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‘A Season for Governing’: Former Louisiana Governor Talks Political Divides in IOP Forum

The Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics hosted John Bel Edwards, former Louisiana governor, at a forum Tuesday evening.
The Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics hosted John Bel Edwards, former Louisiana governor, at a forum Tuesday evening. By Sachi Laumas
By Eunice S. Chae, Contributing Writer

Former Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards discussed political partisanship and overcoming ideological divides at a Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics forum on Tuesday.

Moderated by Grisella M. Martinez — former director of legislative affairs for U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and an IOP resident fellow — the discussion centered around collaboration across the aisle and the differences between state and national politics.

Edwards, who served as a Democrat governor of a traditionally red state for eight years, opened the forum by discussing some of the challenges he faced when he entered office.

“We knew we were walking into a fiscal mess,” Edwards said. “Just before I became governor, the revenue estimating committee set the deficit at over $1 billion to close out the fiscal year we were in, and the next fiscal year we would be preparing for, was over $2 billion.”

The problems were exacerbated by a Republican-led state legislature, whose members were largely elected on the campaign promise that they “would never raise revenue,” according to Edwards.

“And, of course, what did I want them to do? I wanted them to come in and raise revenue,” he said.

Despite the ideological collisions, Edwards said his pre-existing personal relationships with some legislative officials — including Republican leadership — helped him achieve some of his fiscal goals.

“We were able to sit down, talk, and compare ideas. And then, you had to be prepared to compromise, and I was,” Edwards said. “I didn’t get all the revenue I asked for, I didn’t get it in the ways that I necessarily wanted it, but they didn’t originally want to give me any.”

“I have always been very grateful and appreciative of the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate for their willingness to sit down and do that, because it wasn’t easy for them” Edwards added.

During the forum, Edwards also discussed national politics. In particular, he compared his former role as governor to those of federal politicians in response to a question from Martinez on whether the “conventional wisdom” that governors could more easily overcome extreme politicization was coming to an end.

“No, I think it’s easier for governors to do things — regardless of what political party they are and what the legislature of their states look like — than it is for Congress,” Edwards said.

He compared Congress — where the onus is never on one single politician to own up to the responsibility of governing — to the job of a state governor, where one’s constituents are consistently looking for leadership and accountability in action.

“Congress has gotten to a situation where there’s almost never a season for governing anymore,” Edwards said. “It almost seems like the main mission is depriving the other side of something that can be construed as a win for them.”

During the broader discussion of national polarization and the upcoming November presidential elections, Edwards emphasized the importance of solid governance over disagreement.

Edwards pointed to then-President Donald Trump’s attacks against him during the 2019 Louisiana gubernatorial election but said it was crucial to move past personal insults.

“Despite the fact that he came and campaigned against me, when the election was over, he called me and I said, ‘Look Mr. President, the election’s over, it’s time to govern now,’” Edwards said. “Three months later, we were in a pandemic.”

“It was very important to me to have that positive relationship with the federal government,” he added.

“I would hope that more people would adopt that attitude so there is a time to govern,” he said. “There’s gotta be a season for governing between elections.”

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