CHAPTER ONE: A HALL OF FAME ELECTION
Of course Louisiana has a hall of fame for its political class. What else would one expect in a state where politics is as much a spectator sport as football? The Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame fills a renovated, wood-paneled train depot in the north Louisiana hamlet of Winnfield, birthplace of Huey and Earl Long, neither of whom needed a hall of fame to affirm his place in the Bayou State’s annals of political immortality. New classes of inductees arrive each year, leaving behind written records of their accomplishments, faded photographs of their proudest moments, and other mementoes of public lives. Generation after generation they come, all claiming their own sliver of immortality, the ultimate political prize in Louisiana—next to winning the governor’s race.
The layers of chatter rose to a level just shy of deafening on the afternoon of Saturday, February 7, 2015, as staffers and volunteers readied seven new display cases for the annual induction ceremony. The reception in the main exhibit room, followed by a banquet at the Winnfield Civic Center, unofficially launched what would become an unforgettable election season. Local candidates and statewide contenders worked the crowded room. A photojournalist from the Winn Parish Enterprise asked the families of new inductees to pose for a glowing spread that appeared in the following Wednesday’s edition.
An unmistakable big-fish, small-pond vibe filled the museum; this crowd would have it no other way. No strangers here. Louisiana politics is personal, its history intimate. No combination of anecdotes, memorabilia or recorded speeches could match that sense of affaire, that recognition that we’re all in on the joke. Football, crawfish, music, fishing, hunting, fairs, festivals, religion, gambling, meat pies and Mardi Gras—at some point these and all other touchstones of Louisiana’s unique culture intersect with its politics. Which is why, in the state named for the vast territory that Thomas Jefferson bought from Napoleon Bonaparte for less than 3 cents an acre, politics is life.
Since its inception, Louisiana has stood apart from the rest of America in almost every respect. French was its dominant language even after statehood, prompting Congress to require Louisiana’s first constitution to safeguard the rights of English speakers. Its legal tradition is still uniquely grounded in the Napoleonic Code rather than English common law. But Louisiana is in no way a strictly Francophonic culture. Whereas other states are majority White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, with varying populations of African Americans and Hispanics, Louisiana’s electorate is roughly one-third African American, with the rest fairly evenly split among rural WASPs, Catholic Cajuns (descendants of French-speaking Canadians exiled in 1765), and urban and suburban whites whose political and religious affiliations run the gamut. Also part of the mix: contingents of Asians, Hispanics, Italians, Irish, Lebanese, Yugoslavs, Germans and Native Americans—thus the familiar description of Louisiana as a cultural gumbo.
The diverse attendees at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony spoke dissonant strains of the Queen’s English, but their passion for Louisiana’s blood sport gave them a common language. Inside the train depot, they created a verbal sonata that had serenaded political events for generations, from the piney woods of north Louisiana to the sleepy bayous of Acadiana to the double-parlored mansions on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. Loud laughter, whispered rumors and “How’s your momma” sounded the notes of a familiar overture. The din hung heavy in the air, like wet moss, below strings of white Christmas lights in the old depot’s main hall. The mood was equal parts excitement and intimacy—fueled by alcohol, budding intrigue, and exaggerated storytelling. For the cognoscenti under those lights, a trip to the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield—especially in a statewide election year—was akin to older Catholics’ holy days of obligation. It was a pilgrimage they dared not skip.
A strange admixture of self-absorption and theater was the order of the day, so when a young woman dropped a plastic cup of white wine, few noticed at first. It puddled just long enough on the rustic wood floor to reflect the white lights above. That’s when Billy Nungesser, the former Plaquemines Parish president who was running for lieutenant governor for a second time after a failed 2011 bid, dropped to the floor on all fours before anyone else could make a move. He dabbed the wine from the woman’s shoes with a napkin in his left hand and then, with his right, pushed a pinch of paper napkins into the crevices of the floor to sop up the rest of the spill. It was fussy work for a bulky guy who had made a fortune in the family business of feeding roughnecks and roustabouts on offshore oil rigs, but success in politics demands a certain adaptability.
