In early 1970, the Lotus Club in Monroe was Louisiana’s second-oldest social organization, which made it the place to be seen in the northeastern corner of the state. For the previous five decades, the club’s Tiffany stained-glass and ornate wood paneling provided a place — the ninth floor of the Ouachita National Bank building — for mixing fellowship, business, and politics. On a frosty January morning of that year, Congressman Edwin W. Edwards of Crowley sat down with a freshman state representative from Monroe in the club’s dining hall. Invitations to such meetings with Edwards were becoming commonplace. For Edwards, the Lotus Club was yet another setting for yet another conversation about “Louisiana’s future.”
Edwards, at age 43, was literally and figuratively flying high by the time the New Year and new decade came into focus. He was a licensed pilot and spent much of the first quarter of 1970 at a cruising altitude, flying from one town to the next while boosting his name recognition and impressing donors. In addition to discussing the Bayou State’s future, the silver-tongued attorney also wanted to run for governor, which was why he requested an audience with James L. Dennis, a member of the Legislature’s lower chamber for the previous two years.
Making his way through the club’s main dining hall, Dennis didn’t know what to expect. The first-term lawmaker had never met Edwards, but he knew some of the dossier basics as well as the lore surrounding this mysterious South Louisiana politico. From Edwards’ first election to the Crowley City Council in 1954, it was clear to most observers that he was destined for the state’s political stage. Throughout his roughly 500 days in the state Senate, much of it as a floor leader for Governor McKeithen and now in his capacity as a member of Congress, EWE’s ambitions became clear. (So iconic was he as governor, many knew Edwards by his initials, “EWE,” pronounced as EE-wee.)
Dennis could see that the adjoining card rooms, where members often played gin, were all empty. It would be a quiet affair if nothing else, he thought as he eyed the steaming cups of coffee poured for both men.
Tagging along with Edwards was John Breaux, a 26-year-old legislative aide, also from Crowley. (Edwards was actually born in Mansura, in Avoyelles Parish; he moved to Crowley as a young man to practice law and politics.) Breaux had recently made the jump from Edwards’ Capitol Hill office to the campaign, but he already knew enough to decipher the importance of his boss’ meeting with Dennis. Breaux knew, for example, that Dennis could help strengthen one of Edwards’ key campaign issues — a promise-to-come known only to a few, and Dennis would soon join their ranks. Why Dennis? For those who tracked policy like a sport, Dennis was the leading legislative voice on certain constitutional issues, including conventions.
Edwards, forgoing small talk, got right to the point. “I agree with you on calling a constitutional convention and getting a new constitution,” he told Dennis before pausing. “I guarantee you that if I win my race for governor, I will call a constitutional convention.”
“Then I’m going to help you,” Dennis replied without hesitation, hoping he had made the right decision.
The rest of their conversation focused on politics, with Edwards doing most of the talking. “I had never met anyone like Edwin Edwards. He knew everything about me,” Dennis said 48 years later. “I was surprised. I was charmed.”
In his own recollections, Breaux said Edwards didn’t need to convince anyone on his campaign team of the value of calling for a constitutional convention. But Dennis, he added, was instrumental in convincing Edwards that the issue could have statewide appeal. “Edwin was the idea person and the creative person behind the campaign,” said Breaux. “He was really his own campaign manager.”
Dennis was an important “get” for the campaign’s policy shop. As a new legislator in 1969, he introduced House Bill 236 calling for a constitutional convention, along with an operating budget of $800,000. Dennis’ interest in rewriting the Constitution actually came earlier in the term, when he drafted a bill in response to a constituent request. It was supposed to be a simple legislative exercise, with the bill addressing the duties of a clerk on the Fireman and Policeman’s Civil Service Board. Refusing to draft the bill, legislative staffers told Dennis he’d have to amend the Constitution to achieve his objectives. That became Dennis’ goal. His 1969 legislation was eventually withdrawn from the files of the House due to a dispute over legislative authority, but Dennis’ efforts had created for him a powerful policy niche.
