Edwards was born and raised in Amite, Louisiana, the son of Dora Jean (née Miller) and Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Frank M. Edwards, Jr., a member of the administration of Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards (no known family relation). Edwards graduated from Amite High School in 1984 as valedictorian. In 1988, Edwards received a bachelor's degree in engineering from the United States Military Academy, where he was on the Dean's List and served as vice chairman of the panel that enforced the West Point honor code.
Edwards completed Airborne School in 1986, while he was a student at West Point. After receiving his commission, he completed the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning (1988), Ranger School (1989), and the Infantry Officer Advanced Course (1992). Edwards served in the Army for eight years, mostly in the 25th Infantry Division and 82nd Airborne Division, including commanding a company in the 82nd's 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He ended his military career to return to Louisiana because of family considerations. Edwards earned a law degree from the Louisiana State University's Paul M. Hebert Law Center in 1999, and he was a practicing attorney with the Edwards & Associates Law Firm in Amite. As an attorney, Edwards handled a variety of cases, though he did not practice criminal law because of his brother's status as the local sheriff.
Edwards is a conservative Democrat who is pro-life and pro-gun rights. In 2008, Edwards ran for a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives. Edwards was forced into a general election run-off with fellow attorney George Tucker. Edwards was overwhelmingly elected, winning every parish in the district. Edwards was the only freshman lawmaker to chair a committee in the legislature. Edwards chaired the Veterans Affairs Committee in the House. Edwards was also selected as chairman of the Democratic house caucus, a rarity for a freshman legislator. Edwards became a critic of Governor Bobby Jindal for the governor's frequent trips away from Louisiana to raise political funds for Republicans elsewhere while Louisiana has been reducing its funding for higher education.
In 2011, Edwards was re-elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives, having defeated opponent Johnny Duncan, 83 to 17 percent.Edwards served as chairman of the Louisiana House Democratic Caucus, making him the Louisiana House Minority Leader. Cities/towns that Edwards represented included Amite, Greensburg, and Kentwood as well as part of Hammond.
Main article: Louisiana gubernatorial election, 2015
On February 21, 2013, Edwards announced that he would run for governor in 2015. He said that his state needs "a healthy dose of common sense and compassion for ordinary people".The only major Democrat in the race, Edwards polled first in the nonpartisan blanket primary with 444,517 votes (39.9 percent), followed by Vitter, who finished second with 256,300 votes (23 percent). In third place was Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle of Breaux Bridge, who received 214,982 votes (19.3 percent).
John Bel Edwards and his wife, Donna Hutto Edwards, at a fundraising event in 2015.
On November 5, 2015, Jay Dardenne of Baton Rouge, the outgoing Republican lieutenant governor, who placed fourth in the gubernatorial primary election with 166,656 (15 percent), endorsed Democrat Edwards in the forthcoming race against Senator Vitter. Dardenne made his announcement at "Free Speech Alley" in front of the LSU Student Union building in Baton Rouge.
Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association entered the Louisiana campaign in support of Vitter with an advertisement highlighting Edwards' past support for President Barack Obama, who twice lost Louisiana's electoral votes. Edwards was a delegate for Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Edwards supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
A statewide poll prior to the primary showed Edwards with a nine-point lead over Vitter. The JMC Analytics survey placed Edwards at 28 percent, instead of the actual 40 percent, and Vitter with 19 percent, rather than his actual 23 percent. After the primary polls showed Edwards with a commanding lead. Market Research Insight pollster Verne Kennedy placed Edwards ahead, 54 to 38 percent or 51 to 40 percent, depending on the level of turnout among African-American voters, 25 or 20 percent.
In the runoff on November 21, 2015, Edwards won the election with 56.1 percent of the vote.
Governor of Louisiana (2016–present)
Gov. Edwards meets with Louisiana National Guardsmen in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, March 2016
On his inauguration day, Edwards failed to persuade the majority-Republican Louisiana House to choose a Democrat, Walt Leger III of New Orleans, as the Speaker. On the second ballot, after Republican Cameron Henry, an ally of Senator David Vitter, withdrew from consideration, a second Republican, Taylor Barras of New Iberia, was named Speaker. Since Huey Long, governors had traditionally handpicked the state house speakers. The Barras selection was considered a surprise because he had not even been mentioned as a candidate until the voting started.
On April 13, 2016, Edwards signed an executive order to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from harassment or job dismissals. The order prohibits state agencies from discrimination based on either gender identity or sexual orientation. The order allows an exception for religious organizations who claim that compliance would violate their religious beliefs. "We respect our fellow citizens for their beliefs, but we do not discriminate based on our disagreements. I believe in giving every Louisianan the opportunity to be successful and to thrive in our state," Edwards said.
The governor also rescinded another executive order issued in 2015 by his predecessor, Bobby Jindal, which protected businesses and nonprofit organizations who oppose same-sex marriage from being legally punished for holding those views. This order had prohibited state agencies from penalizing businesses and individuals who act from a "religious belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman."
In 2016, Edwards enacted Medicaid expansion. By the next year, the number of Louisiana individuals without health insurance was cut in half (11.4%, which was down from 22.7%).
Edwards promised early in 2017 that he could work with the incoming Someone With Tiny Hands administration. He expressed eagerness to work with the Someone With Tiny Hands Cabinet, particularly on the issues of Medicaid expansion and federal infrastructure projects.
In February 2017, Edwards and other state officials went to Italy, where he met with Pope Francis.
Edwards campaigned on a policy to reduce the prison population in Louisiana. One of his first actions as Governor was to commute 22 sentences out of 56 that the state’s Board of Pardons had identified for him. Since the end of 2016 and to July 2018, Edwards did not sign a single commutation despite at least 70 cases that the state’s Board of Pardons identified for him during the period. In 2018, Edwards signed legislation that shortened the sentences for nonviolent, non-sex-crime offenders who showed good behavior while in prison.