Though the election season was barely underway, already Nungesser had earned a reputation for attending practically every event open—and quite a few closed—to the public. Earlier that afternoon a staffer for one of his opponents remarked, “Billy would attend the opening of an envelope.” Now he was on the floor rescuing a damsel in distress, at least in cocktail party ethos. With a hand on one knee for leverage, Nungesser pushed himself up off the floor. He asked the young woman if she was okay and then introduced himself to the small group that gathered ’round. After a few pleasantries, a man placed his hand in the small of Nungesser’s back and said softly over a few chuckles: “You know, a Louisiana politician never stands taller than when he’s on all fours kissing somebody’s ass.” Nungesser chortled back, nodding his head in affirmation. Yes, everyone truly was in on the joke. In Louisiana, retail politics and exaggerated chivalry are kissin’ cousins.
As the roar of conversations overtook the room again, some found distraction in the museum’s many exhibits. Oh, look, there’s a campaign t-shirt for Cecil Picard. See that, they have Hunt Downer’s gavel when he was House speaker. Is that Rodney Alexander on that poster? Did you see the John Georges campaign sign in the men’s bathroom?
The buzz of the crowd underscored the significance of the 2015 race for governor—the first open contest for Louisiana’s premier political post in eight years. The outgoing incumbent, Republican Bobby Jindal, would finish his constitutionally imposed limit of two terms in just eleven months. He was facing, for the 2015–16 fiscal year, a $1.4 billion budget hole that was certain to bleed into the next governor’s term. The go-to factoid of the afternoon, however, was that only one declared candidate for governor was already a member of the Political Hall of Fame: state Representative John Bel Edwards, a Democrat from the small town of Amite, a 70-mile drive northwest from New Orleans. Ironically, Edwards also was the least known of the major candidates.
Edwards had officially launched his dark-horse bid for governor two years earlier. He had served nearly two terms as minority leader, fighting Jindal’s ideological conservatism at every turn with mixed results in the GOP-controlled House. Those efforts hardly earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame, though. Edwards was the scion of a legendary family of sheriffs in his native Tangipahoa Parish, and the previous year the entire Edwards clan received the “Political Family of Officeholders Award.” The Edwards family was inducted as a group.
Despite Edwards’ brush with immortality, many inside the Political Hall of Fame that afternoon didn’t know much about him, if they knew him at all. They definitely had no idea what the West Point graduate and former Army Ranger had in store for the state over the course of the next nine months. Had they known, they might have looked differently at the rest of the established field, which was confined to Republicans: United States Senator David Vitter of Metairie, coldly calculating but strategically brilliant, a scorched-earth campaigner and the de facto leader of Louisiana’s GOP; Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle of Breaux Bridge, a personable Cajun and former Democrat who had held senior posts for two governors; and Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne of Baton Rouge, a veteran office-holder and the quintessential good government candidate.
Edwards, ultimately, was the one to watch. He and his then-handful of allies were about to mount a campaign that would defy the odds, resurrect Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal in an unforgettable showdown, and give Louisiana one of its best long-shot political narratives in decades. Edwards may have coasted into the Political Hall of Fame on the coattails of his family, but the 2015 election would prove that history, luck and a “breeze of hope”—a phrase that became part of his campaign message—were indeed at his back.
Ironically, Edwards did not attend the Hall of Fame ceremony on that Saturday afternoon in 2015, when so many saw him as the Democratic sacrificial lamb in a race destined to end in Vitter’s election. Recent contests, after all, had proved what “the fundamentals” and the so-called experts were telling everyone: Louisiana wasn’t just trending Republican; it was barreling headlong down a ruby-red highway. White Democrats like Edwards were a dying breed in the South. Between 2004 and 2015, white voters in the Bayou State fled the party of Jefferson and Jackson at an alarming rate, with more than 225,000 changing their registrations, mostly to Republican. It had been a long slide. In 1978, 90 percent of Louisiana voters were Democrats. Heading into this election season, that share was closer to 46 percent, compared to the GOP’s 28 percent. Louisiana also had a massive hidden electorate—Democrats who voted Republican without officially switching parties. Meanwhile, African-American registration had increased over the previous eight years to slightly more than 31 percent. Women, who accounted for 55 percent of the state’s registered voters, would find themselves heavily targeted in the governor’s race. These statistics, vital to the strategies of candidates seeking any office in any state, would factor into the 2015 Louisiana governor’s race in a big way, as would polling data.
