IBEW-Backed Candidate Wins La. Governor's Race; Member Named Chief of Staff [Updated]

State Rep. John Bel Edwards won the Louisiana governor’s race walking away. The IBEW-backed Edwards was an unknown from rural Tangipahoa parish when he declared his candidacy. After the votes were counted Nov. 21 he had beat U.S. Sen. David Vitter by 13 points.

 Edwards is the first Democrat to win statewide office in Louisiana since 2008. The day after his victory, Edwards named State Sen. Ben Nevers -- a 50-year IBEW member and past business manager of Bogalusa Local 1077 – as his chief of staff.

“This is an extremely big step,” said Fifth District International Vice President Joseph Davis. “We were on board with Gov.-Elect Edwards from before he announced because he has always been a friend to the IBEW and working people. He did nothing less than change the conversation about unions in Louisiana and possibly the South.”

Edwards is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and he served in the U.S Army as an airborne Ranger, culminating with command of a rifle company in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is pro-life, a hunter and has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.

Vitter, on the other hand, was plagued by his involvement in a prostitution scandal in 2007 and the unpopularity of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was termed out.

Jindal leaves office with the state in freefall, facing a $500 million budget shortfall this year, and that gap is expected to balloon to $1 billion next year. Jindal exacerbated the fiscal crisis by refusing to raise taxes and pushing through tax cuts and corporate tax giveaways that shrank government revenues just as Katrina aid money was ending and low oil prices dropped the bottom out from beneath the state’s oil industry.

“He has not been honest with the people of Louisiana in terms of his own budgeting,” Edwards said. “He talks about the budget in ways that are just demonstrably false.”

Edwards at times looked to be running against Vitter and Jindal. In many of his speeches he pledged: "I will be honest with you. I will never embarrass you."

The honest remark seemed targeted at Jindal. No embarrassment was a direct hit against Vitter.

State Sen. Ben Nevers -- a 50-year IBEW member and past business manager of Bogalusa Local 1077 – has been named Gov.-elect Edwards’ chief of staff.

“It was great to have a candidate we didn’t have to make excuses for,” said Jason Dedon, political director for Baton Rouge Local 995. “We live in a state that down the line is doing what conservatives want, but we are worse off. People may have believed that there needed to be a change, but weren’t comfortable with the people bringing that message. Edwards suggests a way forward.”

The difference, Dedon said, was that, in the past, moderate Democrats, known as Blue Dogs, were socially liberal and economically indistinguishable from the Republicans. Former Rep. Charlie Melancon who ran against and lost to Vitter in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, was Dedon’s prime example.

“All of Vitter’s past was still there in 2010. The lies. The deceit. But Charlie Melancon was a classic Blue Dog and Vitter destroyed him. He had no chance,” Dedon said. “But when you have a candidate whose views you can get behind it shines a brighter spotlight on the stuff you don’t like.”

IBEW Political Director Ann Miller agreed that it was difficult to say which was more effective, the message, or the messenger.

“He is rock solid and people responded to that, but he was also out front about being a union candidate,” Miller said. “It sends a great message for 2016 that with right candidate and right message, working families can win and elect champions.”

A prime example of Edwards as champion, Dedon said, was his response to a hallmark of the Jindal governorship: blaming teachers. 

“Jindal vilified teachers. If we had a truancy problem, it was teachers. Not enough kids going to college: teachers. If the state was in debt, it was the union teachers and Democrats were either silent or piled on,” Dedon said.

But not Edwards.

“He just stood in front of the room and said everyone had teachers that inspired them and changed our lives. Everyone thought of their Miss so-and-so and you could see it go through the crowd. The problem is not teachers, he said, it’s giving money away to huge corporations,” Dedon said. “He made it personal. He made it look easy- and I think that can be replicated.”

Daniels said he sees signs that the message is growing across the South.

“The locals in Louisiana decided to commit a lot of time and money to show that unions aren’t a bunch of thugs with cigars. We are little league coaches, we’re a part of the community,” Davis said. “We see real hope in Edwards’ message and we have high hopes for the Florida senate race and statewide elections in Georgia next year.”

Dedon said the IBEW’s highest priorities for Louisiana are moving a bill that would establish a state license for electricians and repealing a law that outlawed project labor agreements whenever any state money was used to fund construction. Edwards, and Nevers, supported both ideas in the state legislature.

“If he has a successful run -- and it won’t be too hard to see success given how awful Jindal was -- we will a have good message and record to go with it. In two years we will have some people we can run in the legislature that will support his ideas and agenda because he proved that it was safe for candidates who believe like he does,” Dedon said. “I am hoping that this changes everything.”

[In the original version of this story State Senator Ben Nevers was misidentified as a State Representative.]