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Donna Edwards breaks LA first spouse mold

If in fact Louisiana politics are evolving into so-called “Washington-style” politics, it seems that has extended to “first spouse” as well.

Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards makes an incessant talking point about allegedly more conflict developing between partisans in the Legislature. Of course, he defines “partisanship” in a nonstandard way, coming when you disagree with him on something, but he is correct in that Louisiana is evolving away from a more personalistic style of politics to one more driven by issue preferences that has marked politics in the nation’s capital for much of the national government’s existence.

But it seems another “Washington” aspect has crept into Louisiana’s political scene, that being the unprecedented political activism of First Lady Donna Edwards. Until her family moved into the Governor’s Mansion, gubernatorial spouses, if ever seen and heard, didn’t involve themselves in issuing political statements over any controversial issue.

The two most recent prior spouses exemplify the behavioral trend up until the time of Donna Edwards. Even though he involved himself deeply in politics, and some even suggested him as a power behind the throne, during her term Raymond Blanco never made public statements about issues facing his wife Democrat former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Having a full-time job as a university administrator, he limited himself in any direct connection otherwise to state government.

Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s wife Supriya during most of his time in office ran a foundation to provide classroom educational materials – which, predictably, from the left drew hyperventilating and meritless claims of impropriety – but like Coach Blanco she never publicly weighed in on controversial issues of the day during her spouse’s term. She also had young children to help shepherd that would limit her public role.

However, Donna Edwards has broken this mold. A public school teacher from a traditional school who took leave when her husband surprisingly won office, early in his term she became one of the first faces in the Louisiana Association of Educators’ “Thank a Teacher” campaign, with a persistent web-based ad inviting viewers to click on to read her story. This effort naturally serves as a backdrop for increasing funds for public education – presumably some of that would show up in higher salaries that the union aggressively pursues – and tries to build support for the union as a whole, which has a distinct political agenda.

That’s an intrusion into education politics, but fairly indirectly. On social media, she sometimes delves more deeply into political conflicts. Her Facebook site mostly contains platitudes about noncontroversial views, such as the value of education, or supporting foster families, and the like. But then there are posts such, as after the Legislature finally ended sessions this year, a resend of her husband’s post that asserted he had cut taxes and reduced spending, as well as another giving him (sole, incorrectly; a Republican legislator actually carried the load on this one) credit for teacher paid leave for adoptions.

While these recorded instances represent minor forays into political proselytizing, they do go beyond what past first spouses have done. But put in her front of a presumed sympathetic group, and a real departure from past behavior emerges.

Last month, Donna Edwards spoke to a Shreveport YWCA event about “empowering” women. She said she wished to improve education and end human trafficking, issue preferences that surely have achieved consensus in today’s society.

However, Edwards also lamented at length the alleged “pay gap” between men and women, and said it must be addressed. Concerning perhaps the greatest canard in American politics today, she apparently relies upon data that looks only at the median earnings of full-time wage and salaried workers. In fact, study after study, years in and year out, that takes a comprehensive look at the issue, accounting for all factors that influence pay, shows the “gap” disappearing into statistical insignificance.

The “pay gap” is a myth, and that is a fact too well publicized for her or her husband not to know it. Yet both persistently bring it up as if it actually existed. If she wants to stump for an issue that has brought considerable division to the Legislature every time her husband has backed it, she can, but she politicizes the matter further by using misleading data to create an issue where there is none.

That she brings more politics to the unofficial first spouse role than did her predecessors is neither good nor bad but is interesting. Especially interesting because of the irony involved: Gov. Edwards decries what he sees as a drift towards “Washington” politics even as First Lady Edwards embraces a role more in common with activist first ladies in Washington (such as the one who would serve in the Senate and win the popular vote for the presidency) than with previous first spouses in Baton Rouge.

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