Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is up for re-election this year. The conservative Democrat is one of six candidates for Governor on the ballot – along with Republican challengers Ralph Abraham, who is currently the U.S. Representative for Louisiana’s 5th congressional district, and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone.
Edwards – the only Democratic governor in the Deep South – has a formidable lead over his opponents in both fundraising and early polling. Fundraising reports filed on Thursday night show Edwards brought in $1.6 million in the period ending September 2. Abraham brought in $761,000 from donors in the same period, while Rispone – who has invested millions in his own campaign – pulled in $147,000 from donors.
Meanwhile, a recent poll by Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat shows Edwards with a double-digit lead over his challengers – though it’s unclear whether he’ll have enough support to win 50% of the vote and avoid a runoff.
When he took office in 2015, Governor Edwards faced several challenges, including a $2 billion budget deficit, the expiration of a temporary sales tax that threatened a budget crisis, and an unfriendly legislature. Now, Louisiana has a budget surplus of $500 million, avoided a budgetary fiscal cliff, and, thanks to Medicaid expansion, has its lowest uninsured rate in the state’s history.
But Edwards faced some challenges in his first term. After four years of trying, the legislature still has not passed a minimum wage increase – one of Edward’s top priorities. And the Governor – a staunch pro-life Catholic – faced intense criticism from Democrats for signing a so-called fetal heartbeat abortion ban into law.
Big Easy Magazine recently sat down with Governor Edwards after he attended a private campaign event in New Orleans to talk about his record and re-election campaign.
The deadline to register to vote is September 21. Early voting runs from September 28 until October 5; Election Day is Saturday, October 12.
THE STATE OF LOUISIANA’S ECONOMY
JESSICA ROSGAARD: Louisiana’s economy – by most metrics – has improved since you took office. But data shows the state still lags the South and the nation in job creation, and while unemployment is the lowest it’s been in 11 years at 4.3%, it’s still higher than the national average.
What do you see as the biggest hurdles to moving Louisiana’s economy out of the bottom of those rankings and getting unemployment below the national average?
GOVERNOR JOHN BEL EDWARDS: Unemployment is 4.3%, which as you mentioned, is the lowest in almost 12 years; and it’s 2% points lower than when I became Governor. Second thing is, over the last 12 months our unemployment has declined more than any other state in the nation, so that tells me that we are on a better path than we were, and a better path than many other states.
But the key to employment is to make sure that the talent pipeline is in place, and what I mean by that is you have to educate and train – your students, your workers – for the jobs of today and for the jobs of tomorrow. So working very hard with our community college institutions but also our four year universities and really backing that up into high school and making sure that when more people leave high school they are employable or they at least proceed on and get some post-secondary credential or degree. That’s the most important thing we’re going to do in order to make sure that we have jobs, and the reason is this: if we want companies to invest in Louisiana, to increase their presence or to create a new presence in Louisiana, the single most important thing you have to do is inspire in them the confidence they’re going to have the employees they need to be successful.
We’re doing a better job of that. For example – DXE Technology here in New Orleans, the number one economic development project in the state’s history. We committed to DXE that we would put $25 million into the higher education system – Delgado, UNO, LSU, Southeastern, SUNO – in order to make sure that we had educated, skilled workers that they needed to be successful. And once we convinced them of that – and by the way, you can’t convince them of that if you’re telling them that on one hand, and you’re cutting higher education on the other. We had cut higher education more than any other state in the nation over the eight years before I became governor. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for our people, it doesn’t work to bring in economic development and investment.
But I can tell you there is not a single metric of any relevance that indicates anything other than that our state is doing much better today than we were 4 years – whether it’s the size of our economy, the amount of personal income, the unemployment numbers, the investment in our state, the foreign direct investment in our state – we’re doing much better. And by the way, we’re doing better than we have ever done as a state on many of those metrics.
ROSGAARD: And you did have success this year in the legislature fully funding TOPS and higher education. At the same time [as the positive jobs numbers], Louisiana’s uninsured rate dropped to 8% – lower than the national average.
