Edwin Edwards’ political soup kitchen

The unemployed line up outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone in 1931.

The unemployed line up outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone in 1931.

By Robert Mann

Pity the poor Louisiana Democrat starved for effective and visionary leadership. He’ll do almost anything, support almost anyone, who can provide him even the slightest bit of nourishment for his starved political soul.

Who could blame him?

He’s like the desperate hungry who lined up on Chicago’s streets in the early 1930s to dine at Al Capone’s soup kitchens. Those hungry masses didn’t much care about the reputation or character of the individual who paid for their meal. Their stomachs were aching, and Capone offered them a little bread and some soup.

Capone, however, didn’t really care about the poor; he merely used them to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation.

According to one account of Capone’s enterprise:

An army of ragged, starving men assembled three times a day beside a storefront at 935 South State Street, feasting on the largesse of Al Capone. Toasting his health. Telling the newspapers that Capone was doing more for the poor than the entire US government. He was even offering some of them jobs. Capone milked his good works for all the favorable publicity they were worth. He came down and walked among the men, the wretched of the earth, offering a handshake, a hearty smile, and words of encouragement from the great Al Capone. During November and December, Al Capone’s coup kitchen kept regular hours, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thanksgiving Day 1930 was a particular public relations triumph for Capone. On that day he could boast that he fed more than 5,000 hungry men, women, and children with a hearty beef stew.

Capone’s public relations stunt helped him among the people, but it didn’t keep him out of prison. Federal prosecutors indicted him for tax evasion in 1931. By May of 1932, he was living in a federal prison in Atlanta.

In the same way that Chicago’s hungry were willing to overlook Capone’s reputation for criminality as they filled their growling stomachs with his food, so do some desperate Louisiana Democrats overlook the high crimes and misdemeanors of former U.S. Bureau of Prisons convict #03128-095 — also known as former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

It’s been so long since these Democrats experienced the joy of a charismatic leader, they are rushing to his political soup kitchen to eagerly stuff themselves with the warmed-over gruel that he plops onto their plate.

Too late, however, will they discover that what Edwards serves them is neither nutritious nor satisfying. In fact, it is rotten food, tainted with corruption and laced with cynicism and defeat.

In my lifetime, Louisiana has had no political leader with the political skills and instincts of Edwin Edwards. He was a master politician, skilled in the art of seduction.

Although he earned a well-deserved reputation for seducing women, the kind of seduction I mean is that quality which most successful politicians have. Lyndon Johnson had it. Theodore Roosevelt had it. Bill Clinton had it. Edwin Edwards had it and, to some extent, still does.

Although his forbidding demeanor doesn’t always show it, Edwards truly cares what people think about him. He wants you to like him. He wants you to love him. And to win your affection or your vote, he will court you assiduously until he seduces you.

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards at Monday's Baton Rouge Press Club (Photo by Robert Mann)

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards at Monday’s Baton Rouge Press Club (Photo by Robert Mann)

As a young political writer for the Shreveport Journal in the early 1980s, I was seduced by Edwards.

I was covering his third race for governor in 1983 (he was challenging then-Gov. Dave Treen) and found myself crisscrossing the state with Edwards and a few aides for almost two months. Many days, it was just Edwards, his driver and me in a car driving around the state.

As the political reporter for a north Louisiana newspaper that had endorsed him over Treen, I quickly became one of Edwards’ favorite journalists. He gave me extraordinary access to him and his family members, including his wife and his aged mother. He returned my phone calls almost immediately. He welcomed me into his home. He flattered me, courted me, and praised my stories.

He seduced me. And I blinded myself to the Shakespearean proportions of his corruption and his profound moral failings. I was young and overwhelmed by the power of a former and future governor who granted me access and showered me with attention.

And although I still voted for Treen, his attention undoubtedly influenced what I wrote about him.

So, when I comment on the fact that Edwards is again in the process of seducing Louisiana voters — as a candidate for Congress from Louisiana’s 6th congressional district — believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I don’t claim to know the man as well as some, but I know him well.

And now, at 55, and with the more-jaded outlook of someone who spent 20-plus years working in the political world, I am much less beguiled by Edwards and his ilk. I hope I’m much more alert to the deceptive shallowness, the empty promises and the cynical appeals directed at people for whom politicians like Edwards have not the slightest concern or compassion.

Since I’ve published a couple of tough columns about Edwards in the past week, I’ve heard from some friends and acquaintances who have upbraided me for my unyielding stance against Edwards’ return to politics.

