BATON ROUGE, La. — It was 2012 and Louisiana was headed toward a historic budget crisis, with public colleges bracing for a new round of budget cuts that campus leaders said would drive students away and cut programs.
John Bel Edwards, then national state representative, had had enough. He turned to a fellow lawmaker and said, “I'm running for governor.”
The Democrat went on to shock the country, defying near-universal predictions and twice winning Louisiana's gubernatorial elections in the reliably red state.
Edwards, currently the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, has reached his last two days as president after eight years. His tenure was marked by successes — expanding Medicaid, joining climate change initiatives, overcoming a budget deficit and investing in education — while navigating historic crises and facing challenges from a Republican Party-dominated Legislature.
Ten years ago, Edwards, a lawyer from a town of 4,000 in eastern Louisiana, had little name recognition as he campaigned for governor with a bare-bones team. Campaign strategists say a number of factors led to the longshot candidate's victories: a scandal-plagued Republican opponent, Edwards' military background and religious conservatism that attracted Republican voters, and strong Democratic turnout among black voters.
Edwards' first act as governor — which he has described as the “easiest big decision” he made while in office — was to expand Medicaid. More than 440,000 working, poor and non-elderly adults enrolled within the first budget year, and Louisiana's uninsured rate fell from 22.7% to 9.4%.
Edwards took office in crisis mode and inherited a financial mess with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. The state has improved dramatically financially, with an estimated $2.2 billion in additional revenue during last year's legislative session.
Financial problems weren't the only crisis Edwards faced in his first year: There were fatal floods, the shooting of Alton Sterling — a black man killed by police — that sparked unrest and an ambush-style attack that left three officers dead.
During Edwards' tenure, there were about 50 state disaster declarations and 21 federal disasters — from hurricanes, wildfires, threats to New Orleans' drinking water supply to COVID-19. The West Point graduate says his Army experience influenced the way he managed crises, using timely and accurate information to formulate strategy and apply tactics.
Early in the pandemic, Edwards and Republicans — including Governor-elect Jeff Landry — came together in a bipartisan plea for people to do their part to prevent the spread of the virus. It was a rare truce at a time of deep political division across the country.
Although a Democrat, Edwards' views on abortion and moderate pro-gun positions appealed to some Republicans. Edwards said former President Donald Trump urged the governor to switch parties prior to his 2019 re-election.
Edwards remained a Democrat and in return Trump traveled to Louisiana to unite against him. Edwards won re-election.
Working across the aisle with a Republican supermajority also proved challenging and sometimes unsuccessful. Edwards used his veto power — at one point blocking a bill that would ban transgender athletes from competing on girls' sports teams. In rare instances, lawmakers overrode two of the governor's vetoes — by signing into law a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors and by overturning Edwards' blocking of a new congressional map that lacked a second majority-black district to make.
Lawmakers also halted a slew of Edwards' goals, including raising the minimum age and abolishing the death penalty.
Perhaps one of the biggest moments of investigation into Edwards came after the fatal arrest of Black motorist Ronald Greene in 2019. The Legislature formed a commission to investigate the death and to see if the governor was complicit in a cover-up by troopers . However, lawmakers abandoned their work in June without providing any findings or hearing from the governor, despite Edwards saying he was willing to testify.
Throughout his time in office, Edwards has maintained strong public approval ratings, continually pledging to put people above politics.
In the Deep South State, which is on the front line for the impacts of climate change, Edwards has put Louisiana on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Although Louisiana has tens of thousands of jobs related to the oil and gas industry, efforts to expand Louisiana's renewable energy industry have come to the forefront during the Edwards administration.
Edwards cannot run for re-election due to running for consecutive terms. He will leave office on Monday to work at a law firm in New Orleans, where he will focus on securing renewable energy deals with the state.
Edwards says he has “no intention” of running for political office in the future, but he hasn't completely ruled it out. For now, the governor said he is optimistic about Louisiana's future and ready to go home.