GOV. EDWARDS: And not just the lowest in our state’s history, the lowest in our state’s history by a long shot. One in four working age adults was uninsured the day I became governor. We have the third lowest number of uninsured children in the country, and our overall uninsured rate was announced today [Tuesday] at 8.6%. And we’re one of eight states whose uninsured rates declined while the nation as a whole went in the opposite direction, which took a step back and saw more people uninsured than in the previous year. And so what this indicates is our efforts around LaCHIP with children but Medicaid expansion with adults is having a tremendous impact in getting people covered with health insurance, which improves their access to care – especially preventative care and primary care by which you can actually manage disease and make sure that people actually have better health outcomes.
An uninsured person is much more likely to go to the emergency room – only after they are so sick they have to – to be told that they have a disease that is much further progressed than would otherwise be the case. So the uninsured rate is a great thing, and that’s a great sign that the state of Louisiana is moving forward in an area where we had been stuck for generations. For generations, the state of Louisiana had one of the nation’s highest percentages of its people uninsured. We have changed that completely in the last four years.
ROSGAARD: But there is a threat to that – potentially – in the court system, there’s a challenge to the Affordable Care Act that Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry signed on to. How concerned are you about that threat and what can Louisiana do to maintain these good statistics if the ACA is overturned?
GOV. EDWARDS: First of all, the lawsuit is ill-advised. It wasn’t something that was filed in the state’s interest; I think it was a partisan political statement being made by the Attorney General who, honestly, I’m not sure he even knew that the Affordable Care Act was the vehicle by which Medicaid expansion came into existence, because he denied knowing that if his lawsuit were successful that we would lose the expansion – which, I know that’s hard to contemplate, hard to envision, but that’s the situation.
I don’t know what will happen in the courts. I’m a lawyer. I’ve been doing this long enough not to prognosticate too much there. Most experts don’t believe the lawsuit will be successful. What I know is if the lawsuit is successful there will be tremendous problems in the state of Louisiana. The 450,000 people insured through Medicaid expansion would lose insurance. We have 850,000 people with preexisting conditions who are able to get insurance today largely because of the Affordable Care Act that affords them protections.
And so, this was an ill-advised lawsuit. I believe that it’s unlikely that the lawsuit will ultimately be successful. If it is successful, I believe that the implementation date of the lawsuit would be stayed for some period of time so that Congress could potentially make some changes, and of course, we’ll have to weigh in when that happens. But there is no doubt that as it relates to Medicaid expansion and the protections for people with pre-existing conditions that the Affordable Care Act – very, very good for the state of Louisiana. It has been very helpful – not just in getting people covered – it actually helped to solve that $2 billion budget deficit that I inherited when I walked into office because an uninsured person costs the state more than someone who is eligible for Medicaid and gets the expansion. It really is just that simple. And we haven’t had a single rural hospital close in Louisiana, unlike other southern states that didn’t expand Medicaid – and they’ve had them close literally by the dozens.
So, for those reasons and many, many more, the Medicaid expansion has been very good. We have almost 50,000 people in Orleans Parish alone with Medicaid expansion, another 40,000 in Jefferson Parish. So, of 450,000, you have almost 100,000 that comes from just these two parishes right here.
Obviously, it is my hope that the lawsuit is unsuccessful, and if it turns out that it is successful, we will do everything that we can. In the meantime, we did create a commission to study the situation to make recommendations on how Louisiana can try to enact legislation or policy outside of legislation to give the same protections for people with pre-existing conditions [such as] the ability for children to stay on their parent’s health insurance till they become 26. All the features that everyone says that they like but they’re filing lawsuits to block, which doesn’t make sense. We’re trying to see how and whether we can do that as a state if, in fact, the Affordable Care Act goes away.
WOMEN’S ISSUES IN LOUISIANA
ROSGAARD: On the last day of the 2019 legislative session, New Orleans Senator J.P. Morrell made a speech on the Senate floor in which he said the legislature failed women by not supporting the equal rights amendment or a minimum wage increase, passing numerous restrictive abortion laws and upholding a tax on feminine hygiene products and diapers.