Every early poll showed Vitter comfortably if not commandingly in front—and a solid majority of voters was promising to vote for any Republican over any Democrat. The most frequently asked question across the state, and likely in the old Winnfield train depot that February afternoon, was, “Can anybody beat Vitter?” Edwards certainly believed he could, but few others did—despite floor-to-ceiling evidence to the contrary right there, in the Hall of Fame. Though the cumulative number of inductees neared 200 that day, only two dozen Republicans ranked among them. The rest were Democrats. Like Edwards.
Experts roundly predicted Vitter would face Edwards in a classic right-versus-left runoff, drown him in money and trounce him on Election Day. That, in fact, was the heart of Vitter’s strategy from Day One. In the end, the two men spent roughly $11 million each, and Edwards won handily. Besides Edwards’ storybook upset, the big news of the campaign was the unprecedented level of activity by political action committees, particularly super PACs, which accounted for 41 percent of all spending—some $20 million. That was certainly no fluke, as super PACs had begun playing in state elections across America. In that sense, the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial election was a political slice of Americana, served with a dash of Cajun spice.
The election also marked a major shift in political messaging. The last time Louisiana had an open election for governor, in 2007, Apple had just introduced the iPhone, iPads did not yet exist, and Internet advertising for campaigns was still a novelty. In 2007, the 24-hour news cycle, just creeping into Louisiana, wouldn’t peak until eight years later, when social media established its own foothold among voters. Fundraising was relatively straightforward, and newspapers were still almost exclusively paper. In ways that strategists are still counting, the 2015 election cycle changed Louisiana’s political landscape far more than Edwards and his “breeze of hope” could have imagined.
The changes that overtook Louisiana in the past few decades were much like those that changed America’s political landscape. Former Governor Edwin Edwards—no relation to John Bel Edwards—was Louisiana’s answer to Bill Clinton. In fact, he presaged Clinton by at least a decade. His era in Louisiana politics spanned the 1970s through the mid-1990s, a time marked by fast and loose governance, as well as skirt chasing and scandals of every sort. Edwards’ relevance had long since ended by the time the 2015 election cycle kicked off at the Political Hall of Fame inductions.
The Bobby Jindal Era, which was defined by legislative term limits, governmental austerity, ideological agendas, culture wars and, above all, national ambitions, had already supplanted the earlier Edwards reign. Now, as the crowd watched Billy Nungesser mop the floor with napkins in Winnfield, the Jindal era, too, was coming to a close, though Jindal was still in office and in the early thrall of his presidential aspirations.
The ensuing months would usher in a new era of mostly cautious politicians who dared not campaign too close to the edge or in ways that revealed too much about themselves, other than their Christian bona fides. Cell phone cameras, private investigators, and trackers—photographers whom special interests or campaigns had hired to trail opposing candidates and record everything—were transforming Louisiana’s, and America’s, old style of personalized politics.
Somehow, John Bel Edwards and his campaign team found a way to cut through all the noise, establish the little-known Democrat as relevant, and snatch from Vitter what seemed like certain victory to most who attended the Political Hall of Fame gala that wintry Saturday in February. In retrospect, the 2015 gubernatorial election deserves a display case of its own in Winnfield’s old train depot.
What follows is the story of how Edwards grabbed the campaign narrative, how Vitter lost his political grip, and how a cast of characters as colorful as any of Louisiana’s political immortals made it all happen.
Many who read this tale no doubt will say, “That could happen only in Louisiana.” They would be wrong, for John Bel Edwards’ rise is no more or less remarkable than Barack Obama’s or Donald Trump’s on the national scene, or Mitt Romney’s in Massachusetts, or Ann Richards’ in Texas. None of them was supposed to succeed, yet they all upended favored opponents by connecting with voters in a way their foes could neither foresee nor forestall.
Every election is a unique event, but people are pretty much the same everywhere. That’s why the story of Edwards’ improbable victory against overwhelming odds is one that, while unfolding against the colorful backdrop of Louisiana’s backroads and bayous, barrooms and ballrooms, could literally happen anywhere in America.