Years earlier, in 1947, Dr. Kimbrough Owen, a professor of government at LSU, summed up the plight of Dennis and other reform- minded lawmakers who wanted to get inside the Bayou State’s charter.
Decades later, his words still resonated.
Owen: A layman who starts out to study the Louisiana Constitution, however, is confronted with a Herculean task. He faces the longest constitution of the 48 states. The document will trip, entangle, infuriate and then exhaust him. The difficulties presented to the inquiring citizen include the vast detail, the dispersion of subject matter, confusing terminology, inconsistencies, errors, references to other legal documents, informal amending procedures, duplication of material, contradictions, and omissions.
Confounding as the 1921 Constitution was, it created a political opportunity for someone like Dennis. Constitutional law was an area of expertise that reporters and civic leaders liked seeing in a lawmaker, and Dennis quickly became the go-to legislator on that topic.
Meanwhile, as Edwin Edwards continued to hit the campaign trail, he racked up one of the worst attendance records in the Beltway. He missed votes big and small, ditched committee meetings, and, his critics suggested, generally neglected his duties as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “At the base of it,” wrote Edwards’ biographer Leo Honeycutt, “detractors just didn’t like the Cajun Prince, didn’t like his smirking arrogance, his quick-footed wit, his mastery of politics and problem-solving, especially his womanizing.” In a more revealing moment, reporter Bill Lynch of The New Orleans States-Item once admitted that Edwards “bothered his moral sensitivities.”
The French-speaking voters in the closely-knit communities of Edwards’ congressional district, however, didn’t see things that way. Situated in the Cajun heartland of South-Central and Southwestern Louisiana, his constituents comprised a fun-loving, freewheeling culture that embraced flawed characters and valued loyalty to their own. They stood by their man, even if — especially if — he lived comfortably in life’s gray areas. When it came to Edwin Edwards, an old bayou colloquialism summed up Cajuns’ feelings succinctly: he was un de nous autres — “one of us.”
Throughout most of his long political career, Edwards managed to overcome the darkest of perceptions by pointing to his accomplishments. For example, criticism of his voting record in Congress mattered little to the rural rice farmers of Southwest Louisiana, who loved him for his adept negotiation of a rice exportation deal with South Korea several years earlier. It also helped that the congressman could campaign, converse, and curse in Cajun French.
The footprint left by Cajuns on Louisiana’s cultural tapestry is immeasurable, just as Acadiana’s influence on Edwards’ political trajectory in 1970 cannot be overstated. From cultural roots to linguistics, Edwards felt as if his gubernatorial bid represented something larger than himself. Without being naïve, and while leveraging the Cajun bloc for all it was worth, Edwards wanted to be a catalyst for restoring pride in Louisiana’s French language and Cajun history. Both were in danger of being lost at that time. In Edwards’ own childhood school, pupils were disciplined harshly for speaking French, and he swore it would never happen again. Edwards told enthusiastic Cajun supporters that marginalized cultures should be granted legal protection — perhaps in the constitution — to preserve, foster, and promote their identities. They loved it.
Knowing he had the Cajun vote locked up, Edwards targeted women and minority blocs as he traveled the state by plane, knowing they would be the most receptive to his “new populist” message. To most voters in the early months of 1970, he was an unknown entity. To the extent he became known, there were whispers about his loose negotiating style and his budding relationships with the courthouse gangs in many parishes. In hushed tones, voters also gossiped about the undivided attention female admirers received on the campaign trail. But little if any of it stuck, for a variety of reasons.
Chief among them: A sketchy and questionable history of governance dating back to the French colonial period had desensitized voters by the time Edwards commenced his statewide bid, according to Jerry Sanson, chairman of the History and Political Science Department at Louisiana State University at Alexandria. Already accustomed to laissez-faire politicians, most voters who liked Edwards simply ignored the critics. Those who didn’t like him already had their reasons, so the negative spotlight had little to no net impact. Reporters, meanwhile, couldn’t get enough of the unflappable congressman. Each time Edwards delivered an off-color joke or gave a reporter a toe-curling quote, his bravado cemented the bond he had built with his voters in and outside Acadiana.