Do you agree with Senator Morrell that the legislature failed women, and what do you say to women in the state who make up 50% of the population and might feel let down?
GOV. EDWARDS: I can’t answer that question in that way. There were some of these things that I supported and some that I didn’t.
I do believe that we fail everybody when we have a minimum wage at $7.25. We know that most people working for minimum wage are women – it hasn’t been raised since 2009. I believe that we need to raise the minimum wage. I supported it four years ago when I ran for governor. We’ve introduced legislation every single year to try to make that happen – we haven’t been successful yet.
I believe we fail women when we have the largest pay gap in the country based on gender – and what I’m talking about here is what we pay men and women when they have the same qualifications doing the same job, and on average women in Louisiana make about 69-cents on the dollar – for women of color it’s closer to 50-cents on the dollar. I ran on that four years ago and we’ve introduced legislation all four years, but we haven’t been able to get the legislature to move either the equal pay legislation or the minimum wage. And so it isn’t just women – think about all the children trapped in poverty because we don’t pay their parents what they deserve to be paid as well.
I don’t know that I would agree that on the other issues we failed women. I will tell you that 60% of the 450,000 people on Medicaid expansion are women. I will tell you that over 70,000 of them have had breast exams, and many of them have had cancer averted whether it was through colonoscopies where pre-cancerous polyps were removed or those who were unfortunately diagnosed with either colon cancer or breast cancers got treatment – that sort of thing.
But you know J.P. is a friend of mine and he’s someone that I’ve worked [with] extremely well, he’s certainly entitled to his views. I know that he was particularly upset that he was unable to move his legislation at the time dealing with the feminine hygiene products, and it was just something he couldn’t get his fellow Senators to support. Largely, I don’t know that it was an individual determination with respect to that bill. There were many, many bills that were introduced in the legislature that would have had the impact of eroding the state general fund, and there was a concerted effort by a number of folks to try to preserve state general funds so we could do things like the teacher pay raise, like the early childhood investment and so forth.
Look – you make hard decisions. There are always things that are good that are in competition with one another because you only have so much funding; it’s a finite resource and so forth.
THE FIGHT FOR A MINIMUM WAGE INCREASE
ROSGAARD: Two of your legislative priorities, as you mentioned, were minimum wage and equal pay – but as you said your efforts haven’t been successful in the legislature. If you win a second term with a new legislature, will you keep those priorities, and how are you going to approach those to really try and get them passed in maybe another four years?
GOV. EDWARDS: First of all, I want you to know we really tried to get them passed over the past four years and we took different approaches to them. For example, this last year on the minimum wage bill we said, look, if the legislature isn’t going to vote to increase the minimum wage – and by the way there are 5 states without their own minimum wage now – if the legislature’s not going to vote to do it, let’s see if the legislature will vote to allow the voters of Louisiana to vote on it. They wouldn’t do that either.
On the gender pay, we really narrowed what we were trying to accomplish, to something that was concrete that should not have been objectionable, and that was just to make sure we have pay transparency so that workers would not be penalized by their employers for discussing their wages among one another. Because if you have transparency a lot of times the unequal part of that will kind of take care of itself because you don’t want the morale problems out there that get created. And so, we’re going to keep working really hard.
Just yesterday [Monday] I had a meeting at LSU at the women’s center with about two dozen advocates and legislators and City Councilperson Helena Moreno was there, we had Representative Ted James from Baton Rouge, a number of people from The United Way, from different organizations – trying to figure out how we mobilize more support to, one, educate people on these issues, but secondly then motivate the legislature to really take them seriously. So, we’re not going to give up, we’re gonna fight for this.
And, by the way, the overwhelming majority of people in Louisiana support both increasing the minimum wage and addressing the pay inequality on the gender pay gap, so we’re going to keep fighting I can assure you of that. But it is something that quite frankly I’m not happy with, we haven’t been able to get it done and largely it’s the business lobby in Louisiana who have been pressing so hard against any movement on those bills and this is one area where the legislature’s just been really, really slow to move.
ROSGAARD: That’s another area where you look at those numbers that a majority of residents support an increased minimum wage but their representatives don’t because of a lobby, that’s – that’s politics.
