Can’t Win for Losing: Bluffing, Bid-Rigging and Baloney in the Secretary of State Race

Even though it’s the top-of-the-ballot race for the November 6th election, the campaign for Louisiana Secretary of State has yet to generate much – if any – overt enthusiasm among voters. The few polls that have been done, each paid for by certain candidates themselves, have shown as much as 40% undecided.

On the other hand, most of the contenders for the job — which came open due to Tom Schedler’s resignation over allegations of sexual harassment – have ample furor to spare. Most of it is directed at the interim holder of that office, Kyle Ardoin.

Conventional political wisdom would hold that Ardoin, as the current – if temporary – officeholder, alphabetically at the top of the ballot, and with the second-most money in his campaign coffers, is almost guaranteed a spot in the runoff. Yet the 51-year-old Republican, originally from Ville Platte, is exhibiting all the signs of someone so enamored by his own cleverness that he has become a caricature of the “typical politician”.

He’s been around the state Capitol for a long time, working as a lobbyist for the medical sector in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2007, he ran for the state House, District 68, and lost to Steve Carter in the runoff. He spent $25,000 of his own money on that race. He worked for the House for a couple of years, and in 2010 was hired as Tom Schedler’s 1st Assistant Secretary of State, at $130,000 a year. (The elected Secretary of State has a salary of $115,000 annually.)

Ardoin is an affable guy, with a smile and handshake at the ready. He was also either clueless or complicit in keeping quiet about his boss’ dogged pursuit of a female employee in the office.

The sexual harassment lawsuit claimed Ardoin, as her direct supervisor, knew, and simply told the woman to “stay out of sight.” Yet when members of the media quizzed him about it, as public pressure mounted toward Schedler’s resignation, Ardoin insisted, “I was unaware of any sexual harassment issues or allegations between the secretary and his accuser until the day the lawsuit was filed.”

It’s a bluff he has stuck with, even this week.

L to R: Renee Fontenot Free, Kyle Ardoin, Heather Cloud

Monday, October 8, five of the candidates for Secretary of State participated in a forum with the Baton Rouge Press Club. (A sixth candidate, former state Sen. A.G. Crowe, was a last-minute cancellation due to a severe illness within his family.)

One of the first questions posed asked the three women and two men how they would go about restoring public confidence in the office in particular, and politicians in general, in this aftermath of so many sexual harassment scandals.

State Rep. Rick Edmonds of Baton Rouge, a Republican, Baptist minister, and the former vice-president of the Louisiana Family Forum, answered first.

“Integrity is what you do when no one is looking,” he said. “Either you have it or you don’t. It’s something anyone can see, in how you treat people, and how you treat your wife.”

One might expect the pastor to be a bit more forceful in speaking out against the societal ills caused by turning a blind eye to sexual aggressiveness and intimidation. Apparently not.

Renee Fontenot Free, a Democrat, is also based in Baton Rouge. Currently on leave from her administrative position with the Attorney General’s office, she formerly served as first assistant Secretary of State, and helped stand up elections in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“My experience in state government is proof of my fairness and impartiality. There were no issues of this sort while I was with the Secretary of State and none within the Attorney General’s Office – and I have overseen Human Resources in both departments,” she stated.

Heather Cloud is the mayor of Turkey Creek, an Evangeline Parish village with a population of less than 500 people. Cloud, a Republican, lost her mayoral re-election bid in 2014 by four paid-for votes. She sued then-Secretary of State Tom Schedler to have those votes tossed, and a new election held. She won that case, and the subsequent election.

“This issue hits at the roots of the election system,” she said, in response to the question about restoring public confidence following the harassment allegations against Schedler. “You have to set boundaries, and I will not tolerate any nonsense.”

Ardoin zipped right past the opportunity for a mea culpa, and indulged in some braggadocio, instead.

“I began work on a new policy as soon as I took over,” he said. “It is now the strictest such policy in state government, requiring any instance to be reported.’If you see something, say something’.”

State Rep. Julie Stokes, a Kenner Republican and CPA, was more heated in her response.

“This seat is not open because of election misconduct, or corporate filings misconduct. It is open because of sexual misconduct,” Stokes said, as she turned and glared at Ardoin. “I will not tolerate that. If you remember, when a bipartisan bill to help prevent human trafficking came up, and a hateful amendment belittling women was attached, I spoke on the House floor, making it clear that type of atmosphere is utterly unacceptable.”

Stokes was referring to the 2016 House floor debate on SB 468, which would have barred anyone under the age of 21 from working as a stripper. Rep. Kenny Havard (R-St. Francisville) offered an amendment.

“Members, in the spirit of this legislative session, I offer up this amendment of trimming the fat. I have put an age limit on it of no more than 28 years of age and shall be no more than 160 pounds. And I’ll take any questions,” Havard said, chuckling over his own wit the entire time.

The ladies of the House were not amused, rising to tell Havard – in no uncertain terms – that they found his “joke” offensive. Stokes was particularly outraged.

