Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who died this week at age 93, had a genuine affinity for Natchitoches.
He often called the town a “microcosm of Louisiana” and was always convinced that an appearance here in the 1970s helped propel him to his first of four terms in the statehouse.
One of 17 Democratic candidates in his initial race for governor, Edwards made an appearance at the Natchitoches Christmas Festival Parade and was riding in the back seat of a sleek convertible.
When he became aware of the immensity of the crowd, he got out of the car and walked the rest of the parade route handshaking and backslapping with thousands of people along the way.
That splash of charisma here gave him momentum in the race and a lasting appreciation for Natchitoches.
But Edwards also had a strong connection to this community over the years through his friendship with prominent local attorney and long-time Louisiana political power Don Kelly.
Kelly met Edwards at a Jaycees convention in Monroe when Edwards was in Congress and planning to run for governor. “There was a magnetism about the guy that convinced me he would win,” Kelly said. “I came back and put his campaign sign in my yard.”
Edwards won that 1971 race and followed up on his promise to push for a new state constitution to replace Louisiana’s archaic charter.
Kelly was elected to the constitutional convention to develop the document and worked closely with Edwards in the process. Then the governor supported Kelly in his first race for the State Senate.
Even in his first term in the Senate starting in 1976, Kelly was popular with legislative colleagues and effective in getting bills passed. Edwards called on him often for support.
Dave Treen was elected governor in 1979 when Edwards was term limited. Kelly’s influence in the legislature had soared by then. He worked closely with Treen in creating the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts in Natchitoches.
But Kelly became a dominant figure in the legislature in 1984 when Edwards returned to the governor’s office for two more terms.
It was common knowledge that he could have been elected Senate President, but he chose to become chief floor leader for Edwards and later Buddy Roemer.
The close personal and political bond between Edwards and Kelly was created in part by common backgrounds. Edwards grew up dirt poor in Avoyelles Parish, and Kelly had a hardscrabble early life in Coushatta.
“Edwin had a heart for the disadvantaged and downtrodden,” Kelly said. “He stated often that he would always cast his lot with the guys in the hardhats and steel-toed boots.”
When Kelly got word this week of Edwards’ death, he called the flamboyant ex-governor “the smartest person I ever knew in my life…street smart, book smart, politically smart.”
Kelly said Edwards had some political attributes “that would serve the state and country well today. He didn’t hold grudges. If you were not able to vote with him on a bill or project, he never pressured you or mentioned it again.”
When the state economy tanked toward the end of Edwards’s third term and he was defeated by Roemer, Edwards went to the capitol often at Roemer’s request to lobby legislators for revenue measures to eliminate the state deficit.
“On Sunday afternoons when Edwin was governor, there would be friendly poker games at the mansion,” Kelly said. “Roemer was a regular in those games. When Buddy got elected, Edwin was always invited to the Sunday afternoon gatherings.”
Kelly said he and other legislators enjoyed Edwards’ legendary sense of humor.
“We were pheasant hunting in Kansas, and a rooster pheasant flew up in front of us,” he said. “I shot him, but Edwin shot just a second behind me and missed him. Others on the hunt turned to watch, and I congratulated the governor on his shot. He told me I had a great future in politics,” Kelly laughed.
Kelly labeled Edwards as “a legislator’s governor. He worked at making legislators look good and giving them credit for getting things done.”
He recalled a meeting when Edwards threw him, Rep. Jimmy Long and a Northwestern staff member out of his office when they were seeking additional funding for athletic facilities.
“Edwin called me the next day to say he had put the money in the budget and I could tell the Northwestern folks I convinced him to do it and take credit for it,” Kelly said.
Kelly laughed again when he talked about Edwards endorsing legislators in their elections. “His popularity would go up and down, so he always told us that he would endorse us if we needed it or come out against us if that would help us more.”
Edwards “did more for this part of the state than any governor has ever done,” Kelly said. “Roads, bridges, buildings, Toledo Bend and countless other projects were a result of his leadership.”
Kelly said he was saddened by Edwards’ eight-year prison term for corruption “but he survived the ordeal without any bitterness and moved on with his life afterwards even at his advanced age.”
He stayed in touch with the former governor in recent years and remains grateful for his political and personal relationship with Edwards over the decades “and for all the good things he did for the people of Louisiana and this region.”