My college advisor and professor is retiring from Loyola. Prof. Renwick certainly made my politics courses interesting. He was my first professor in school. I took politics 100 (Intro to American Government) and I remember walking into this long classroom with this wiry man sitting at the table in the front of the room. He told these amazing stories of the life and times of varied politicians. I was somewhat starstruck with his anecdotes. I wanted that kind of career. Your insight will be missed, Prof. Renwick. You were one of a kind.
Retiring analyst Ed Renwick has made a career out of Louisiana’s civic hijinks
Posted by Elizabeth Mullener, Staff writer, The Times-Picayune June 29, 2008 5:00AM
When Ed Renwick came to Louisiana to research his doctoral dissertation on the Long dynasty, his intention was to stay for a year. That was in 1967.
“It was hard to leave,” he says. “This place is heaven for a political junkie.”
At 70, though, the man who is considered the dean of local political analysts is retiring. He will teach one last course at Loyola University; he is turning the school’s Institute of Politics over to new hands; and he is appearing only occasionally on WWL-TV.
For almost four decades, Renwick’s ego-free style, his placid demeanor and his thoughtful, plain-spoken delivery have been applied to the boisterous complexities of Louisiana’s political scene. And for all those years, there has not been a trace of arrogance or sensationalism in his presentation. He is the Nash Roberts of politics — the unassuming authority New Orleanians turn to for answers, for explanations.
At the institute, he has trained scores of the state’s politicians in the demography of Louisiana, the principles of mapping a campaign and the hard-core realities of life in the political fast lane.
He has a masterful command of his subject and an endless fascination with its details. It has made him a favorite with both journalists and their audiences.
“We’re so divided in Louisiana — by ethnicity, by race, by religion, by language, by geography,” he says. “You have the French and the non-French, the Catholics and the Protestants, North and South, black and white, liberal and conservative. Having all these different forces makes the politics lively. It’s never boring here.”
Born and reared in suburban Chicago — another city that is decidedly not boring in its civic life — Renwick comes from a family of political enthusiasts, where the latest shenanigans were fodder for dinner conversations. He got his undergraduate education at Georgetown University and his doctoral degree at the University of Arizona.
Today, he lives Uptown with his wife, Polly, an independent contractor who sells flooring for large building projects. He has a passion for travel, for wine and for art. He reads two newspapers every day — The Times-Picayune and The New York Times — and a slew of magazines, mostly about current events. Like the television he watches, the books he reads almost exclusively are confined to politics.
But nothing fascinates him quite so much as the politics of his own turf: Louisiana.
In general terms, he says, the state’s diversity dictates its turbulent political style.
“In many states, particularly in the South, politics is rather bland,” he says. “Only two Southern states are divided by religion — Louisiana and Florida (because of all the New Yorkers). Not many states of the 50 are really divided by race.
“Because Louisiana is so divided, it’s difficult to put together 51 percent of a legislative body, and if you’re going to get anything accomplished, you have to do that.”
That makes the state an ideal training ground and accounts for the unusual success of Louisiana politicians on the national stage, Renwick says, citing Hale Boggs, Russell Long, John Breaux, Bennett Johnston, Bob Livingston and Allen Ellender as examples.
Another factor that makes the historically poor state idiosyncratic is the unusual concentration of power and money in Baton Rouge and the hierarchical nature of its government. Many states, he says, have rather weak central governments. Not so here.
“We come out of the French and Spanish traditions of absolute monarchy, and, on top of that, we’re Catholic,” he says.
Besides, the state collects royaties on the oil and gas produced in Louisiana and that adds up.
“It’s kind of like a fountain of money coming out of the state,” Renwick says.
And sitting at the head of the fountain is the governor, so the power and the money are even further concentrated.
“We have a very strong governor,” he says. “The whole system is kind of monarchical. We elect kings.”
By extension, that intense concentration of power also accounts for much of the state’s infamous corruption, he says. Because it’s a poor state, the government is one of the few sources of money.
“Who’s rich in this state?” he asks. “The government. That’s why we always go to the state for everything. If you want a buck, you go to Baton Rouge.”
In Renwick’s view, corruption in Louisiana is a kind of Willie Sutton phenomenon.
“When they asked Willie Sutton why he was robbing all those banks, he said because that’s where the money was,” Renwick says.
“Well, in Louisiana, they’re robbing the state — because that’s where the money is, here.”