Louisiana Politics: Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler to a Stop

ROAMING THE REAL WORLD

LOUISIANA is probably best known for two things: its food and its politics. Neither lacks spice, to say the least.

Colorful is not the word to describe Louisiana politics. Chicago politics is colorful. Louisiana politics is almost beyond description to the outside world. Louisiana is a state that fought tooth and nail against the federal government's effort to raise the drinking age to 21, a state that required schools to give equal time to creationism, a state that until last winter outlawed Sunday hours for stores. It is as if the state of bayous and alligators, of Mardi Gras and hurricaines, spoke a language incomprehensible to other Americans.

Case in point: Gary Hart withdrew from the 1988 presidential race because of allegations of a weekend sexual encounter with a woman not his wife. In Baton Rouge, the state capital and headquarters of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Gov. Edwin Edwards boasts of his extramarital affairs.

Edwards' creao, Laissez les bon temps rouler, often takes him to the casinos of Vegas and Monte Carlo, and one of the main goals of his current term has been to legalize casino gambling. Questions about a large gambling debt led to the governor's indictment on racketeering charges three years ago. Edwards' first trial ended in a deadlocked jury; a second one ended in acquittal.

AT FIRST glance, Edwards' failure to win the public's endorsement in last Saturday's open primary, may appear to signal the state is growing tired of the never-ending swirl of controversy around the capital Huey Long built. Don't be so sure.

Louisiana's system allows that every gubernatorial candidate, regardless of party, enter the same primary. The top two vote-getters, members of different parties or not, advance to the final election. Edwards, once a hero to Cajuns and Blacks, garnered only 452,513 votes, or 28.5 percent. He had never lost a race before Saturday, and after the results were known, he declined to participate in a run-off with the number one vote-getter.

Saturday's victor, U.S. Rep. Buddy Roemer, also a Democrat, ran a campaign some have compared to that of Huey Long, the Depression-era populist. Roemer called for a revolution against the corruption that is so closely associated with Edwards. And Roemer, who hails from northern Louisiana, was able to penetrate Edwards' traditional strongholds in Cajun country and other southern, predominantly Catholic parishes.

Edwards went down in defeat, but he went out with a bang. The campaign smelled as bad as sugar cane in October. One of Edwards' campaign managers had been embroiled in a scandal involving abuse of his position on LSU's board of directors. On the day of the election when asked by some voters for help working the machines, officials took the ballots and registered their own choice. Edwards.

But does Roemer's triumph really signal a return to the clean but dull administration of Gov. Treen, who served for a term between Edwards' second and third?

UNDER CLOSER scrutiny, the election results do not insure a spic-and-span state. To begin with, Roemer cannot boast of broad-based support for his administration. Because of Louisiana's backward primary system, he is entering office with only 31 percent of the popular vote, a mere 2.5 percent more than Edwards.

And Roemer is not exactly behind-the-ears clean. His father was a high-ranking official in the Edwards administration in the 1970s and went the way of many of his colleagues. He went to prison. Although during this campaign Edwards tried to entangle Roemer in the web of corruption that is Louisiana politics, he apparently did not succeed.

But we should probably give ole Buddy the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he can lift Louisiana out of its economic tailspin. Maybe he can fund the schools so that half the students do not drop out. Maybe he can bring Louisiana's social legislation into the 20th century, and maybe he can do it before we enter the 21st.