In the months following his initial meeting with Edwards, Dennis introduced House Bill 144 during the 1970 legislative session. The measure aimed to create a Constitutional Revision Commission charged with proposing a new state charter. The bill wound up on shaky ground, as did Governor John J. McKeithen’s tax package, which was the centerpiece of the session. The McKeithen Administration was just a couple of “yea” votes shy of the 70-vote threshold required for House passage of a tax. The stakes ran high as the state needed money to bankroll pay raises for judges and teachers, the latter of whom were threatening to strike. Seeing an opportunity, Dennis reached out to Victor Bussie, the president of the state AFL-CIO and one of the most influential men in Louisiana politics at the time. Dennis knew Bussie had McKeithen’s ear, and the legislator believed a deal could be struck if his convention supporters and the governor’s tax proponents could get on the same page.
Walking along the brass rail that encloses the House floor, Dennis found Bussie unoccupied as the session neared its midway point. A tall man, Bussie was hard to miss — in fact, the labor leader physically matched the frame of “Big John” McKeithen, as the governor had been called most of his life. Bussie spoke a working man’s language that let the suits know he wasn’t to be toyed with, but he had a warm personal style. Freshmen lawmakers often sought him out for his storytelling alone.
“Mr. Bussie, I’m not concerned about the judges, but I’m real concerned about the teachers,” Dennis said, not yet knowing that one day he would sit on the Louisiana Supreme Court. “We’re about ready to vote for those taxes, but I also think we need some reforms. As you know, I’ve been interested in constitutional reforms. They need to be studied and I proposed a bill, but it didn’t pass. If you can get the governor to agree to not veto the same commission, and you can get us a $200,000 appropriation to pay for it, I think we can make it happen. We’ll get behind those taxes.”
Without muttering a response, Bussie stuck his hand out and waited for Dennis to grasp it, as if in agreement. “I’ll be back to see you in a little,” Bussie finally said. “I’m going to go up and arrange for the governor to talk to us.”
In the meantime, Dennis scrambled to find a vehicle for the appropriation. He found a sympathetic ally in Representative John Hainkel of New Orleans, a fellow freshman who allowed one of his own bills to be “highjacked” and amended. By the time Dennis and Hainkel had hammered out a gentleman’s agreement, Bussie had returned to the House to retrieve Dennis for his meeting with the governor.
Riding the elevator to the Capitol’s fourth floor, home to the governor’s office, Dennis wondered if he would encounter Governor McKeithen or Big John — because the two were nothing alike. Upon entering McKeithen’s office, Dennis quickly realized he would contend with Big John that day. Greeting Dennis practically chest to chest, McKeithen looked down about a foot and a half into the lawmaker’s eyes while growling. “You gonna be a man or you gonna be a goose?” McKeithen bellowed. “You gonna vote for these taxes?”
Bussie grabbed the governor by the arm as quickly as he could. “Governor, no,” Bussie shouted. “Wait. We came to talk to you about something.”
The situation got sorted quickly. Without apology or further explanation, McKeithen agreed to the deal that Dennis had outlined to Bussie. The man who initially almost came to blows with Dennis was now all smiles. Not quite certain what had happened, but pleased nonetheless, Dennis followed Bussie to a Capitol elevator and rode quietly down to the House Chamber on the first floor.
“Mr. Dennis,” said a calm and cool Bussie, “you’ll have to excuse the governor. He’s taking some medication.”
“Okay,” replied Dennis, somewhat dumbstruck. “Okay.”
Both packages passed, but that was only the beginning of Dennis’ effort to draft a new constitution.
