s statement. “I tried to help as many people as I could and I hope I did that, and I hope, if I did, that they will help others, too. I love Louisiana and I always will.”
The former governor placed himself on hospice care last week telling the public, “I’ve made no bones that I have considered myself on borrowed time for 20 years and we each know that all this fun has to end at some point.”
Edwards was born on a sharecropper’s farm in Avoyelles Parish. He started his political career on the Crowley City Council, serving three terms before moving on to the state Senate in 1964, where he served as the floor leader for Gov. John McKeithen. He served only two years in the state Senate before moving on to Washington after winning a special election to represent Louisiana’s 7th Congressional District. He served in that position until winning his first gubernatorial race in 1971.
To win his first term as Louisiana governor, Edwards marshalled a coalition of working class whites, particularly those from the Acadiana region he called home, and newly enfranchised Black voters. He appointed record numbers of Black Louisianans to government positions.
He governed Louisiana through the state’s oil-driven economic boom of the 1970s. He restructured the way the state taxed oil production, basing the rate on price per barrel instead of a flat fee. The move filled the state's coffers and provided money for improved roads, bridges, ports, healthcare facilities and schools.
And in 1974, Edwards pushed for a new state constitution, which included civil rights protections for Black Louisianans and empowered local governments to function more independently.
The popular reforms and economic prosperity propelled Edwards to easily win a second term.
Edwards, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term, was replaced by David Treen in 1980. He bided his time then in 1983 he mounted his first of many political comebacks. His barnstorming gubernatorial campaign was immortalized in the book The Last Hayride by political historian John Maginnis. Edwards cashed in on his reputation as a bon vivant and a scoundrel — a populist cut in the mold of his predecessor Huey P. Long.
Edwards and Treen combined to spend more than $18 million dollars on their campaigns, making the race the richest up to that point in state history.
He quipped to future New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, then a political reporter at the Time-Picayune, that the only way he could lose the election would be if he was caught “in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”
Edwards won and celebrated his victory — and sought to retire his campaign debt — by chartering a $10,000 per-person trip to France for 600 of his friends and supporters.
But the party did not last once Edwards returned to the governor’s mansion.
Oil prices plummeted during his third term, and Edwards pushed through a more than $700 million tax increase to stave off fiscal crisis.
Edwards was never far from scandal. Over his career he was the subject of more than a dozen federal investigations. In 1985, he faced federal racketeering charges stemming from his regulation of nursing homes. Edwards was eventually acquitted but voters grew weary of his penchant for impropriety.
In 1987, Edwards finished a distant second to Demcratic Congressman Buddy Roemer in the gubernatorial primary and he bowed out of the runoff election.
But four years later, Edwards reentered the public spotlight to run for governor yet again. He faced off against Roemer, who had fallen out of favor after switching political parties and pushing for widely unpopular tax reforms, and David Duke, a Republican and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Edwards and Duke advanced to the runoff election.
The race put Edwards back in the national spotlight and he won back voters who had previously written off the former governor.
“Vote for the crook. It’s important,” read one popular bumper sticker.
People did, and Edwards ultimately defeated Duke by more than 1 million votes — the widest margin in state history.
Edwards retired in 1996 under the shadow of yet another federal investigation — this time stemming from allegations that he took bribes that influenced his awarding of riverboat casino licenses. Edwards was convicted in 2000 and served eight years in federal prison.
He emerged from prison in 2011 and married his third wife, Trina Grimes Scott. In 2013 the couple had a child Eli Wallace Edwards and briefly starred in a reality television series about their life.
In 2014, Edwards re-entered political life and entered the race to represent Louisiana’s 6th Congressional District. He was defeated by Republican Garret Graves in a runoff election.
Edwards is survived by his wife Trina, their son Eli, the four adult children he had with his first wife Elaine, 12 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is not related to the late Edwin Edwards, described the former four-term governor as “a larger than life figure known for his quick wit and his charm.”
“Our state has lost a giant, and we will miss him dearly,” John Bel Edwards wrote in the statement.
The family has not announced full funeral arrangements, but there will be a public viewing in the Louisiana State Capitol’s Memorial Hall.