‘I came out on top’: Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, 91, reflects on life and career

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Edwin Edwards has his iPhone on speaker mode. He leans into his desk as a client lists potential dates for them to meet and mull over real estate openings. They agree on a time, so the 91-year-old former four-term governor jots the appointment onto his desktop calendar, which sits beside a name plate engraved with “illegitimi non carborundum” — a Latin phrase for “don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Clients know who they’re getting when they work with Edwards, a populist whose Cajun lilt, coiffed hair, charm and spice have peppered his state’s politics for a half-century. He renewed his real estate broker’s license in 2015 and admits that his flair is often a selling point.

“I’m going to be active until I die,” he said from his home office in Ascension Parish. “It’s who I am. I can’t help it.”

The Power Broker

Edwards is no stranger to the property business. When electrification first reached his rural Avoyelles Parish neighborhood in the 1940s, it was a teenage Edwards who turned on the lights. He checked out books on electrical wiring from his school library, then tried it at home.

“People in the area were amazed and wanted me to wire their houses,” he said before belting out a laugh. “But they waited a while to make sure my daddy’s house didn’t burn down.”

Edwards, the son of a Catholic midwife and Presbyterian sharecropper, became a literal power broker for his farmlands — all as he yearned for higher power.

“When I was 14 years old, I told my girlfriend I was going to run for governor,” he said.

But Edwards’ political ambitions rose long before his teenage years, according to biographer Leo Honeycutt. The author of “Edwin Edwards: Governor of Louisiana” told BRProud.com about an acccount he discovered from the former governor’s mother:

“His mother said that when he was about seven years old, he got to acting up and playing a clown at a party or some gathering. She said, ‘I had to get him to quiet down. I grabbed him by the ear and took him out to the front porch to give him a talking-to. When I finished, he looked up at me and said, ‘You’re not going to do that one of these days when I’m governor.’ Again, he was seven years old.”

When he wasn’t evoking “Kingfish” Huey Long, Edwards stood before Marksville’s Nazarene Church as a youth preacher polishing his public reach.

Nazarene rules were strict: no sex before marriage and no hemlines above the knees for women. While Edwards only spent a few years at the church, he says Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings have lent a life-long roadmap. He echoed a favorite passage, Galatians 6:7: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

“If you sow hate and distrust, that’s what you’re going to reap,” Edwards said. “If you show love, attention and care, you’ll end up reaping that.”

He served a brief time in the U.S. Navy toward World War II’s tailend before completing Louisiana State University Law School at age 21.

“I hitchhiked from Marksville to Baton Rouge to go to law school,” he said. “My parents didn’t even know where LSU was.”

As a lawyer, Edwards capitalized on the Cajun French dialect that he and his family spoke at home. He flipped through the phonebook and saw what he believed were not nearly enough practicing attorneys in Crowley, roughly 100 miles away from Avoyelles Parish. Even fewer lawyers knew enough French to represent Acadia Parish’s working class, he concluded. He moved with his newlywed wife, the former Elaine Schwarzenburg, to open shop.

“I’d be a rich man today if I stayed as a practicing lawyer,” he said. “I was a good lawyer.”

‘I wanted to be governor’

Edwin Edwards found the itch for elected office too strong not to scratch. He spent time on the Crowley City Council, the Louisiana State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives — becoming one of the few Southern congressmen to support extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But for this child of the farmlands, the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge was prime real estate.

“Many people who are in politics don’t like it and want to get out,” he said. “I had a different attitude. I wanted to be in. I wanted to be governor. I wanted to serve people.”

Voters wanted him. On May 9, 1972, Edwards took the oath as Louisiana’s 50th governor. The self-proclaimed prince of the populist Kingfish fired his motives — an upheaval of the state’s constitution and a more diverse public workforce.

A 1973 convention on Edwards’ watch streamlined Louisiana’s charter from 267 agencies to 15. He appointed more minorities and women to state government than any of his predecessors had.

“Edwards was not only astute at knowing the pulse of the public, but he also knew exactly where the Legislature was moving pretty much at all times,” Honeycutt said. “There’s one thing he was extremely good at: delegation.”

He got the state to cash in on the 1970s oil boom by basing crude oil tax collections on percentages, rather than flat volume. Much of the newly generated revenue went toward state social programs.

In 1985, he convinced car dealer Tom Benson to purchase the New Orleans Saints and keep the NFL franchise from flocking to Jacksonville, Fla.