After the 1970 session adjourned, the Edwards campaign team saw Dennis’ commission as an avenue to electing delegates for a constitutional convention. McKeithen saw things differently, and he was still governor. Unwilling to wait for a convention, whose work likely wouldn’t be completed until after he left office (if it were completed at all), McKeithen made his move. He promoted a slate of 53 proposed constitutional amendments to reorganize state government; the amendments would appear on the ballot during the November 3 mid- term elections that year. It was a bold move, but McKeithen had authored constitutional convention legislation before, as a young state representative under Earl K. Long. During his first term as governor, he even convinced voters to amend the 1921 document to allow him to run for a second term in 1968. But on November 3, 1970, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly rejected all 53 proposed amendments, sending an unmistakable signal to McKeithen and lawmakers alike. They were fed up.
The morning after voters rejected McKeithen’s slate of amendments, a local reporter reached out to Dennis to get his reaction. He had heard his neighbors and friends grumbling the day before, but he didn’t realize that a wave of voter frustration approached Louisiana’s political shoreline. “I guess we need a new constitution,” Dennis told the reporter.
Those seven words found their way onto the Associated Press wire as part of a larger story. Suddenly, the need for another constitutional convention was a trending media topic, with Dennis at the epicenter. More interview requests from reporters rolled in, along with invitations for public speaking engagements.
In the weeks before the debacle of the 53 amendments, Dennis’ Constitutional Revision Commission began its work. For his part, Edwards watched mostly from afar. The commission was charged with preparing a revision to the Louisiana Constitution “in total or in part for submission to the Legislature.” It had 48 members, including 28 legislators selected by a variety of methods and 20 appointees to represent special interests. An organizational meeting convened on September 18, 1970, with then-House Speaker John Garrett serving as chairman. While many expressed optimism, some hardened politicos found the undertaking laughable. Ed Steimel, executive director of Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), ranked high among the chucklers. “They don’t have a Chinaman’s chance of doing much more than getting started in the first year,” Steimel told The Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge.
Steimel’s words proved prophetic. He may have uttered them out of concern that the commission’s proposal would first have to win legislative approval before submission to the voters. At the same time, the state chapter of the AFL-CIO came under fire from reporters for allegedly influencing who ultimately got appointed to the commission. State Representative E. L. “Bubba” Henry, for example, had asked AFL- CIO leaders to say a good word to Garrett for him. Like others, Henry wanted a seat on the commission — for what it was worth, he also wanted a seat at every table. Representing Jackson, Bienville, and Ouachita parishes, Henry was viewed as an up-and-comer in the House.
By Halloween 1970, dejected convention boosters found the commission only beginning to discuss an operational framework. Dennis was the only commission member who had any semblance of a plan, Henry and others noted at the time, and even then some commissioners found Dennis’ plan wanting. On multiple fronts, progress came slowly, if at all. The commission’s judiciary committee didn’t hold its first meeting until early December. “Months had passed since our Revision Commission was created and we were still in somewhat of a state of disorganization,” Henry wrote in an unpublished memoir. “The closer we got to the 1971 regular session, the more it appeared we would not have any proposals of significance ready for the Legislature.”
While keeping a safe distance from the inner workings of the commission, Edwards did get a few words on its official record. The congressman told members he preferred a cabinet form of government, via the Executive Branch, arguing it was a more effective style of administration. At that time, state government had more than 250 agencies, according to In Search of Fundamental Law: Louisiana’s Constitutions, 1812-1974. The bureaucrats who ran those agencies and departments, namely the governor, also made more than 1,200 appointments each term to keep them fully staffed.
The haphazard organization of state government was part of the legacies of Huey P. Long and Earl K. Long, the brothers who served as Louisiana governors at various times between 1928 and 1960. The duo couldn’t encounter a problem without prescribing a bureaucratic solution. They even created (or abolished) state departments and offices in order to punish political rivals, as happened during a feud between Earl Long and Secretary of State Wade O. Martin Jr. At the governor’s request, the Legislature stripped Martin’s office of its oversight of the insurance industry and the state’s elections. “Uncle Earl” subsequently created two new statewide positions, the commissioner of insurance and the custodian of voting machines. While such tactics proved politically expedient for the Brothers Long, they fell out of favor as Louisiana (slowly) modernized.
