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Edwin Edwards, The Larger-Than-Life Former Louisiana Governor, Dies At 93

Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards announced another run in 2014, after spending eight years in prision following a felony conviction arising from the licensing of riverboat casinos in his fourth term as governor. Edwards died Monday. He was 93.
Sean Gardner
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Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards announced another run in 2014, after spending eight years in prision following a felony conviction arising from the licensing of riverboat casinos in his fourth term as governor. Edwards died Monday. He was 93.

A populist firebrand of Louisiana politics has died. Four-term Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards, who also served prison time for corruption, died Monday at his home in Gonzales, La. He was 93. A statement from his family said he'd been in hospice care for the past week with respiratory problems.

Edwards was the last of the larger-than-life populists who once dominated Louisiana politics. He built his career on political patronage, public works and sheer force of personality.

"I'm of the people. I'm common. I'm ordinary. I don't speak good English, cher," he said at age 87, employing his wayward charm trying to stage a political comeback.

This "rogue" and "bad boy" of Louisiana politics served for three decades

Edwin Washington Edwards was a child of the Depression and credited Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for preventing his family from starving at the time. Fluent in Cajun French, Edwards represented Cajun country in Congress starting in 1965 after a stint in the state Senate. He was elected governor in 1972, the first of an unprecedented four terms, spanning three decades, and marked by scandal.

"He was a bad boy and people loved him for it — just the ultimate rogue of a politician," says New Orleans political columnist Stephanie Grace. She says Edwards was the end of a line of Southern New Deal Democrats in the tradition of Louisiana pols Huey Long and Earl Long.

"[These were] the people with the big personalities who appealed often to the less well-off voters," Grace says. "Big government people [who] maybe had this philosophy that you took care of people, and you skimmed a little off for yourself, and that was OK."

Current Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards noted the "indelible mark" Edwin Edwards had left on the state in a tweet on Monday.

"Our state has lost a giant, and we will miss him dearly," he wrote. "Edwin was a larger than life figure known for his wit and charm, but he will be equally remembered for being a compassionate leader who cared for the plight of all Louisianans."

Edwin Edwards funded hospitals, schools, roads and bridges. He was among the first elected officials in Louisiana to bring African Americans into the political fold. Quick-witted and a dapper dresser, Edwards was known for gambling trips to Las Vegas and a penchant for womanizing that earned him a nickname.

"People talk about me, and out of that came things like 'silver zipper,' " hetold NPR in 2014. "I like to say well maybe so, but now it's rusty zipper."

Despite repeated allegations of corruption that netted those around him, Edwards appeared for a time above the fray, able to navigate an ethical tightrope even with the feds on his trail.

Ever confident in his political tenacity, he famously quipped the only way he'd get beat was if he were caught with a "dead woman or a live boy."

"But even at that I don't know if I'd have lost had I been caught," Edwards said. "However, there was no chance they would ever catch me in either situation."

His late-in-life political comeback failed

Edwards did lose the governorship in 1987 to a good government candidate but was back four years later in a contest against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke that garnered national attention. Bumper stickers proclaimed: "Vote for the Crook. It's important."

Voters obliged, and Edwards won a record fourth term in 1991.

"Tonight Louisiana became first — first to turn back the merchant of hate, the master of deceit," he declared in his victory speech.

But federal prosecution loomed once he left office. Edwards was caught in an extortion scheme, soliciting bribes to steer riverboat casino licenses to the high bidders. He maintained the government was out to get him.

"The Chinese have a saying that if you sit by the river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river," Edwards said after a federal jury convicted him in 2000. "I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough so here comes my body."

He served eight years. When he got out, he married his third wife, a prison pen pal more than 50 years younger. Ever in the spotlight, the couple and their infant son starred in a short-lived and widely panned reality TV show called The Governor's Wife.

In 2014, Edwards attempted political redemption with a run for Congress.

"It's in my blood," he said at the time. "Old doctors don't want to quit. Old farmers don't want to quit. We feel fulfilled doing what we think we were called to do. And my calling has been public life."

But his populist formula felt like a relic in the modern political climate, and Edwards lost to a Republican.

As if trying to salvage his legacy, Edwards would wind down his stump speech that year saying, "I'd like your vote. But you know what? I'd rather have your respect."

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NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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