GOV. EDWARDS: Well it is, but you know we have elections and so if people are paying attention they can go out and find out right now where their candidates for the legislature – the house and the senate – stand on this issue, and they can tell them where they want them to be on this issue and really have a big impact on what happens in the session that we’ll have in the spring of 2020.
I quite frankly didn’t realize it was going to be this hard. Our neighbor in Arkansas increased the minimum wage and has done it I think three times – we haven’t done it at all. We’re still at the same minimum wage set by Congress in 2009, so it is frustrating. We have modified our approach, we’ve enlisted different people to come help, but we’re not gonna give up because we know it’s the right thing to do. And we owe it to the people in this state, to the families in this state, but especially our children – that they not be trapped in poverty needlessly because their parents aren’t paid what they deserve to be paid when they go to work.
ROSGAARD: I understand your pro-life position on why you signed the so-called fetal heartbeat abortion ban, but New Orleans Democrats were very disappointed. It’s a very tight law, there’s no exemption for rape or incest. Some people said they wouldn’t support you this fall because of it, and the New Orleans City Council unanimously backed a resolution condemning that law. Are you concerned about losing support from New Orleans’ Democrats and why should they continue to support you?
GOV. EDWARDS: Well, they should continue to support me for all the reasons that I’ve been talking about. The state of Louisiana is doing much better, including in many areas that are very important not just to Democrats but to everybody and quite frankly wouldn’t have happened had my opponent been elected four years ago. We wouldn’t be talking about the lowest uninsured rate in our state’s history because we wouldn’t have done the Medicaid expansion. We wouldn’t say that we had no longer the nations’ highest incarceration rate because they wouldn’t have done criminal justice reform. We wouldn’t have had a 40% increase in the earned income tax credit that we enacted and so forth.
So for all of those reasons including the positive things with the economy, the partnership I have entered into with the city of New Orleans on fair share with respect to working with them to come up with $50 million from the state to help them get the cash flow at the Sewerage and Water Board straight again, working with them to pass three bills that will create $26 million in recurring revenue for infrastructure. The investments you’re seeing in New Orleans, the DXE Technologies for example but also the interchange at the Kenner Airport that didn’t exist – there was no funding for that, no environmental clearance for that work until I became governor and did that. When you look at the support I gave them on the Harrah’s deal, a $325 million investment in New Orleans, the work that I’m doing to secure long-term lease extension for the most important tenant in the Superdome – the Saints – which I think we’ll get another 30 years out of that and a deal that will also renovate the Superdome with a $450 million investment. The work that I’m doing around putting Charity Hospital back into service.
And, so for all of those reasons I think you will see that to a person, the City Council and the Mayor, and the Congressmen here all endorse me enthusiastically for re-election. Doesn’t mean we don’t have differences and I understand that, and I understand that people were disappointed on that particular issue. I would just say from my perspective it doesn’t pay to be a one issue voter, especially when that’s going to prevent you from voting or someone with whom you agree probably 80-90% of the time and potentially make it more likely or possible that someone with whom you agree 10% of the time gets elected. That doesn’t seem to be particularly fruitful.
The other thing that I will tell you is that my pro-life views lead me to believe that Medicaid expansion is pro-life as well. One of those positions is thought to be conservative, the other one’s thought to be liberal, but they come from the same place with me. So, I try to be consistent as best that I can be, and I also didn’t surprise anyone on this particular issue. I know it’s a hard issue – and that’s, you know, that’s unfortunate, it is the reality of the situation but I would just encourage people not to be a one issue voter and look at the totality of the work that we’ve done, and the differences between the candidates who are running on this particular issue, and then I would encourage them to go out and vote and obviously to cast their vote for me. If they choose not to do that, they certainly have that right.
Jessica Rosgaard is a veteran journalist who has reported for multiple news outlets in Louisiana for the past 6 years. She covered state government as editor of “Capitol Access” for WWNO – New Orleans Public Radio, where her work was recognized with three Regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Follow her on Twitter: @jessicarosgaard