Edwards could speak at length on such matters, as he did before the commission, and politicos who watched him knew why. On December 18, 1970, Edwards stood before an assembled group of reporters at the Baton Rouge Press Club’s weekly luncheon and officially — finally — announced that he would run for governor the following year. Edwards had come a long way from the sharecropper’s cabin he called home in rural Avoyelles Parish, and he emphasized his humble roots in his announcement speech as he offered a message of unity.
Edwards: In the past, candidates for governor divided us, pitted the city dweller against the farmer, pit the black man against the white man, the young versus the old. But I believe the winds of change, the fresh winds of change that are going to blow across this state, are going to make it possible for a person such as I to be elected governor . . . without making the same old deals, selling the offices to the highest bidder, without making the promises to maintain the status quo.
An avid gambler who never shied from discussing his wins and losses, Edwards didn’t mind making the first bet. He deliberately timed his reveal so that his speech came exactly one year before the Democratic runoff. Though he was the first announced candidate, Edwards did not believe he could win the party nomination outright in a primary. Former Governor Jimmie Davis, a country and gospel music star who wanted a third term in the Governor’s Mansion he built, angled for a comeback but hadn’t announced. The same was true of Congressman Gillis Long, a vestige of the Long political dynasty who sought redemption after a heartbreakingly close third place finish in the 1964 governor’s race.
Meanwhile, the Constitution of 1921 now had 536 amendments. It had ballooned from a 40,200-word document in 1921 to more than 250,000 words by the close of 1970. Lawmakers routinely placed amendments on the ballot after proposed statutes failed to pass the Legislature; many considered constitutional amendments an easier means of enacting non-fundamental law. Several amendments that had been attached to the state Constitution were trivial at best, such as one naming the Huey P. Long Bridge just outside New Orleans, or decidedly local, such as one dividing sub-sewage districts in Jefferson Parish.
By January 1971, Edwards became convinced that voters wanted — and Louisiana needed — a significant restructuring of state government. He argued that the size and complexity of the state’s bureaucracy too easily allowed for corruption. Traveling often by plane, the Cajun candidate preached his plan in every corner of the state. Business groups, chambers of commerce, and Rotary Clubs, in particular, embraced his message. He took care, though, to explain that his plan shouldn’t be confused with recommendations that might soon appear on the ballot. Those ideas sprang from Representative Dennis’ Constitutional Revision Commission, Edwards reminded voters.
Early polls in 1971 showed Edwards as the most likely candidate to make the Democratic runoff against the race’s frontrunner, former Governor Jimmie Davis, a legendary figure whose “You Are My Sunshine” credit still had traction. Davis echoed Edwards’ anti- corruption message, but stopped short of calling for a restructuring of state government. Likewise, none of the other candidates in the race showed interest in Edwards’ proposed reforms, at least not initially. That changed in April 1971, when Democratic state Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Shreveport jumped into the contest. The two candidates couldn’t have been more different. Tall and rail-thin to Edwards’s youthful vigor, and bald to Edwards’ fashionable coif, Johnston’s typical blue, black, and gray suits telegraphed his conservative politics. His lumbering North Louisiana drawl likewise trumpeted his upstate roots and contrasted sharply with Edwards’ clipped Cajun accent.
Almost immediately, Johnston echoed Edwards’ vow to call a constitutional convention. Johnston’s entry, and his call for a convention, forced Edwards to share the mantle of reform. The move also gave business and industry groups, who favored the notion of another convention, a conservative alternative to Edwards. Many chose Johnston.
Johnston and Edwards could have wound up on the same ticket had earlier conversations gone differently. “We had a casual conversation about my running for lieutenant governor on Edwards’ ticket,” Johnston said, referring to the months leading up to his announcement for governor. “The offer was not extended, and I didn’t push him. It was just a casual conversation.”
As summer turned to fall in 1971, the young reformers battled it out — Johnston’s reserved approach to diplomacy versus Edwards’ catch-me-if-you-can style of personality politics. Just as it seemed as if neither man could cut into the other’s base, Louisiana’s former singing governor and his comeback bid suffered a mortal blow.
