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Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards

There are said to be several truths in Louisiana politics. One is that an honest politician is one who stays bought. Another is that politics is theater, and there is always demand for an encore.

Writing nearly forty years ago, New Yorker correspondent A. J. Liebling called Louisiana "the westernmost of the Arab states" and said the state's politics were "of an intensity and complexity that are matched, in my experience, only in the republic of Lebanon." 

Liebling was writing about Louisiana while Earl Long, Huey's younger brother, was governor. Earl Long once offered this advice on Louisiana politics: "Don't write anything you can phone. Don't phone anything you can talk. Don't talk anything you can whisper. Don't whisper anything you can smile. Don't smile anything you can nod. Don't nod anything you can wink." 

Huey Long, in one of his more immortal remarks, once said in a speech at Louisiana State University: "People say I steal. Well, all politicians steal. I steal. But a lot of what I stole has spilled over in no-toll bridges, hospitals . . . and to build this university." 

Louisiana is our most exotic state. It is religious and roguish, a place populated by Cajuns, Creoles, Christian Conservatives, rednecks, African Americans, and the white working-class New Orleanians known as "Yats." While northern Louisiana is mostly Protestant and conservative, southern Louisiana, settled by French Catholics, is noted for its love of good food, good music, and good times. Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler -- Let the Good Times Roll -- is the unofficial motto. Louisiana is rich in outrageous stories and colorful characters. It is notably poor in the realm of political ethics. As Richard Leche, governor during the late 1930s, put it, "When I took the oath of office, I didn't take a vow of poverty." Leche's approach to governance landed him in jail, convicted of bribery charges. 

Over the past thirty years, Louisiana has seen a parade of elected officials convicted of crimes. The list includes a governor, an attorney general, an elections commissioner, an agriculture commissioner, three successive insurance commissioners, a congressman, a federal judge, a State Senate president, six other state legislators, and a host of appointed officials, local sheriffs, city councilmen, and parish police jurors (who are the equivalent of county commissioners). Of the eight men and women elected to statewide office in 1991, three -- Governor Edwin Edwards, elections commissioner Jerry Fowler, and insurance commissioner Jim Brown -- were later convicted of crimes. The FBI said more people -- sixty-six -- were indicted on public-corruption charges in Louisiana in 1999 than in any other state. Public corruption was the Louisiana FBI's top priority, and would remain so for the foreseeable future. 

One reason may be that throughout its history, Louisiana has been ripe for domination by political and economic elites. A succession of French and Spanish rulers plundered Louisiana. After they relinquished control to Americans, large plantation owners -- growing primarily sugar and cotton -- exploited slave and then sharecropping labor. Lumber barons, financial houses, and railroad interests gained power in the early 1900s, giving way, beginning in the 1920s, to those who controlled the leasing and production rights to oil and natural gas. No matter who held power after Louisiana became a state, following a model established by the French and Spanish colonial rulers, decision making was centralized, giving the governor and elected officials enormous influence. This created plenty of opportunities for bribes and public corruption. 

One native summed it up this way. "We're just not genetically disposed to handle money," lamented political consultant James Carville, who was from Carville, Louisiana. "We ought to bring in the legislature from another state -- maybe Wisconsin or Minnesota -- to handle our money. In return, we'll handle the cooking and entertainment for them. They'll handle our fiscal oversight, and we'll handle their cultural matters." 

In the 1990s, the potential for corruption would prove even more alluring in the Bayou State. From 1990 to 1992, Louisiana legalized a statewide lottery; a land casino in New Orleans that promised to be the world's largest gambling hall; fifteen floating casinos on lakes and rivers; and video poker machines in bars, restaurants, and highway truck stops throughout Louisiana. The owners of these cash businesses would turn to politicians to get an operating license, win a zoning variance, or have the competition stifled. Gambling and Louisiana would prove to be an incendiary mix. 

In legalizing gambling, Louisiana was jumping on a bandwagon that swept the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. From 1974 to 2000, the number of states with casinos rose from one (Nevada) to eleven, states with lotteries went from fourteen to thirty-seven (plus the District of Columbia), states with Indian-run gambling increased from zero to twenty-seven, and states with state-regulated video poker or video lotteries went from zero to nine. In 1999, Americans lost $ 58.2 billion of what they bet, or more than what they spent altogether on movie tickets, recorded music, theme parks, spectator sports, and video games. 

