HAHNVILLE, La. (AP) — Off a narrow gravel road running between a handful of mostly abandoned lots near a Mississippi River levee, down past sprawling oak trees and thick weeds, a lectern framed by banana trees has been set up in front of three short rows of folding chairs.
This is about as far from Washington, D.C., as a politician can get, but Edwin Edwards is happy to speak here, standing patiently in the damp, sub-tropical heat in the town of Hahnville for even a few potential voters to show up.
“I’ve had rallies where over 45,000 people attended. And I’ve had them where 10 people attended. You’ve got to make them all,” says Edwards, whose four terms as Louisiana’s governor were marked by boom times and budget woes, scandals and indictments, one improbable comeback and finally eight years behind bars.
With enthusiasm and vigor that belie his 87 years, Edwards is running for Congress in south Louisiana in what would be his second political resurrection. Some say it’s a fool’s errand. “The only chance he has of getting elected,” said political columnist and LSU journalism professor Robert Mann, “is if whoever he gets in the runoff with drops dead of a heart attack or gets struck by lightning.”
But Edwards says he’s encouraged by the warm reception he received when he emerged from federal prison in 2011. “I never dreamed in prison that the public would ever accept me again,” said Edwards, his familiar voice tinged with the Cajun-French accent of his native southwest Louisiana. “And I can’t tell you how surprised and pleased I was at the public reaction when I got out.”
Famous for deft political skills, high-stakes gambling, deadpan one-liners, a reputation for womanizing and numerous tussles with federal prosecutors, Edwards once was a phenomenally popular Louisiana governor, with landslide wins in the 1970s, in 1983 and 1991.
He seemed to be leaving public life on his own terms more than 20 years ago when he announced he would not seek a fifth term. He was 66 then, and newly married to his 29-year-old second wife. But retirement wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Federal prosecutors later convicted him of brokering casino gambling licenses for personal gain during his final term. He and second wife Candy divorced. After his release from prison, he got married again to his prison pen-pal Trina Grimes, five decades younger. They had a son last year, Eli, and a short-lived reality show on cable TV, “The Governor’s Wife.”
And, now, because the quiet life still holds no attraction, there is another campaign. “As a lawyer and a city councilman, a state senator, a congressman, a governor, I’ve served the public most of my adult life,” Edwards says while waiting to speak in Hahnville, where activist Lisa Carey has invited him to help drum up support for local veterans’ housing. “And I miss it, frankly. Because I like to be in a position where I can make things happen and do things for people.”
Then, after a warm hug from Carey, Edwards launches into an off-the-cuff speech praising veterans, firefighters and police officers. “He’s bored and this is the only thing he knows,” Edwards’ longtime friend Bob D’Hemecourt explains later. “He’s having a good time. He loves campaigning.”
Barred by state law from running for governor because he is a convicted felon, Edwards is seeking the open U.S. House seat in Louisiana’s sprawling 6th Congressional District in the Baton Rouge-area, hardly a perfect fit for the lifelong Democrat.
It is currently represented by Republican Bill Cassidy, who is challenging incumbent Senate Democrat Mary Landrieu in the Nov. 4 Senate race. Democrats outnumber Republicans in registration, but two thirds of the district’s votes went to the GOP opponents of President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. White voters outnumber blacks — a key Edwards constituency — by 358,733 to 106,901.
Edwards is the only well-known Democrat among 11 candidates in the so-called “jungle primary” — where all candidates run on one ballot regardless of party. With no candidate likely to win a majority in November, analysts say Edwards will likely earn a December runoff spot, then be easily beaten when conservatives coalesce behind the leading Republican.
Still, affection for Edwards runs deep among some here. Carey, a 48-year-old African-American, was a child when Edwards was first sworn in as governor in 1972. Edwards, she says, has “the type of personality where he can get rural American working with urban America, he can get blacks working with whites.”
But Mann, a longtime Democrat, said he changed his party registration to “none” after Louisiana’s Democratic hierarchy endorsed Edwards. “In my mind, his conviction, and what I believe was a fairly unethical, if not corrupt, record of governance during his four terms as governor, disqualifies him from being considered someone who’s qualified for public office,” said Mann, predicting certain defeat for Edwards.
Edwards has appeared politically dead before. His third term went badly in the 1980s, marred by a federal indictment (he was acquitted but the damage was done) and a sour state economy. He bowed out of a 1987 runoff, facing certain defeat, but came roaring back in 1991, entering a wide-open race and winding up with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as an opponent.
“We are both wizards under the sheets,” Edwards quipped during one appearance — a two-in-one nod to his own reputation as a ladies’ man and Duke’s Klan days. “I’m afraid that there’s nobody running that fits that description,” Edwards says now with a chuckle when asked if he might draw a runoff opponent as objectionable as Duke.
On the stump again, Edwards maintains that his corruption conviction was a result of lying witnesses and overzealous prosecutors. He says he’s the best bet to get federal money for things like an interstate highway bypass for Baton Rouge.
“Although there’s a heavy registration of Republicans and many people vote conservative, I think if they see a candidate who can accomplish things and who has a record of getting things done, that they will consider voting for me,” Edwards says. “And it’s on that basis that I think I can win.”