The criticism falls largely into these categories:

1. The embarrassment that Edwards’ candidacy brings Louisiana is no worse than the way that Gov. Bobby Jindal is humiliating the state on the national stage.

2. The damage that Edwards has done to Louisiana is no worse than what Jindal has done to Louisiana over the past six years.

3. Unlike Jindal, Edwards actually cares about the poor and has done much good for them.

4. Electing a Democrat like Edwards would help Louisiana by denying the Republicans another seat in Congress.

5. Louisiana’s reputation is already thoroughly sullied. Edwards’ candidacy can’t do any more harm to us.

None of these arguments persuades me.

First, say what you want about Jindal (and I have written much of it), he has not been convicted and has not spent eight years in a federal prison. You may regard Jindal as an unethical politician who has wrecked Louisiana, and I would say that you are correct. But until Jindal goes off to prison, it’s not serious to say that Jindal and Edwards are the same.

To those who suggest that Edwards cares about the poor more than Jindal, I would ask you this: after his 16 years as governor — more than any person in the state’s history — how are the poor doing? Did our poverty rate plummet during Edwards’ tenure? Did business flock to the state to offer our citizens jobs?

Sure, Edwards had his accomplishments. He supported rewriting the state’s constitution. He supported teachers, increased their pay and appointed many African-Americans to government positions. In other words, he governed like any sensible Democrat would (except during his last term, when he was in Baton Rouge about as much as Jindal is these days).

But his was not a golden era. His accomplishments are mitigated by the way he blatantly sold state jobs to contributors (yes, I know, Jindal does the same) and enriched his friends.  He brought much more shame and derision to us than commendation and envy. On balance, Edwin Edwards left the state in worse shape than he found it.

As for his concern for the poor, I do not know that he really cares. He has said that he cares about the poor and he supported some programs that helped them, but it’s clear that he did not fundamentally alter their condition. He was, like many before him, a populist Democrat who relied on the votes of the poor to stay in office. Combine that with his famous courtship of the African-American vote and you have this legend of Edwards as a cross between Robin Hood and William Jennings Bryan.

My belief is that, like most politicians, if he could have found more votes elsewhere, he’d have done so. My proof? During his speech to the Baton Rouge Press Club last Monday, Edwards signaled that he will be courting the votes of Republicans opposed to the Affordable Care Act. Recall that while he declared support for expanding Medicaid, he also said he would have voted against Obamacare. Some champion of the poor! He’s already in the process of abandoning them in pursuit of votes from the right.

Then, there’s the argument that Edwards’ election would deny the Republicans a much-needed vote to maintain their majority. That, of course, assumes you believe Edwards can win. The respected Cook Political Report considers Louisiana’s 6th the 24th most conservative congressional district in the country (out of 435). Even an attractive Democrat without a criminal record is not likely be viable in this district, which is why no other prominent Democrat chose to run for the seat.

So, the best Edwards can do is make the runoff, draw considerable national and international media attention, and then lose in December. The worst he can do, besides further embarrassing the state, is ensure that a more-moderate Democrat won’t win.

Recall that in the recent 5th district congressional race, the more-moderate Vance McAllister beat state Sen. Neil Riser by winning the votes of Democrats. What chance would someone like McAllister have with someone like Edwards in the race? The most likely outcome, then, is a runoff with the most-conservative Republican facing Edwards. In that runoff,  the conservative is almost certain to defeat Edwards.

Finally, for those who say that Edwards’ candidacy can do no more harm to our reputation than Jindal and Sen. David Vitter, I say this: Louisiana’s reputation is horrible. We are in a very deep hole that Edwards and other corrupt leaders helped dig for us (although, it should be noted that we elected them all).

But I happen to subscribe to The Political Theory of Holes: when you are in one, stop digging.

The bottom line is this: I’d love to see a Democrat capture this seat. But Edwin Edwards isn’t the one to do it. All he can do in the process of losing is embarrass us, as he has been doing since the early 1970s.

I’m tired of shuffling through his crummy soup kitchen and eating his rotten, corrupt food.

If that’s what it takes to be a Democrat in Louisiana’s 6th congressional district these days, then I’ll change parties.

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16 Responses to Edwin Edwards’ political soup kitchen

  1. Donna Broussard says:

    I would appreciate it if you would redirect your attention to the crook now holding the office of governor, his hands squeezing the last breath out of our collective body!

