Stephanie Grace: Helping people isn’t going out of style for John Bel Edwards

By 2007, Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards’ sort already was going out of style.

Democrats who fit his general profile — white, rural, conservative on social issues — were switching to the GOP in droves. Yet Edwards, who won his first term in the state House that year, says he never even considered making the switch. And as he prepares to take the oath of office Monday, that fact provides an important window into his approach to politics and governing.

Unlike many areas formerly represented by Democrats, Edwards’ district is majority black and generally supportive of Democratic candidates in national elections. So in a sense, he was never a prime candidate to bolt. But in an interview last month, the incoming governor made it clear that his party preference isn’t just a product of inertia.

Asked why he’s a Democrat, Edwards had this to say:

“Well, because I still believe that government has a role to play in improving people’s lives. And that you can’t do everything for everybody, both because it’s inappropriate and because it costs too much, but within reason, we ought to be helping people have a better life. And I don’t believe in a laissez faire approach to that.”

And despite the state’s decidedly Republican voting patterns in recent years, not to mention the Legislature’s GOP majority, Edwards said one lesson from his surprise victory is that he’s pretty mainstream.

“We are an extremely populist state, but there are some bellwether issues,” he said. “If you’re not pro-life and if you’re not pro-Second Amendment, too many people in Louisiana will not hear the rest of your message. And so you can be 100 percent in sync with them, but they’re never going to support you. And it just so happens that I am pro-life; I am pro-Second Amendment. I’m very populist in some ways as well. And that message was successful.”

What that means in terms of policy is clearest in Edwards’ first major initiative, his plan to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage to some 300,000 working-poor Louisianans, a 180-degree turnaround from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s approach. Jindal always focused on Medicaid’s shortcomings, the cost of providing a state match and his general opposition to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and rarely mentioned the patients left without insurance. Edwards’ language couldn’t be more different.

“I believe, at the end of the day, people accept the idea that we ought to extend the Medicaid program,” he said, “because we’re taking care of people.” And by the way, he insisted, the idea of accepting Louisiana’s tax dollars back rather than standing by while other states do so is a “conservative” approach.

Other ideas Edwards champions also fit the populist approach. He wants to raise the state minimum wage to $8.50, $1.25 over the federal level, and disputes claims that most people who make the base amount are teenagers. His poster child is a single mom who works at a gas station, has to maintain a household and has to feed a family. The next time you fill up the tank and buy snacks, he suggested, look at the person behind the counter and ask, “How long would she have had to work to do what you just did?”

This philosophy colors his views on other major issues as well, including where the administration will seek badly needed revenue to balance budgets for this year and next. Edwards said he knows business interests are concerned they’ll bear the brunt and said he’s willing to work with them, but he also noted regular folks have faced increased costs during the Jindal years, from higher college tuition to higher fees. Later in the interview, Edwards volunteered that one of the things he hopes to accomplish by the end of his term is to make a dent in reducing poverty.

Yet despite his comfort with the D behind his name, Edwards still distances himself somewhat from the national party. He’s traveled to Washington to consult with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell but has yet to talk to the president. Asked his view of Obama, he took care to note their differences on abortion, guns and energy policy. But he also expressed sympathy and cast Obama’s governing woes as something of a cautionary tale.

“I will tell you that he inherited an awful mess, and he is not given due credit for some of the things that he’s done to put us in a position where we’ve had however many months of consecutive job growth,” Edwards said. “The situation in Congress is completely dysfunctional. And one of my main goals as governor is to make sure that we never resemble Washington, D.C. We cannot get to the point where everybody goes to their corner and they never talk, never compromise, never find common ground.”

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.

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