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Louisiana's Edwin Edwards May Be On His Last Political Stand


In Louisiana, former governor and convicted felon Edwin Edwards is winding up what could be his last political campaign. The 87-year-old Democrat is in a runoff for Congress in a conservative district that includes the capital, Baton Rouge. The odds are against him in reliably Republican Louisiana. His opponent, Garret Graves, is favored to win on Saturday. But as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, Edwards has always been a gambler and not one to go down without a fight.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Voters like Harold Taylor are scarce in Louisiana.

HAROLD TAYLOR: I'm a yellow dog Democrat. My daddy was, my grandpa was, and I am, too. They say we're extinct. Yeah, well, we might be.

ELLIOTT: The old Southern saying was you'd vote for a yellow dog before a Republican. But the tables have turned. Now it's the GOP that dominates the Deep South. For 30 years, Taylor was the mayor of Palmetto, Louisiana - population 210. He has fond memories of Edwin Edwards' four terms as Governor.

TAYLOR: He was one of the few governors you could go to and ask for a project for your community, and he would say it's done.

ELLIOTT: Now he's returning the favor and running Edwards' congressional runoff campaign.

TAYLOR: He's just a dear friend, a legend, political mentor.

ELLIOTT: Edwards' political reign in Louisiana is legendary, as was his fall from power. He was first elected to Congress 50 years ago and won his final term as governor in the 1990s, in a famous battle with former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. Edwards became known for his quick wit, womanizing and poker games in the governor's mansion. But he was also dogged by ethics allegations that finally brought him down in 2000. He served eight years in prison on federal corruption charges. On the campaign trail, the jail time is a punch line, like when he was asked about Internet neutrality at a debate this week.


EDWIN EDWARDS: It took me a little while to learn because it all came about when I was in a place where there was no Internet service for a while. But...


ELLIOTT: At the podium of the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce debate, the contrast between the silver-haired Edwards and Republican Garret Graves is stark. At 42, Graves is less than half Edwards' age. He's a former coastal adviser to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and has a similar conservative agenda. He promises to curtail federal spending, cut taxes and eliminate regulatory burdens.


GARRET GRAVES: But we have to get the federal government out of the way. We've got to get Washington to work with us instead of against us.


ELLIOTT: Democrat Edwin Edwards.

EDWARDS: That sounds good. But you've got to be careful. If there was no government, kids would still be working in coal lines.

ELLIOTT: Edwards is a child of the Depression and credits Democrat Franklin Roosevelt for keeping his family from starving at the time. He says he will remain a loyal Democrat despite the party's standing in his native state.


EDWARDS: I'm an old relic.

ELLIOTT: He might be the last of the New Deal Democrats, but he still cuts sharp figure on the campaign trail.

EDWARDS: Politics is in my blood. It's the way I make my living. It's also the way I serve people.

ELLIOTT: But his longtime populist formula of taking care of people also feels like a relic in this political climate - a fact he acknowledges.


EDWARDS: I'm up against a tide. And it was shown on November the fourth, when every Democrat who had any Republican of note running against him or her lost.

ELLIOTT: In November, Edwards was the top vote-getter, in part because of a crowded Republican field in Louisiana's unusual system that puts everyone on the same ballot. Now that Republicans can rally behind one candidate, Graves has the advantage. He never imagined he'd be up against Edwin Edwards.


GRAVES: This was the guy that was a legend or a folklore when I was a kid. And the fact that he's still around and we were just standing here debating him is really just a surreal experience.

ELLIOTT: Graves says voters are ready to put Edwards and the past behind them. At a campaign rally, Graves' supporters say just having Edwards on the ballot is embarrassing.

COLLEEN MARTIN: I think it's a black mark on Louisiana.

ELLIOTT: Colleen Martin is from Baton Rouge.

MARTIN: And I think most of the nation kind of says, really, a convicted felon on the ballot? Who's going to vote for him?

ELLIOTT: The answer will come Saturday, likely the last time Edwin Edwards will appear on the Louisiana ballot. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.