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. Stephen Winham says:

    Regardless of his motive, if Al Capone actually fed the poor as reported, he did more tor them, in a real sense, than any politician – things like Cleo Fields’ annual free turkey days come closest, but are even more blatant stunts than the Capone soup kitchens and don’t go nearly so far in filling empty stomachs in the short or longer runs.

    I agree there is little evidence Edwin Edwards did anything tangible for the poor. He was their cheerleader, though, and that’s more than most politicians can claim credit for today, including most Democrats. They all, including EWE, court the conservative vote – in EWE’s case by now reversing his position on the Affordable Care Act.

    I live in the 5th district. Our Congressman may be marginally more moderate than Neil Riser, but is cut from the same cloth. So my interests are largely unrepresented anyhow. I still believe McAllister was elected more as a protest against an attempted political coup than any differences with Riser, although he courted liberals with his slightly more open views on health care..

    Edwin Edwards’ run for the 6th district is a political stunt. You know it. He knows it. We all know it. Will it further harm Louisiana’s reputation? That’s hard to say because it is hard to imagine anything making our reputation worse than it already is.

    Here’s a question we all need to ask: If there are paragons of virtue willing to offer themselves up for public office, where are they and why don’t they come forward?

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  3. Robert Mann says:

    Steve, I’ve been at this long enough to know that the paragons of virtue usually don’t get into politics. That’s a pretty high standard for political leadership and one that I don’t use to judge my candidates. However, a minimum standard for me, in most cases, is that the people who get my votes should not have served time in prison for racketeering. There are other reasons I wouldn’t support Edwards, but I start with that one and, honestly, really don’t need to go any further.

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  4. Edwards isn’t perfect. What does it say about our party that He’s not only the best hope, but the only candidate willing to get into the race? The other guys fought and competed in races for years until they actually started winning. What is with the standard of staying on the sidelines? Also, you do understand that this state is prepared to elect a politician with a horrible record and with very dubious personal character the next governor right?

    Why must we on our side be so high and mighty? Can’t we just win elections? Your boss should never have walked away from the 4th Floor.

    Finally, I hope your next column talks about either the lack of the Democratic bench OR celebrates some Democrats that could be elected statewide or in higher offices.

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  5. Matthew S. Walton says:

    Fantastic post. I appreciate your intestinal fortitude in standing up to the five categories of criticism you describe. One is free to dislike the policies of Governor Jindal or Senator Vitter, but until either of them is convicted of some crime any comparison to a Felon like Mr. Edwards is out of line.

    And to Mr. Winham’s point, I too live in the fifth district, and I feel that my conservative values will not be represented by Representative McAlister. Although I agree he gained many votes from those protesting some sort of media driven accusations of political fowl play, the biggest benefit to him was our open primary system. I don’t think he could have beaten Senator Riser in a party primary, nor could the Democrat candidate, whomever that would have been, beaten Senator Riser in the general.

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  6. John Burns says:

    Please add Lisagarrettburns@aol.com To your list. Thank You. John Burns

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  7. Milford Fryer says:

    Bob, sometimes I think you might exaggerate a bit in a hyperbolic attempt to make a point. But become a Republican? Look, I have many good friends who are Republicans. I have many good friends who are women; I have many good friends who are African-American; I have many good friends who are young. I have good friends who possess more than one of these characteristics. I mean people I like very much, people I respect, people I admire. The liklihood that I will actually be one of them is about the same.

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  8. Bob,

    The passion with which you attack Edwards suggests that there is more to your ire than the stated issue of a felon running for office. However, on that point, I have reliable information that Edwards trial and conviction were tainted by many stretches of our system of justice. So if we agree that there is a significant possibility that Edwards was wrongly convicted like Jim Brown was by the same people, we can move on to my second point.

    I don’t remember Edwards being the embarrassment to Louisiana while he was in office that you portray. Which gets us back to the question of why you are attacking Edwards so viciously and relentlessly for running for an office no other significant progressive candidate was willing to try for?

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  9. Here again, we protest too much Mr. Mann. How is your admitting to licking a candidate’s boots as a reputed “journalist” years ago any better than a man who has served his time for a crime committed years ago? Stop living in the past; even Gov. Edwards’ “dead voters” are dead today. If any Democrat can win that seat EWE is the one; it doesn’t take a genius to see it, unless you’re sitting in some ivory tower (oh I forgot, you’re from LSU’s Manship Hall).

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