New Louisiana governor is off to a volatile start

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BATON ROUGE, La. — John Bel Edwards was sworn in the Deep South's only Democratic governor this week, and already he has experienced momentous triumph — and momentous defeat.

In his first major act in office, Edwards signed an order expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, extending health benefits to roughly 300,000 poor Louisianans. Some of his supporters cried as he signed.

But he also watched helplessly as the state's Republican-controlled House rejected his handpicked candidate for the powerful position of speaker, a post that, by curious unwritten custom, the Louisiana governor has long had the right to select.

"I think he thought he was going to push us around," said Representative Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican. "He found out today, very clearly, that he can't do that."


No one expected that the governor's job in Louisiana was going to be easy for a Democrat, not even for a Democrat like Edwards, whose West Point pedigree comes with a staunch opposition to abortion and gun control, and a passion for duck hunting.

Edwards, Louisiana's 56th governor, is facing one of the more complex political balancing acts in the country. Though conservative on some issues, he is also a Roman Catholic who has said that his faith compels him to seek social justice. "We need to acknowledge the hard truths about poverty in our state," he said in his inaugural address Monday.

He has proposed increasing the minimum wage and ensuring equal pay for women, promised to extend new protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and promised to restore an element of the federal food-stamp program halted by Bobby Jindal, his Republican predecessor.

But in so doing, Edwards risks alienating members of the Republican-controlled Legislature, with whom he must cooperate to solve what he calls the state's "top priority": resolving the breathtaking structural budget shortfalls he inherited from Jindal — including a $750 million gap for the fiscal year ending June 30, and a projected $1.9 billion gap the next year.


In his speech Monday, Edwards implicitly criticized the legacy of Jindal's two terms in office, calling on residents to rebuild Louisiana. As a candidate, Edwards had charged Jindal, who used highly creative bookkeeping methods in an effort to hew to a no-tax pledge, with indulging in fictions in the budgeting process.

Edwards repeatedly emphasized his record in the US military, saying he would address Louisiana's problems like any officer in the field. And time and again, he issued a call for bipartisanship: He said that the voters had "chosen to rise above partisan politics" and that the state could band together "regardless of party," and he exhorted the Legislature to work with him to "pass sound solutions."

An uncharitable, if widely held, view in the state is that he won election in November mostly because of voters' distaste for his Republican rival, Senator David Vitter, who was dogged by a prostitution scandal. But Edwards's admirers say that he has his own strengths, and that as far as Democrats go, he is suited to woo Louisiana Republicans.

Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, said that Jindal, who had a reputation for wonkishness, did not always strive to forge personal relationships in a political culture largely fueled by them. Edwards, he said, will be different.

"I think there are going to be some people who will stay in the bunker with John Bel Edwards because they like him and they believe in him," Moller said, though he added: "He's not a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy. I don't think you're going to see him at late-night poker games."


But the House vote on Monday showed that it will not be easy. By tradition, rather than law, the state's governor has long had a hand in choosing the House speaker — a holdover from an earlier era.

House members rejected Edwards's candidate, Walt Leger III, a New Orleans Democrat, in favor of a member of the Republican majority, Taylor Barras, from New Iberia, in the heart of Cajun country.

It was a reflection of a partisanship that has become more pronounced in a state where geographic, religious, racial, and personal factors had, in previous decades, often taken precedence over party affiliation. But politics in Louisiana has become more nationalized.

Whether Edwards could rekindle the old bipartisan spirit remains a huge question leading to a special session on the budget emergency that is set to convene in February, after the Mardi Gras holiday.

State Representative Ted James, a Democrat, said the vote was a sign that Edwards had a tough mission ahead. "I don't see the Republicans I serve with trying to work with the governor on certain issues," James said. "With this vote we took a step toward being more like Washington, D.C."