Revelations about Davis accepting checks from state contractors all but shuttered his campaign operation and created long-awaited openings for Edwards and Johnston. Davis’ perceived demise helped some voters — not many — refocus on what the two leading Democrats had hoped to make the central issue of their campaigns: a constitutional convention to right the wrongs of the 1921 charter and reverse the decades of corruption practiced by the Brothers Long and other bygone politicos.
Davis’ exit from relevancy came at an opportune time for Edwards and Johnson. Voters and the media already saw the former governor as a relic from an unseemly era in Louisiana politics. Now the conversation could finally turn to the future, or so it seemed. Calls for another constitutional convention, coming less than a year after Dennis’ commission dissolved, didn’t exactly dominate the front pages of Louisiana’s newspapers or inspire lunchroom (or barroom) debates. The frontrunners actually agreed on that one, in fact. “We had two debates, one television debate and one radio debate, and I don’t think the issue came up in either one,” Johnston recalled years later.
Edwards faced 17 opponents in the Democratic primary of November 6, 1971. He led the pack with 23.5 percent of the vote to Johnston’s 17.7 percent, thanks to the wily Cajun’s enormous popularity in Acadiana and significant support among African-American voters (a bloc he split with Gillis Long in that primary). In its analysis of the race, the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate noted the significance of an Edwards- Johnston runoff, declaring, “It is time for many new things, including the putting together of a new constitution.”
Outgoing Governor McKeithen, on the other hand, scoffed at the convention proposals of Edwards and Johnston. “There are not too many reforms left that they can put into effect,” he told reporters.
In one respect, their shared support for a new constitution gave voters and historians a snapshot of the stylistic differences between Edwards and Johnston. “I had one ad where I talked about how Louisiana government is like a spaghetti bowl, with all of the different agencies — I forget how many there were at the time,” Johnston said years later. “There were so many agencies and so many dedicated funds that you could really not make sense of the government. As it happened, Edwin Edwards picked up on that spaghetti ad and said, ‘Johnston is anti-Italian.’”
Edwards and Johnston went on to duke it out in one of the closest statewide elections in Louisiana history on December 18, 1971, with the Cajun winning the Democratic runoff by less than 4,500 votes (584,262 to 579,774 ). The general election followed on February 1, 1972 — seemingly miles and ages away from the Crowley City Council chamber and the Lotus Club in Monroe. With an overlooked campaign promise to call a constitutional convention, and a personality that overshadowed practically everything else, Edwards easily defeated Republican David Treen by a margin of 57.2 percent to 42.8 percent.
Speaking to PAR members shortly after his victory and prior to his inauguration, Edwards hinted at the changes and challenges to come. He struck a tone that pro-convention allies wanted to hear, and that opponents wanted to ignore. “Reform is around the corner,” Edwards said in one of his first public appearances as the governor-elect. “Either you lead or you follow, or you stand aside. Because it’s not going to stay the same.”
Yet Edwards’ mission would soon prove more difficult than anticipated. Following his election, the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, a major force in Louisiana politics, issued a statement to The State-Times that shook convention supporters to their core. Edwards’ inner circle already knew what was coming. Union officials floated the argument that a convention would take too much time and the state didn’t have the money for such an undertaking. Plus, voters had once again rejected an entire slate of proposals, this time from Representative Dennis’ Constitutional Revision Commission — on the same ballot that lifted Edwards.
In defeat, Johnston was unimpressed by the AFL-CIO’s tack. During the campaign, he had voiced concern about the growing influence of labor unions and the hold their leaders had on the political process. “I attacked the power of Victor Bussie,” Johnston said later of the AFL-CIO's legendary president. “He was on so many commissions that he was de facto running the state.”
Johnston may have been right about labor’s outsized influence, but the damage to Edwards’ push for a convention hit like a blunt instrument just as the governor-elect was hoping to make good on his biggest campaign promise. AFL-CIO legislative liaison L. G. Morgan’s statement to The State-Times contained just three words.
“We’re against it.”