Ex-Con, Future Congressman? Former Gov. Edwin Edwards Campaigns Again The 87-year-old Louisiana Democrat, famous for his charm, his philandering and his shaky ethical standards, is out of federal prison — and making a bid for Congress in a heavily Republican district.
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Ex-Con, Future Congressman? Former Gov. Edwin Edwards Campaigns Again

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Ex-Con, Future Congressman? Former Gov. Edwin Edwards Campaigns Again

Ex-Con, Future Congressman? Former Gov. Edwin Edwards Campaigns Again

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Fifty years after he was first elected to Congress, Edwin Edwards is back on the campaign trail in Louisiana. Edward's long career includes four terms as governor followed by eight years in federal prison for corruption. These days at 87, he's got a new wife, a one year old son and an eye on winning over a heavily Republican district. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Don't think for a second that age or the federal pen somehow softened Edwin Edwards' ability to work his audience, including this reporter from NPR.

EDWIN EDWARDS: People that listen to public radio don't vote for candidates like me.

ELLIOTT: Sporting suspenders and a crisply pressed polo, the silver haired Edwards holds court in his Baton Rouge campaign office, a baby bouncer stowed in the corner.

EDWARDS: I'm of the people. I'm common. I'm ordinary. I don't speak good English.

ELLIOTT: Edwin Edwards is anything but ordinary. He's the last in a line of larger than life populist Democrats who once dominated Louisiana politics -think Huey Long. Edwards was first elected to Congress 50 years ago and spent four terms as governor, spanning the '70s, '80s and '90s. He was known for walking a shaky ethical line and for his penchant for gambling and women.

EDWARDS: People talk about me and out of that came things like silver zipper. And I like to say well, maybe so, but now it's rusty zipper.

ELLIOTT: Ever confident, Edwards figures he's been on the ballot 26 times and came out on top all but once. No reason to give up on politics now he says.

EDWARDS: It's in my blood. 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.

STEPHANIE GRACE: Some people go to Florida. Some people fish. Some people, you know, volunteer. Edwin Edwards run for office.

ELLIOTT: Stephanie Grace is a political columnist for The Advocate newspaper.

GRACE: He's so in his element and he hasn't lost a step.

EDWARDS: Dominique, Edwin Edwards, how are you?

ELLIOTT: Even by phone he dials up the charm.

EDWARDS: I'm sure you're kind of surprised to get a call from me but maybe you recognize my Cajun accent.

ELLIOTT: He hangs up with the promise of a vote. The next call didn't go quite so well.

EDWARDS: Bye-bye. Put her down as doubtful 'cause she said you're already married to that good-looking blonde girl, I don't have a chance. I'm looking for somebody else.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: He and his third wife, Trina, met as prison pen pals while he served his time for extortion and rigging riverboat casino licenses. They were married when he got out in 2011. There was a short-lived and widely panned reality TV show, "The Governor's Wife," featuring the couple and their infant son. Then when Republican congressman Bill Cassidy announced he was running for the Senate, Edwards saw an opening. Much to the surprise of pundits who thought he might not come out of prison alive, much less campaigning. Edwards' political tenacity is legendary. In the 1980s, despite being dogged by federal prosecutors, he famously quipped the only way he'd get beat if he was caught with a...

EDWARDS: Dead woman or a live boy. But even at that I don't know if I'd have lost had I been caught.

ELLIOTT: In the '90s, he beat former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The bumper stickers in that governor's race read vote for the crook, it's important. Now, Edwards is one of 13 congressional candidates all facing off November 4 in Louisiana's open primary system. If no one gets the majority the top two candidates move on to a runoff in December. Most Democrats would never make the cut in this very conservative district centered around Baton Rouge. In a speech to the Kiwanis Club in suburban Denham Springs, Edwards put some distance between himself and the nation's top Democrat.

EDWARDS: Now, look. I didn't vote for Obama when he ran. Where I was there were no voting machines.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: He's critical of Obamacare and supports the Keystone XL pipeline, issues the Republicans in this race are also talking about. He brushes off questions about seeking office in his 80s, saying he takes care of himself, doesn't smoke or drink. Gambling is his vice, he winks in characteristic style.

MICKEY MCMORRIS: You never count out old-time politics.

ELLIOTT: Realtor and farmer Mickey McMorris is in the audience. A staunch Republican, McMorris says he'll vote for one of GOP candidates. But he acknowledges Edwards has appeal even with conservatives.

MCMORRIS: You know, I still hear people say he took care of the working man. And a lot of people haven't forgotten that.

ELLIOTT: That's the common theme from Edwards supporters - that he was a governor who looked out for folks. In downtown Baton Rouge, retired state worker Daron Brown is glad to see Edwards back.

DARON BROWN: He was a great governor one time, very positive for Louisiana. If he made a mistake, you know, but who don't make mistakes? You know, if God'll forgive him I'll forgive him. So he got my vote.

ELLIOTT: Louisiana voters can indeed be forgiving says Albert Samuels, a political scientist at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

ALBERT SAMUELS: We have a reputation in this state. It's still part of our culture. You know, we like our rascals.

ELLIOTT: Popularity may get Edwards into the runoff, Samuel says, but then he faces the reality of being a Democrat in a state that's decidedly Republican.

SAMUELS: Louisiana is a, politically, a very different place than it was in its heyday.

ELLIOTT: Longtime Democratic operative Bob Mann agrees.

BOB MANN: The idea that any Democrat, much less a Democrat who spent eight years in prison, is going to win this district is, I think, a pretty far-fetched notion.

ELLIOTT: Mann, now communications professor at Louisiana State University, says Edwin Edwards is selfishly seeking political redemption at the expense of Louisiana's political reputation.

MANN: This adds to our indictment as a state that really isn't that concerned about the nature of our politics. We are more interested in being entertained than governed properly perhaps.

ELLIOTT: For his part, Edwin Edwards makes no apologies for being that entertainer.

EDWARDS: Life is too precious and wonderful to be staid and colorless without enthusiasm. I like doing things that make people happy.

ELLIOTT: As he writes perhaps the final chapter of his political legacy, Edwards winds down his stump speech saying I'd like your vote but I'd rather have your respect. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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