Edwin Edwards on Austin, Perry and the evolution of ‘coonass’

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, left, gave a proclamation Monday (Aug. 4, 2014) to former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards during an appearance at the Headliners Club. Photo courtesy of the Edwin Edwards campaign for Congress.

Good day Austin:

Before I begin, today’s First Reading includes the latest poster from the Texas-born, L.A. street artist SABO, who last week used Gov. Perry’s mug shot to produce the Rick Perry Wanted for President 2016 poster (“If looking good’s a crime, then baby I’m guilty”).

It came over the transom last night.

As I explained in the last First Reading, I have been watching the dramatic events in Austin from a remove – New Orleans – where I delivered my daughter to college. I am headed back to Austin today, but before leaving Louisiana I spoke Saturday with former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who, after a long stint in prison, is now running for Congress.

The latest poster from the L.A. street artist SABO

The latest poster from the L.A. street artist SABO

Edwards was also recently in Austin.

Here from Lilly Rockwell’s story in the Statesman:

Edwin Edwards, former governor of Louisiana, served an eight-year prison term for bribery and extortion.

But Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell isn’t holding that against him.

Instead, he’s honoring Edwards, declaring Thursday as “Edwin Edwards Day.” Leffingwell gave the proclamation to the ex-con now running for Congress at a Monday luncheon in Austin with some of Edwards’ supporters.

“I’m fully aware of his past, good and bad,” Leffingwell told the American-Statesman. He said Edwards was a “nice fellow” and that Thursday is Edwards’ birthday.

Edwards, 86, is a polarizing and colorful figure in Louisiana. He started his political career as a congressman in 1965 and went on to serve four non-consecutive terms as governor between 1972 and 1996.

He went to prison in 2002 after being convicted of an assortment of charges — which included bribery, racketeering, extortion and fraud — involving a riverboat casino licensing scandal. Edwards was released from prison in 2011.

His political obituaries had long ago been written, so it stunned many Louisiana residents when he decided to re-enter politics earlier this year by running for Congress. Edwards, a Democrat, was barred by state law from running for governor for 15 years because of his felony conviction.

Equally stunning was Leffingwell’s decision to honor him, said several Louisiana natives now living in Austin.

Or as Ken Herman put it in a subsequent column:

Two questions come to mind about Gov. Edwin Edwards Day: 1. What was Leffingwell thinking? 2. Was Leffingwell thinking?

I asked Edwards what he thought about the proclamation.

“I was very flattered and naturally very pleased. I’ve had those things showered on me over the years, but this was after I got out of prison so it was something extra special to me and I do appreciate it and I was not surprised to learn that the mayor can’t run for re-election.”

Edwards has spent a lot of time in Austin over the years.

“I used to have a condo in Lakeway back in the middle Sixties.  I taught my children to water ski on Lake Travis.”

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, left, gave a proclamation Monday (Aug. 4, 2014) to former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards during an appearance at the Headliners Club. Photo courtesy of the Edwin Edwards campaign for Congress.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, left, gave a proclamation Monday (Aug. 4, 2014) to former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards during an appearance at the Headliners Club. Photo courtesy of the Edwin Edwards campaign for Congress.

Of the proclamation, he said he had never met Leffingwell before, but, “I have a friend here who is very wealthy who does a lot of business in Austin and he knows the political figures in Austin and he was the one who arranged it.”

He said his friend had already suggested he come to Austin in the hopes that he might raise some money for his campaign for Congress. Edwin Edwards Day was “lagniappe” – a bonus gift.

“I just felt very good about it. While it didn’t do much good for my campaign, in the sense that I didn’t pick up any votes, I did end up with some contributions and I also got some good publicity here from my own (Louisiana) media because they were surprised and it made for good copy.”

As for the identity of his friend, Edwards said, “He’s very influential and he’s very wealthy and he’s very shy and I’ll just leave him out of it.”

At the Austin luncheon, Edwards said, “We spent a lot of time talking about the district attorney who has been much in the news lately.”

“I don’t know her, I’ve never met her but I watch the news and she has been much in the news lately,” said Edwards.

He spent most of Perry’s long tenure as governor in prison.

“I really don’t know much about him,” Edwards said.

Of the indictment, he said, “I don’t know about in Texas but here the governor has almost unrestricted power to veto. The Legislature can override it.”

Edwards said he couldn’t evaluate whether the governor made “threats” that violated state law, but he figured that both Perry and District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg knew the ins and outs of the law.

