Gathering Wednesday in Baton Rouge, each of Louisiana’s four former governors fell into a familiar role.
Kathleen Blanco was the earnest public servant, describing how she grappled with recovery in Katrina’s aftermath while facing a hostile Republican administration in Washington.
Mike Foster played the ordinary Joe. What he most misses from his time in office, he said, is the governor’s helicopter.
Buddy Roemer was the preacher, warning the crowd that the state needs to change course or risk falling further behind its neighbors.
And Edwin Edwards? He provided the comic relief, of course.
Asked to describe his biggest crisis while in office, the ex-con shot back: “My crisis came after I was governor.”
Knowing laughter and applause filled the downtown Hilton ballroom where several hundred people gathered to hear the ex-governors at a luncheon and panel discussion sponsored by the Council for a Better Louisiana, a research and advocacy group celebrating its 50th year.
The four exes held office from 1972 to 2008, a reign interrupted only by the late Dave Treen’s single term. They fought fierce political battles and ran against each other. Roemer beat Edwards, who four years later defeated Roemer, who lost a second bid for re-election to Foster.
On Wednesday, they went out of their way to praise each other. The former governors had an amicable private dinner in Lafayette four months ago, a get-together organized by Blanco that included their spouses.
The current occupant of the Governor’s Mansion, Bobby Jindal, got only passing mention on Wednesday. Roemer praised Jindal’s efforts to improve the state’s K-12 education system while chiding him for slashing college and university budgets.
Roemer said his toughest challenge was pulling the state out of an economic trough following the mid-1980s oil bust. When he took office, he said, the unemployment rate was 13.8 percent, the state’s budget hadn’t been balanced in seven years and Louisiana had the lowest bond rating in the country.
“It was almost overwhelming,” Roemer said. Almost, but not quite. He and the state Legislature balanced the budget and won three increases in the state’s bond rating, he noted.
In describing her biggest crisis, Blanco said she “hated” going to Washington to seek money from the Bush administration, which had been disgraced by Katrina and persisted in trying to blame the failed emergency response on her. But she said she secured billions in aid.
“To see our people so terribly wounded was one of the most terrible things I had to endure,” said Blanco, who, wounded politically by the disaster, chose not to seek re-election in 2007.
Foster, who served as governor from 1996-2004, said he appreciated the Legislature’s tradition of non-partisan politics, noting that he appointed a Democrat as speaker of the House, even though he was a Republican.
“You see what’s happening in Washington,” Foster said, referring to the hyper-partisan atmosphere there. “It’s one of the worst things.”
Roemer touched on the downsides of being governor.
He said that the Governor’s Mansion could be a “prison” – he didn’t mention on Wednesday that his wife left him during his term in office. “You have no free time,” he added. “Every mistake is … exaggerated.”
By contrast, Edwards said he reveled in being governor and wished he still had the job. A Democrat and the only Louisiana governor to have served four terms, Edwards was freed last year from federal prison and promptly got married after serving an eight-year sentence for corruption. On Wednesday, he brought his new wife, Trina, who is 33.
Edwards said that at 85, Trina has given him a new perspective.
“I finally found a reason to like Republicans,” Edwards said. “I sleep with one of them.”
The crowd roared again.