Ewing's decision was a shocker
Tongues wagged plenty in the days that followed, though. Rumors and theories abounded.
Item: Ewing was a major player in a session that ended on a high note when the promised $4.4 billion in tobacco settlement money was divvied up to nearly everyone's satisfaction.
Item: Ewing was a shoo-in for re-election. He ran unopposed last time out.
Item: Ewing wouldn't mind being governor.
Everyone seems to agree that Ewing would not run against Gov. Mike Foster. Ewing and Foster don't see eye-to-eye on every issue but they're still allies. Plus a race with both of them would dilute the conservative vote.
So why would Ewing, if he's priming himself for a shot at the Mansion in 2003, voluntarily remove himself from the limelight for the intervening four years? In official Baton Rouge, where everything revolves around the Capitol, that just doesn't make sense.
Maybe Ewing sees that everything doesn't revolve around the Capitol. Back in the '70s, Sonny Mouton of Lafayette was a very popular senator, but it got him nowhere in his run for governor. Foster, on the other hand, was by most accounts a lackluster senator yet both his message and his personal style rang like bell all over the state. So maybe for Ewing the next four years would be better spent as a sort of statesman-at-large, building grassroots support.
Or maybe he could see trouble ahead. There was talk of a rebellion against his leadership in '98. Ewing jerked some senators off committees. Ill feelings were stirred up.
Then in this past session he got into trouble by sponsoring a bill making it a crime for legislative staff to leak information about bills before they are introduced. He withdrew it under a hail of bad press.
Another factor that may have entered his thinking is that the Senate in 2000 is sure to be significantly different than the 1999 Senate. Half a dozen others are not running for re-election, including some of his most like-minded colleagues. There are still a couple of undecideds, more than half a dozen more are facing tough opponents, and one is under indictment. Ewing probably has a fair idea of how all this might shake out in terms of cliques, coalitions and votes.
Some people took Ewing's bombshell as a clue that there was legal trouble ahead for the governor. They were already wondering why U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan took himself off the investigation of white supremacist David Duke's income taxes. Jordan's mentor, Congressman William Jefferson, is running against Foster. It looked bad, Jordan dragging Foster into the Duke investigation on the eve of the campaign (and if it turns out Jordan tipped off Jefferson to the Foster-Duke connection-or worse, the other way around - then it'll sure enough be bad). But Jordan didn't step down until after Foster had been thoroughly embarrassed, so what was the point?
The theory that Foster is in trouble and knows it took a hit with his official announcement on the Fourth. It's a stretch, but maybe he wants to keep a lid on things so that the election doesn't turn into a free-for-all. He tips off Ewing, his anointed successor, and holds down the fort while Ewing clears the decks for a statewide race.
There's one more explanation for Ewing's sudden retirement and it comes from Ewing himself. He said at the outset that he wouldn't make a career of politics but kept the final decision a secret to avoid being a lame duck. "They don't just clip your wings around there, they pluck your feathers," he said.
If Foster has problems beyond what has already been revealed, he doesn't know anything about it, Ewing said.
As for the Mansion, Ewing ain't saying never, but neither, he said, is he making plans. It's like he's done his service in the Senate and now he's going to kick back and see if the state has enough sense to elect him governor.
If that seems a tad arrogant, look at it from Ewing's point of view: First time he runs for anything it's the state Senate and he wins handily in the primary. Four years later he wins in a landslide. Four years after that he doesn't even have an opponent. By now he probably figures he's got a knack for it.