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In November 2015, John Bel Edwards pulled off what’s become an increasingly rare feat for a Democrat: He won the governor’s mansion in a southern state dominated by Republicans. Despite the political headwinds of a comfortable Republican majority in both houses of the Louisiana state legislature, Edwards spent his first term pushing through a number of landmark legislative victories, expanding Medicaid and enacting sweeping criminal justice reforms. He’s up for reelection this weekend, as voters will choose between him and Republican businessman Eddie Rispone on Saturday in what’s forecasted to be a very tight race.
One of the reasons the race is so tight is a last-minute spending binge from the Republican Governors Association, a deep-pocketed, Koch-backed political group. In any other contested race, their participation would come as little surprise. But Edwards, who the group is now feverishly trying to depose, has, in recent years, been one of the closest allies of Charles Koch in enacting his newfound dedication to criminal justice reform. Despite being celebrated by the Koch political apparatus for his work, Koch money is hard at work trying to keep Edwards from securing a second term.
Edwards’s criminal justice agenda has been one of the most impressive reform campaigns in the country, surpassing many of the most vocal reform enthusiasts in safely held Democratic seats. At the time of Edwards’s inauguration, Louisiana held the dubious distinction of being the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated nation on earth for 20 years running. In early 2017, Edwards signed a raft of legislation to set the state on a path towards dramatic decarceration.
The new laws reduced mandatory minimums, shortened sentences, and afforded some inmates access to parole eligibility sooner. They overhauled and shortened drug sentencing, and reeled in the state’s much-maligned theft penalties, which have long been unevenly interpreted and applied. They even limited how often juvenile offenders can receive life without parole sentences.
Just 18 months into that program, Louisiana no longer held the title of America’s number one incarceration rate. Within a decade, the state’s prison population is projected to drop by 10 percent, with the bulk of the funding that would have been spent housing inmates being transferred to rehabilitation programs and victim support.
Simultaneously, Edwards’s administration expanded prison alternatives like drug courts, and furnished a suite of social safety net provisions that help parolees with reentry assistance and job seeking services. Edwards has also used his clemency powers far beyond most Democratic governors, commuting numerous sentences; he established parole consideration for long-serving prisoners convicted of violent crimes, something even governors in states with Democratic majorities have been fearful to do.
In enacting this sweeping reform agenda, Edwards was able to broker support from surprising places, including conservative and business groups. He even got a particular boost from a surprising political force: Koch Industries.
Since at least 2015, the Koch brothers had been preaching a newfound dedication to ending overcriminalization. Unlikely as it may seem, it’s not beyond the scope of their libertarian agenda in a certain sense, with its resistance to government coercion and power. But it was puzzling to see one of the most arch-conservative political outfits in the country dive into an issue seen as a province of the political left. At best, it was thought to be an empty PR stunt.
But in 2017, the year Edwards signed many of these reforms into law, Koch Industries threw its support behind criminal justice reform in Louisiana. And on one issue in particular—split-jury verdicts, a post-Reconstruction-era rule explicitly intended to disempower black jurors and allow convictions even without unanimous decisions—Americans for Prosperity got actively involved. In 2018, working in tandem with the Koch’s political action committee, Edwards was able to successfully bring about an end to non-unanimous juries.
One would think, then, that after Edwards played nice and advanced the legislative agenda of the Koch empire, he would have the backing of their imperious political machine going into Saturday’s election, or at least would have earned himself a non-aggression pact. But that’s not the case. In fact, Koch-funded groups are spending, in record numbers, to oust Edwards and bolster his Republican challenger in what’s become a nail-biter of a race.
The Republican Governors Association, via its Right Direction PAC, has spent around $9 million to unseat Edwards. Since the runoff was announced a month ago, the group has spent $3.8 million on media alone. One of the RGA’s top donors has long been, and continues to be, Koch Industries. And they’ve run ads tarring Edwards supporters as radicals and socialists, while linking him to Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, the Rispone campaign that the Koch-backed group is supporting has been running its own media blitz, claiming that Edwards’s criminal justice reform has led to a murder rate that is “up 20 percent,” and that criminals he released are “back on our streets where they robbed, attacked, murdered.” In fact, the bulk of Rispone’s strategy is based on fearmongering around the very same criminal justice reforms the Koch machine has advocated for.
Even some of the more cynical criminal justice reformers have been pleasantly surprised at the Charles Koch’s dedication to curtailing the more extreme excesses of mass incarceration, a multi-pronged initiative of the Charles Koch Institute in particular. In recent months, even Black Lives Matter organizers have teamed up with Koch executives to advance that policy agenda. But the Edwards race serves as a cautionary tale.
The Koch empire is primarily dedicated to maintaining its political primacy, which means installing pro-business Republican leadership wherever possible, particularly in an oil-rich state like Louisiana. If that motivation contradicts some of the lesser political ambitions, fealty to the former wins out. Charles Koch may be willing to support decarceration, but he also has no problem putting money towards advancing a candidate who’s leveraging hysteria about mass incarceration for his own political advancement.
Edwards may still pull out a win. But the torrid last-minute spending campaign from the RGA is sure to make a tight race even tighter. And no matter the outcome, the race should serve as a powerful referendum on what it means for progressive forces to find common cause with the Koch enterprise, even when their policy priorities are aligned.
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