“I do my work and do my job,” Edwards said. “That’s why I was re-elected so many times. On the other hand, I like to say things to get attention.”

The governor owes his in-office accomplishments to compromise between Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature.

“Politics is about people,” he said. “You have to learn how to get along with them, to have them understand you, while at the same time working to make things better for them.”

Honeycutt suggests that Edwards’ signature humor bridged divisions inside the Louisiana State Capitol.

“Even if you didn’t like him, you would hear him just to hear the quips and hear the jokes,” Honeycutt said. “That way, you may actually hear his viewpoints on a certain matter. That’s where he was a master.”


EDWIN EDWARDS’ POLITICAL RESUME:

  • Crowley City Council (1952-1965)
  • Louisiana State Senate (1964-1965)
  • Louisiana Supreme Court (1980)
  • U.S. House of Representatives (1965-1972)
  • Governor of Louisiana (1972-1980, 1984-1988, 1992-1996)

‘I’m kind of a funny fella’

Edwards may have flaunted his swagger most on the campaign trail, with one-liners that lured out-of-state political students to Louisiana.

“I did tell him on different occasions, ‘You know, governor, if you had been a stand-up comedian, you could have been as big as Seinfeld? But no, you had to be governor.'” Honeycutt recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t you think I think about that?'”

Edwards uttered these lines in 1983, while vying to unseat Republican incumbent Dave Treen for a third term:

  • “Treen is so slow, it takes him an hour-and-a-half to watch ’60 Minutes'”
  • “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy”

In 1991, the reputed ladies’ man made these remarks about David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who faced Edwards in a gubernatorial runoff.

  • “The only thing we have in common is that we’re both wizards under the sheets.”
  • He also feigned concern that Duke may be suffering from smoke inhalation “because he’s around so many burning crosses”

The same year, Edwards sought humor by referencing decades-old corruption claims against him. Campaign bumper stickers read “Vote for the Lizard, Not the Wizard” and “Vote for the Crook: It’s Important.”

The former governor’s additional one-liners over the years include:

  • On the afrodesiac quality of oysters: “I had a dozen last night, and only 10 of them worked.” (2011)
  • “I give blood for them to make Viagra.” (2011)
  • On the usefulness of Republicans, including his wife Trina: “You sleep with them.” (2012)

“Humor can be used to get attention and let people know you’re not just a staid, nasty, serious politician,” Edwards said.

The former governor did not name names, but accused today’s politicians and commentators of misusing comedy.

“Don’t use humor to hurt other people or to say anything racist,” he said. “Too many people do that today through social media and 24-hour news, and that’s not humor at all.”

Asked if he now considers any of his own quips offensive, Edwards defended his setlist of one-liners.

“My attitude is: I’m your friend,” he said. “I’m here to help you and laugh with you.”

Ritz of the Bayou

Federal prosecutors thought Edwards to be Louisiana’s joke. Accusations of high-stakes poker games, pay-to-play schemes and infidelity dogged him since the 1970s.

“It was par for the course,” Edwards told BRProud.com. “If you’re going to get things done and make things happen, you’ll always have that problem.”

To retire his 1983 campaign debt, Edwards took some 600 supporters on planes to Paris. They wined and dined for $10,000 each for what the then-returning governor touted as the biggest single fundraiser in American political history.

Edwards risked 265 years in prison in 1985 for an alleged scheme to give preferred treatment to companies working with state hospitals. His appearances to the New Orleans federal courthouse became performances. He once showed up in a horse-drawn buggy to emphasize how slowly his trial was moving. When someone inside a New Orleans bar proposed a toast, he rose with a glass of water and recited a rhyme jabbing his legal opponent, U.S. Attorney John Volz:

“When my moods are over and my time has come to pass, I hope they bury me upside down, so Volz can kiss my ass.”

The case ended first with a mistrial, then again with an acquittal. Volz suffered a heart attack and lost two judgeships after falling to Edwards in court.

Word leaked that half of the jurors had stolen towels from the hotel where the court had sequestered them. Edwards replied, “I was acquitted by a jury of my peers.”

Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate No. 03128-095

But he met a different legal fate on May 9, 2000. Twenty-eight years to the day after first taking Louisiana’s highest elected office, a federal jury convicted Edwards of extorting nearly $3 million from applicants seeking state casino licenses.

To date, Edwards maintains he was not guilty of the charges against him and insists that he never raided the public purse.