With the gambling explosion came political corruption. Two former West Virginia State Senate presidents were convicted of taking payoffs from gambling interests, seven Arizona legislators were caught taking money in exchange for voting for gambling, Missouri's House speaker of fifteen years resigned in the wake of a federal investigation into gambling-related dealings, the former House speaker in Florida went to prison in part for not paying taxes on income from Bally Entertainment, and one of Atlantic City's mayors since the advent of legalized gambling there went to prison on gambling-related charges. 

But no state came close to matching Louisiana in this area. 

Overseeing the legalization of gambling in Louisiana in the 1990s would be a unique individual, and he would certainly have a unique challenge. Some called him the "Last Great American Populist." Others knew him as the "Cajun King." Still others called him the "Silver Zipper." His name was Edwin Washington Edwards, and from 1992 to 1996, he would serve a fourth term as Louisiana's governor. He had first moved into the Governor's Mansion in 1971, and for the next twenty-five years, he flaunted his fondness for easy cash, pretty women, and high-stakes gambling as he dominated Louisiana's politics and used his razor-sharp mind and catlike reflexes to stay one step ahead of the law. 

Bad Bet on the Bayou tells the story of what happened when Louisiana legalized gambling in the 1990s under Governor Edwards. It is the tale of what happened when the most corrupt industry came to our most corrupt state, under a governor who reveled in a catch-me-if-you-can philosophy. 

But the seeds of what happened during the 1990s were sown much earlier. Louisiana is a pro-gambling state, so the only question throughout its checkered history has been whether the wagering was wide-open or undercover. 

To a remarkable degree, the political and social history of Louisiana is intertwined with gambling. Two games of chance that were invented in Europe -- craps and poker -- were popularized in Louisiana during the nineteenth century before spreading throughout the rest of the country. Gambling flourished on riverboats operating out of New Orleans during the twenty-five years that preceded the Civil War. 

The biggest gambling scandal in the country's history occurred in the Bayou State during the post-Civil War era. From the 1930s to the 1960s, numerous Louisiana politicians allowed the mob to operate slot machines and casinos, in exchange for payoffs. Two twentieth-century governors -- Earl Long and Edwin Edwards -- have been gambling addicts. Then, after nearly a hundred years of illegal gambling following the shutdown of the state lottery in 1892, Louisiana in the 1990s plunged headlong into legalized gambling. Today, gambling once again is the state's dominant political issue. 

Indeed, gambling in Louisiana is older than the state itself. When the original French settlers in the eighteenth century were building a colony in the swamp -- which today is the French Quarter -- Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, New Orleans's founder, had to intervene frequently to stop illegal games of chance. The French and the Spanish alternately owned and ruled Louisiana from 1699 to 1803. Throughout these 104 years of control, Louisiana residents enjoyed games of chance unencumbered by the moral concerns of the Puritans and Anglicans who settled the northeastern United States. By 1810, seven years after Thomas Jefferson bought most of modern-day Louisiana from Napoleon, New Orleans was a freewheeling port, and the city had more gambling halls than New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore combined. In an 1820 letter to the Baltimore Chronicle, a recent visitor to the Crescent City wrote, "I was in New Orleans but a very short time. I saw but little and heard sufficient to convince me that gambling and sensual pleasures were practiced to such a degree to destroy domestic happiness and tranquility." Gambling was illegal but thrived behind closed doors. By 1823, New Orleans officials had decided to legalize gambling and make money off of it. Reasoning that "we should compel the devil to pay tribute to virtue," they set up six "gambling temples," each of which paid $ 5,000 a year to help underwrite the city's Charity Hospital and the College of Orleans. John Davis Sr., impresario of the Opera House, opened the first sumptuous casino in New Orleans in 1827. It was at the corner of Orleans and Bourbon Streets in the French Quarter. 

By then, Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a New Orleanian, had introduced the game of craps to America. Marigny, born in 1785, was the son of a rich Creole planter. When his father died, Marigny, at sixteen, became so wild that his guardian shipped him to England with the hope that life among the British might improve his manners. Instead, Marigny spent most of his time gambling. His particular favorite was a new French game called "hazard." After returning home, Marigny taught it to his Creole friends.

Excerpted from BAD BET ON THE BAYOU © Copyright 2001 by Tyler Bridges. Reprinted with permission from Farrar Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved.

Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards
by by Tyler Bridges

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374108307
  • ISBN-13: 9780374108304