Former Gov. Mike Foster is not one for pomp and circumstance. Truth be known, he detests it. Foster, though, turned out for a rather formal affair last week in his hometown of Franklin. He was on hand to witness one of his protégés, Gov. Bobby Jindal, announce the state would invest some $2 million to rehabilitate part of city hall to house papers and other collectibles that the 83-year-old former governor accumulated during his two terms in office from 1996-2004. It's a fitting tribute for a man who history will judge as one of Louisiana's finer two-term governors. Mark my word. It's a wise investment, too, for Foster's archives will serve to educate the citizenry for generations to come. Foster's path to becoming governor was atypical to say the least. A successful businessman who earned a fortune growing and harvesting sugar cane as well as from his construction company, Foster didn't enter politics until he was 57 years old.
The year was 1987, or the year then-Congressman Buddy Roemer came out of nowhere to unseat Gov. Edwin Edwards. Foster defeated Sen. Anthony Guarisco Jr. that year, earning 64 percent of the vote. According to one of Foster's confidantes, Foster decided to run against Guarisco because he wouldn't return his telephone calls. Let that serve as a lesson for all of you aspiring politicians.
Easily re-elected in 1991 with 85 percent of the vote against token opposition, Foster grew bored in the Senate during his second term. He recognized that he either needed to move up in the world of politics or get out of it altogether. Foster wasn't given much of a chance when he declared for the governor's race some 18 years ago. A Democrat at the time, Foster was buried in a crowded field of Democrats including then-State Treasurer Mary Landrieu, then-Lt. Gov. Melinda Schwegmann and Cleo Fields, who, at the time, was seen as the most influential black politician in Louisiana. Roemer was trying to revitalize his political career that year as a Republican. That came to an end when Foster switched to Republican on the same day that he qualified for the race, setting the stage for Foster to become the first two-term Republican governor in Louisiana since Reconstruction. On a personal note, one of Foster's campaign operatives called me in the spring of 1995 and asked me to join the Foster campaign as its press secretary. I turned him down. My reasoning? I didn't think Foster stood a snowball's chance in hell of getting elected. Time and space do not permit a year-by-year review of Foster's tenure as governor, but a few facts about his track record bear worth mentioning.
They are especially important in light of the state of higher education in Louisiana today. On Foster's watch, Louisiana led the nation for five years in the amount of money invested in higher education on a per capita basis. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into higher education for everything from rebuilding the physical plants on college campuses throughout the state to better pay for the faculty. Salaries for college professors reached and surpassed the Southern Regional Average for the first time ever while Foster was governor. Compensation for school teachers reached the Southern Regional Average for the first time ever, too. LSU sky-rocketed to a Tier 1 institution, ranked among the top 75 in the nation, on the all-important U.S. News' annual ranking of the best colleges and universities in America. Let's not forget about the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students. Commonly known as TOPS, it was widely expanded during Foster's first term to give far more students in Louisiana the opportunity to attend college. Without a doubt, Foster realized years ago that Louisiana's future, for good or bad, was directly tied to education. Many of the gains we've witnessed in recent years in standardized testing in K-12 public education are a direct result of reforms that were initiated while Foster was governor. The current superintendent of education, John White, should take note. But perhaps the chattering class can set aside its biases for a moment or two and recognize as I have that Foster will forever be remembered for his commitment to improving education in Louisiana. That's not a bad legacy to be remembered by.