“All the women in this body are disgusted at what you just did,” she told him. “I hear derogatory comments about women in this place regularly. I hear and I see women get treated differently than men. And I’m going to tell you what – you gave me a perfect forum to talk about it right now, because it has got to stop. That was utterly disrespectful and disgusting.”

Julie Stokes and Rick Edmonds

Disrespect for Ardoin has been on display throughout the campaign, with many of the group-speaking engagements for the candidates taking place a Republican-sponsored events. At one such event the previous week, he was castigated for sending out letters on his official letterhead, under the guise of “voter education”. On Sept. 20, more than 47-thousand letters were mailed to elderly chronic voters, reminding them their participation in the permanent absentee voting by mail program made them part of an exclusive list that cannot be shared with candidates or causes.

“It’s really unfair,” Cloud commented.

“Sending a campaign-oriented letter on the taxpayers’ dime to a confidential list is blatantly wrong,” Edmonds said,

“This is the very reason I’m running. People can’t stand when politicians do things like this,” Stokes remarked.

As Monday’s Press Club forum continued, the criticisms of Ardoin escalated, with the candidates being asked about the controversy over the new voting machines contract. That contract, which has subsequently been voided in a decision released by the Office of State Procurement Wednesday night, was then under challenge by one of the losing vendors, who alleged “bid-rigging” by Ardoin. In August, the Office of State Procurement had completely removed Ardoin from any further involvement in the bidding process.

Ardoin, who went first in this round of forum questions, immediately demanded a chance at the end of the round for rebuttal to anything his opponents might say. Then he made light of the controversy.

“The same thing happened when we last replaced the voting machines in 2005. There was a protest and the losers filed a lawsuit. I expect one now.”

“It’s unfortunate, certainly,” said Free, who was the 1st Assistant Secretary of State in 2005. “I handled the RFP (request for proposals) in 2005, and though there was a lawsuit, the court quickly dismissed it. But throughout that process, I did not interject myself into the dispute.”

She was referring to Ardoin’s public statements defending the selection process, and his own decision to double the number of machines, thus nearly doubling the size of the bids and contract.

Cloud said, “We’re blessed to have federal money to help pay for these machines, but this is all taxpayer money, so there should be no cloud over the bid process. And at all cost, a public servant should avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Stokes said, “We need a fresh set of eyes in the office. This all started because of a scandal, and we have had enough scandal. We need to remove all the scandal, and those involved in it, from the office.”

Edmonds agreed with Stokes, saying, “We can no longer tolerate scandals in the Secretary of State’s office. When the complaints of bid-rigging first came out, I asked Kyle Ardoin to halt the bid process. He refused. Additionally, as a member of House Appropriations, I am well aware that we allocated between $45 and $50-million for the election machine contract – based on what Kyle told us it would cost. Now it’s $95-million, and that will not be tolerated.”

“They’re just trying to cook up political news and create baloney,” Ardoin rebutted, with a smirk. “When you’re the front-runner, you have to expect that.”

“Here’s some mayo for your baloney – when you testify before House and Governmental Affairs, keep your word!” Rep. Edmonds replied, barely containing his ire.

The day Schedler tendered his resignation, Ardoin addressed the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, with a prepared statement.

“Let me say to everyone, I am interested in running this office, but not in running for this office. My time and expertise are best used in running the Secretary of State’s office, not running for Secretary of State,” Ardoin said. “This is a model used previously by Al Ater, upon former Secretary of State Fox McKeithen’s passing. I intend to follow that leadership style in purely focusing on the needs of our agency and what’s best for the citizens of Louisiana. We need to prove ourselves to be an office of integrity, credibility, transparency and accountability.”

It certainly seemed like anything but “integrity, credibility, transparency and accountability” when Ardoin signed up to run in this race during the last ten minutes of the three-day qualifying period in July. More than a few of the other eight candidates see it as a betrayal, and that Ardoin’s words to the legislative committee were a convenient lie, much like his denying any knowledge of Schedler’s improprieties.

And while he claimed he only decided to run moments before he qualified, a month prior he had tweeted pictures of his newly purchased vanity license plates: “SOS 44”, even as he popped his picture prominently overlooking the banner at the top of the Secretary of State website.

Additionally, he assailed his own integrity, credibility, transparency, and accountability with his latest official statement as Secretary of State, issued in response to the 17-page Office of State Procurement decision to cancel the voting machines contract.

“This decision by Gov. Edwards’ administration is an embarrassment and reeks of old-school Louisiana politics. The governor sided with his political buddies over election security. It’s executive overreach and why the Secretary of State is independently elected.”

Speaking of reeking…That’s a campaign statement, not an appropriate official’s response.

And dude, YOU haven’t been elected.

As for “old-school Louisiana politics”, haven’t we had enough – on the national, state, and local political stages – of good ol’ boys and their turning a blind eye to misuse of power, bluffing past their own blame, bumping up the bills and bid-rigging, and serving us all a bunch of baloney?