Edwards presumed that it was Lehmberg who brought the case against Perry. Informed that the case was brought by a special prosecutor named by a Republican judge from San Antonio, Edwards said, “I’m not aware of that. That puts a different light on it – a special prosecutor appointed by a Republican judge. That takes away the vindictiveness.

There’s no shame in being a little fuzzy on the details of the indictment.

As the Statesman’s J. David McSwane reported from New Hampshire this weekend, Gov. Perry seems a little fuzzy on those details as well.

Perry brushed off his indictment by a Travis County grand jury last week on charges of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant — at one point mistakenly characterizing one of the charges as bribery.

“I’m not a lawyer,” Perry said during a luncheon in Portsmouth with about 50 local business leaders. “So I don’t really understand the details.”

What Edwards does know is that prosecutors can be relentless in pursuit of their prey.

“I’ve heard that.”

But he said he didn’t have any advice for Gov. Perry.

“No, I wouldn’t presume to give him any advice. I’m sure he’s up on the law and has adequate legal counsel. I’ll just leave it at that point.”

Finally, I asked Edwards about the recent controversy over State Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s use of the word “coonass” at a public hearing.

Here from what I wrote at the time:

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s use of the word “coonass” in reference to Louisiana Cajuns at a Capitol hearing this week has sparked cries of outrage in Texas and Louisiana — as well as counter-cries of outrage that anyone is truly outraged by the use of a term that can be a slur, a term of affection or a badge of honor, depending on who says it to whom, where they say it and how it’s said.

Suffice it to say that the Angleton Republican regrets using the colloquialism.

xxxxxx

Bonnen was trying to make the point toward the end of a five-hour hearing Tuesday of the special Texas House committee assessing the fiscal impact of the state’s border operations, that it may prove more expensive to educate newly arrived Central American students entering Texas schools speaking only Spanish than it was to educate Louisianans who arrived in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with a command of English — albeit sometimes with a distinctive lilt and syntax.

“I want to be clear – a Katrina child is far different,” Bonnen, chairman of the committee, said to David Anderson, general counsel of the Texas Education Agency. “We can make jokes and pick on Louisiana and it’s fun and all that, but it’s a hell of a lot different bringing a kid over from Louisiana than a child who’s just made a treacherous journey.”

And then this from Bonnen: “There’s a significant difference. We had to have a teacher who could do coonass in English, but here we have to do Spanish and English, maybe, and there’s a higher marker.”

As Lauren McGaughy reported in the Houston Chronicle, Bonnen ran afoul of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, which, McGaughy wrote, is “a state agency under the control of the office of Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, a Republican running for governor in 2015.” (And recently indicating that none other than Dave Carney will be managing his campaign in a race in which Sen. David Vitter is the early frontrunner.)

“We respectfully request that you refrain from engaging in the use and promotion of this slang. To continue to do so would be a violation of applicable federal and state laws and a personal affront to many people of Louisiana,” said Warren A. Perrin, a board member on the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, in a Thursday letter to Bonnen.

“If you do not agree to cease in the promotion of the pejorative, it may be necessary for us to take legal action which may include filing a claim with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,” Perrin added.

I asked Edwards what he made of all this.

“Over here, if you use it and smile, it’s OK, but if you use it in degrading way, it’s not. Frankly I used to use the term but I’ve tried to moderate my language because I’m one of them as a Cajun, and I just avoid the controversy.”

“It really didn’t develop into a controversy until about 1971, 1972,” said Edwards. The popular history, he said, is “that it was a bastardization of the word `connasse,’ which is the French word for a cheap whore, that was applied to Cajun soldiers in French during World War II, and stuck.

But, said Edwards, “I have a different version. When Andrew Jackson was here for the Battle of 1812, after the battle was over with, his soldiers and he stayed in New Orleans a little while and they were very abusive and typical soldiers after a victory and they offended a lot of the citizenry in New Orleans and those guys came down here wearing coonskin hats with a tail on the back of it, and when those soldiers were kidding each other and having a fight, they referred to each other as `coonass’ because they were wearing coonskin caps. And after they left the local gentry picked up the reference `coonass’ whenever they were attempting to insult their fellow citizens. It may be apocryphal but that is one of the stories I grew up with because I am almost positive that I heard the expression a long time before World War II came.”

Whatever its derivation, Edwards said, “If is not said with the right inflection or if it’s said with some angry or mean purpose, then it’s very offensive. On the other hand, it’s kind of a term of endearment among friends,” though, “there’s very little use of the word now, because it does create a controversy.”

But, Edwards said, he is not personally offended by it.

“What people call me doesn’t bother me one way or the other and I guess you’d have to go to some foreign language to find some word that hasn’t been used against me.”