‘That’s the kind of governor he was’: Mike Foster remembered as gruff, accessible

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BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — Those who knew former Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster remember a public servant who hid little from his constituents.

“If you want a governor who is polished, rehearsed and ready for primetime, that would not be Mike Foster,” said LaPolitics.com editor Jeremy Alford. “For someone who has chronicled governors for 21 years, he was a great introduction.”

Foster — who served as governor from 1996 to 2004 — died of natural causes Sunday. The 90-year-old had begun hospice care at his home in Franklin, La. roughly a week prior.

Former Times-Picayune reporter Jan Moller covered Foster’s last year as governor. He recalls a tip he once got regarding Foster spending weekends in his hometown, rather than in Baton Rouge.

“I asked him about it, and I’ll never forget his answer,” said Moller, who currently operates the nonprofit Louisiana Budget Project. “He said, ‘So what? My job as governor is to make decisions, and I can make decisions just as easily at home as I can in the Governor’s Mansion.'”

“He didn’t dodge or apologize,” Moller added. “That’s the kind of governor he was.”

Foster, a former Democrat who became a Republican in 1995, faced early hurdles in his first gubernatorial bid. He struggled for recognition at first, despite eight years in the state Senate.

“When we started that campaign, there was a poll, and he literally did not get a vote,” longtime Foster campaign manager Roy Fletcher said. “I’m not talking about ‘he didn’t get a percent.’ He didn’t get a vote.”

A vigorous 1995 advertising campaign bolstered his chances. One advertisement featured Foster welding, then removing his mask and looking into a camera.

“My whole thing was let Foster be Foster, and he let Fletcher be Fletcher,” Fletcher said. “I think we were made for each other.”

Foster won reelection handily in 1999, cementing his legacy that includes tort reform, teacher pay raises, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System and the TOPS tuition aid initiative.

“His legacy is not just in some textbook or war story or two,” said Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. “It’s in the capital today, especially when we talk about issues like education, tort reform and economic development.”

“Higher education today in Louisiana has gone through very difficult times, but I dare say we could not have survived those times without Gov. Foster,” University of Louisiana System President Dr. Jim Henderson said.

Foster, himself, spent part of his governorship as a student. He enrolled at Southern University Law Center, graduating in 2004 — shortly after leaving office.

“When we were in law school, I ran for president of the student body, and it was ironic having to campaign to someone who had been governor,” said state Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge), Foster’s classmate at Southern. “We had a lot of serious conversations about what leadership meant.”

“He didn’t take any special treatment or favors,” James said. “He was just a student like anyone else.”

Alford considers Foster the last of a breed that social media may have rendered unrevivable.

“He was the last governor we had in Louisiana completely untouched by national politics,” he said.

As the nation enters a tense fall election season, Waguespack has made a pledge.

“I’m growing my beard as a Mike Foster tribute,” the LABI president said. “He always grew one this time of year, getting ready for duck season. If everyone’s paying tribute, why don’t you grow a beard in honor of Mike Foster?”

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