Louisiana public says goodbye to former Gov. Edwin Edwards

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Mourners steadily filed by the flag-draped open casket of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards on Saturday, saying their farewells at a public viewing in the marble-trimmed main hall of the state Capitol where the powerful and flamboyant politician served 16 years.

Edwards was the only person elected four times as Louisiana’s governor during a career of remarkable highs and lows. The quick-witted politician dominated the state’s politics for decades, but a corruption scandal sent him to federal prison for about eight years after he left office.

That prison term, however, wasn’t front of mind to those who came to say their goodbyes to Louisiana’s most prominent and charismatic elected official since firebrand populist Huey Long was governor and U.S. senator in the 1930s.

“I couldn’t miss it,” said Kevin Hagan, 30, a one-time political science student who drove from New Orleans for Edwards’ public memorial event. “You cannot study Louisiana politics without studying Edwin Edwards, the good, the bad, the indifferent. The history of this state cannot be told without telling the story of Edwin Edwards.”

Angela Smothers, 65, a retired substitute teacher, also traveled the 80 miles (128.75 kilometers) from New Orleans to the state’s capital city to see the Democratic former governor one last time.

“I believe in what he stood for. He helped a lot of poor people,” she said. “He related to his constituents.”

Edwards died Monday of respiratory problems at his home in Gonzales, a suburb of Baton Rouge, at age 93.

“He was the best governor in my lifetime. He was for the people. That’s the main thing. He was for the people. He wasn’t just a politician,” said Wilfred Naquin, 73, a retired firefighter who lives an hour away in Independence. “You couldn’t help for loving him.”

Naquin visually demonstrated the unusual coalitions of support Edwards built during his lifetime. A registered Republican, Naquin wore an Edwards campaign T-shirt and a Trump 2020 ballcap.

He arrived four hours before the visitation event was open to the public, expecting long lines and a packed mass of people waiting to get in. But after an initial crowd of a few hundred cycled past the casket, visitors thinned to a steady trickle. The mourners were diverse, including people who never met Edwards personally, lawmakers, former elected officials and his closest political allies.

U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, a Democrat who served in the Louisiana Legislature during one of Edwards’ terms, described the former governor as “just someone that you could never question his love of the people of Louisiana.”

Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, who lived in the same Gonzales neighborhood as Edwards, personally managed the memorial events, arranged the display and stood in Memorial Hall between the Louisiana House and Senate chambers as visitors arrived.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who is not related to Edwin Edwards, was among the first to pay his respects to the former governor’s family — before the public and media were allowed inside the vast, ornate hall where the casket rested on the Louisiana state seal.

Edwin Edwards’ wife, Trina, more than 50 years his junior, and their 7-year-old son Eli — the ex-governor’s fifth child — returned to the visitation area once it was opened to the public, and Edwards’ other children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren mingled with mourners as well.

Large bouquets of flowers, a row of Louisiana and American flags and photos documenting Edwards with prominent politicians, on the campaign trail and with his family, lined the path around the casket. Visitors received a commemorative card with Edwards’ photo and bearing one of his quotes: “I tried to help as many people as I could and I hope I did that, and I hope, if I did, that they will help others too. I love Louisiana, and I always will.”

Edwards drew praise for leading a push for a new state constitution and bringing Black people into state government in the 1970s. But he also was frequently touched by accusations of wrongdoing.

By his own count, Edwards was the subject of two dozen investigations. He was tried and acquitted on corruption charges in the 1980s during his third term. He was convicted in 2000 for a bribery and extortion scheme to rig Louisiana’s riverboat casino licensing process during his fourth term.

On Sunday, a state police honor guard is to carry Edwards’ casket down the Capitol steps to a horse-drawn carriage. The Southern University Marching Band will lead a funeral procession along a roughly 1 mile (1.6 kilometer) route to the Old State Capitol, built in the 1800s, for a private funeral for family and invited guests.

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AP reporter Kevin McGill contributed to this report from New Orleans.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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