“I never took money from the taxpayers,” he said. “The press and zealous prosecutors tried repeatedly to show that, but I had a clean record. I still do.”

The verdict prompted eight years in federal prison and the end of his marriage to Candace Picou. (He and his first wife, Elaine, divorced in 1989 after 40 years of matrimony.)

Edwards wrote this for Honeycutt’s 2009 biography:

“I may live to get out of prison, or I may not. If I do, I hope to accomplish some final gift to my state that in some way may restore my legacy.”

The former governor spent his days woorking in the Oakdale prison library. He spent additional time teaching inmates to read.

“I helped nine inmates get their GED,” he said. “I was working with five others when my term expired. I didn’t want to wait around to see if they made it, but I hope they did.”

Third marriage is a charm

Toward the end of his term at Oakdale federal prison, the then-octogenarian who inmates nicknamed “Guv” again found love.

After reading Honeycutt’s biography of Edwin Edwards, Trina Grimes Scott — now Trina Edwards — penned a letter to the incarcerated former governor. He was 83, and she was 32. He wrote her back, and she paid him a visit.

“When I first met him, I think that was the first time I really understood what charismatic really was,” she said. “I expected him to be — I’d hate to say beaten down — but kind of. But he wasn’t.”

Edwards remembers calling his oldest daughter after Trina’s first prison visit.

“I told her that I had just met one of Hugh Hefner’s calendar girls,” he said. “I thought she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She still is.”

The pair wed shortly after the former governor’s release in 2011.

“If I had known that it was going to give me the opportunity to meet Trina and ultimately marry her, I would have gladly walked into prison,” Edwards said.

‘I came out on top’

Edwards dips away from his Ascension Parish home office and enters the garage. Ducks waddle toward the garage door as it electronically opens, revealing the former governor sitting in his golf cart. A golf course sits no more than 250 feet away.

“Ready for a spin?” he asks a reporter.

“Are you thinking of any particular routes?” the reporter asks.

“No, we’ll just drive around,” Edwards says. “I want to take you up some hills that my son enjoys riding this on.”

The 91-year-old former governor’s son, Eli Wallace Edwards, was born in 2013. Trina Edwards, now 40, maintains that her husband often holds the energy of a parent more than half his age.

“He gets up every morning and brings [Eli] to school,” she said. “He picks him up most afternoons. If he’s not doing that, he’s bringing him to the park or bowling.”

Eli is, by far, the youngest of Edwin Edwards’ five children. His other four are in their sixties.

“When my first children were born, I was very occupied as a lawyer and a politician,” the former governor said. “I really didn’t spend as much time with them as I should have, but I’m making it up with Eli.”

The real estate business keeps both Edwards parents busy while Eli is at school. Trina also works as a realtor.

“She’s an expert on internet, computer services and use of the telephone,” Edwin said. “It took me six months to learn how to use a telephone when I got out of prison, because I’m used to dialing. But it’s all different now.”

He named one element that he considers unchanged on the Edwards phone line — the conversations.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t meet somebody who reminds me of something I did for him or her in years past,” he said. “I was pleased they were nice enough to thank me, and I appreciate that.”

The former governor concedes that his days of elected office are done. His 2014 bid for Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District ended in an upset, with Republican Garret Graves collecting 62 percent of the vote in what is now a widely conservative electorate.

“I’ll let someone else give office a try,” he said.

Edwards, who gained attention decades ago for Las Vegas gambling binges, maintains that his unsuccessful Capitol Hill gamble is a blessing, as it offers him more time to spend with Eli. He hopes to see the child graduate high school in about 13 years, when he would be 104.

“My time is short, and I realize that,” he said. “But I’m going to live as well as I can, and be as careful and considerate as I can be.”

He owes his longevity to a life without alcohol, cigarettes and drugs — and with good genes.

“This guy’s more like a cat with nine lives,” Honeycutt said. “He just keeps coming back. Everybody who railed against him and criticized him in the 1970s, they’re all gone now. He has outlived everybody.”

“The Chinese say if you sit by the bank of the river long enough, you see the dead bodies of your enemies come floating by,” Edwards said. “And I did it. I came out on top.”

After he’s gone, Edwin Washington Edwards hopes Eli Wallace Edwards’ familiar “E-W-E” initials will serve the five-year-old well.

“Trina is very optimistic,” he said. “She has a shirt made for him that says ‘EWE for Governor 2053.’ You can probably vote for him.”

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