NEW ORLEANS, OCT. 25 -- The Edwin Edwards era ended in stunning fashion early this morning when Louisiana's bon temps governor, reading the long odds against him, withdrew from his reelection race after finishing second in the bipartisan primary behind Rep. Charles E. (Buddy) Roemer III, a young, conservative, reform-conscious Democrat from Shreveport.
As a result of Edwards' decision, there will be no runoff in November, and Roemer, who three weeks ago was running last in a five-man race, woke up this morning as governor-elect, preparing for his move next March to the white mansion in Baton Rouge.
"It's absolutely unbelievable. I'm still not over it," Roemer said today in a telephone interview from his Shreveport hotel room, referring both to his meteoric rise and the Democratic governor's unexpected withdrawal. "An era is over, but let's give Edwin Edwards this much credit: He came in with class in 1971 and he went out with class."
It was what happened in between that led Louisianans, finally, to turn their backs on a politician whose roguish charm long had been the state's favorite form of entertainment. During his three terms as governor, Edwards -- heir to Huey Long's peculiar blend of populism, demagoguery and cronyism -- was investigated by 14 grand juries, survived two corruption trials and found his state leading the nation in many of the wrong areas -- from high school dropout rates to joblessness.
By the time his second corruption trial ended in acquittal in the spring of 1986, Edwards had lost almost all of his support in the state's white middle class (polls showed him with negative ratings of more than 60 percent), but it took him a long time, until the final weeks of this campaign, to realize that he could not put a new shine on his sullied reputation. One day last month he reflected wistfully that Huey Long himself wouldn't survive for two weeks in the modern era of press scrutiny and voter independence. Edwards, 60, thought he could survive longer -- until last night.
"There isn't a person in this state more honorable or honest than I," he said as the votes piled up against him. "But I think I know now that many people in Louisiana came to the conclusion that they simply couldn't trust me. Not until this campaign ended did I realize how many shared that view. I hope someday they will find it in their hearts to reassess their views of me."
From the time the polls closed at 8 last night it appeared that Edwards, while trailing Roemer, would pick up enough votes to ensure a place in the November runoff. But as the governor watched the returns on television, he reached a private decision that he would not continue the race unless somehow he finished first. While his supporters waited in the French Quarter's Monteleone Hotel ballroom for four hours for Edwards to come down for what they thought would be a victory speech, he studied the numbers and broached the possibility of his withdrawal with several key lieutenants.
At 1:15 this morning, the final results showed Roemer holding steady at nearly 34 percent, with Edwards about 6 points behind. Analyses of voting patterns showed Roemer doing surprisingly well in all areas of the state and among every racial and economic group except blacks. The candidates who finished third and fourth, U.S. Reps. Robert L. Livingston Jr. (R) and W.J. (Billy) Tauzin (D), had already delivered concession speeches endorsing Roemer. Their votes added to Roemer's brought on the possibility of a rout in the runoff. Edwards, an astute political analyst who had never lost an election in his 35-year political career, decided to get out.
He took the elevator down and entered the ballroom for a historical and emotional withdrawal speech, during which he blamed the press for his tarnished reputation, but said he held no hard feelings against Roemer, who during the campaign had portrayed him as the dragon who needed to be slain. Edwards said that for once he hoped people would take him at his word when he explained his withdrawal.
"I have to do what I think is best for my state," Edwards said, as supporters cried out "No! No! We love you!"
"I never considered this decision until this evening. It never occurred to me that I would run second. But now that I have, there is no political analyst who would say I am unwise to terminate the race. No one could rightly assume that this sudden emergence of Buddy Roemer out of nowhere could now be stopped. I'm making the greatest sacrifice I've ever made in my life. But this election is over, let's pick up the pieces and get on with it."
Edwards has been a central figure in Louisiana for so long that it is difficult to imagine the political landscape without him. The silver-haired Cajun lawyer rebuilt the old populist networks of Huey and Earl Long, but his style was one of a kind. He openly acknowledged his love of gambling and beautiful women, saying during the last campaign that the only way he could get in trouble was if the press found him "in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."
During his corruption trials it was revealed that he took occasional trips from the governor's mansion to Las Vegas and Reno, where he won and lost large sums playing craps under assumed names. One Vegas casino official testified that he traveled to Baton Rouge to collect a $200,000 debt from the governor, and was paid with a suitcase full of fresh bills.
But during his first two terms, at least, Edwards won praise for his effectiveness as governor. In 1973 he pushed through the first major constitutional reforms in the state's history, and when he left office in 1979 after his second term, the state was rolling in oil and gas royalty money. Four years later, when voters brought him back for another term, the state was heading into a downward spiral that still has not stopped.
Now Louisiana has Buddy Roemer, a politician whose ascendance was so swift that few people here -- even those who decided to vote for him -- know much about him. Roemer this morning said he could describe the election "in one single, simple word, and that word is change," but there is more certainty about what Louisiana is changing from than what it is changing to.
Roemer is far more complex than his campaign's reform message. He is 44, a Harvard graduate whose real name is Charles E. Roemer III, but who talks like a good ole boy from north Louisiana and goes by the ultimate plain-folks moniker: Buddy. He represents the most conservative part of the state, a region where Edwards' gambling jaunts were considered devilish. Yet Roemer is a gambler in his own right, claiming more than $8,000 in winnings on his income taxes last year from a poker game in Washington.
Roemer was tutored in politics by two symbols of the old style: his father, Charles, and none other than Edwin W. Edwards himself. The elder Roemer was Edwards' secretary of administration during the 1970s. His career ended with a term in prison. Edwards helped Roemer get elected to Congress in 1980, and even this morning, after Roemer had turned on him and defeated him, it seemed as though Edwards were reliving part of his own career in his former disciple's success. He noted that when he took over as governor in 1971 he too was a young congressman full of energy and promises of reform.
Roemer understands the similarity as well, and in an interview today said that he will rely on the watchful eyes of the press to keep him on a steady course of reform. "They say that power corrupts, and Louisiana is the proof of that saying," Roemer said. "It happens, but it doesn't have to happen. Only when elected officials stop listening to the people does it happen. Edwin stopped listening a long time ago."
During the campaign Roemer refused to accept cash or political action committee contributions, and the image he used to define his election effort was revolution, as in "join the revolution." The word has taken on a new definition since Ronald Reagan appropriated it for his economic austerity measures, and that is where Roemer first latched onto it. In the first three years of this decade, Roemer, then at the beginning of his congressional career, supported the Reagan budget cuts and voted with the administration more consistently than any Democrat except then-Rep. Phil Gramm of Texas. As a leading member of the southern conservatives known as "Boll Weevils," Roemer was wooed by the Republicans to switch parties, and came very close. Once he said that he would switch only if Phil Gramm did. After Gramm in fact switched, Roemer backed away, saying that "there was only one thing that kept me from being a Republican -- the Republicans."
His decision to stay in the Democratic party served him well this year in Louisiana. The Republican candidate, Livingston, started out as the leading challenger to Edwards, but during the campaign it became clear that voters had decided that only a Democrat could beat Edwards in this overwhelmingly Democratic state. In the end they turned to Roemer as the best alternative. About half of the state's 300,000 Republicans also voted for Roemer.
Roemer said he will take his fiscal conservatism to Baton Rouge and attempt to balance the state's finances by cutting the budget. But he said that perhaps his single most important contribution has already been made. "I want people in other parts of the country to take another look at Louisiana," he said. "We want to tell America we are free at last."