Five years ago, Edward Lee “Eddie” Rispone of Baton Rouge and current Republican candidate for Louisiana governor published his first and only book, a biography largely informed by the conversations he had with his daughter’s grandfather-in-law, Dr. Louis Antonio Balart, Sr., also known by his nickname, Cucho. Rispone titled the book Cucho: A Journey from Cuba to Freedom, and while he sometimes digresses into hyperbole about the looming danger communism poses to America, for the most part, the book is simply about the inspirational life journey of an extraordinary man.
Yesterday, Rispone’s campaign placed a full-page ad in the Times-Picayune that deliberately used incendiary fear-mongering against undocumented immigrants, attacking the City of New Orleans and those who participated in a protest against President Trump’s decision to order Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to conduct sweeps of ten major American cities with the hope of deporting people whose only crime is lacking the proper documentation from a government bureaucracy, an issue that is essentially exclusive to people emigrating from Mexico or Central America.
While the anti-immigration bravado may have some limited appeal among the Republican base in Louisiana, the truth is that Rispone intended this message to be received by only one person: Donald Trump. Since the president’s racist tweets against four women of color, Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, the other Republican candidate for governor, have both focused more effort on vying for Trump’s support than the support of Louisiana voters.
Importantly, Louisiana does not hold party primaries; the election in October is commonly known as a “jungle primary.” Accordingly, it seems both incredibly risky and ignorant for the two major Republican candidates to narrowcast their messaging only to the small universe of far-right Trump supporters.
The decisions to double-down on appeals to not-so-thinly-veiled racism and the attempt to frame an off-cycle statewide election as a national, partisan battle also effectively concedes any potential crossover support either man could have received from “fiscally conservative but socially progressive” white voters and eliminates any possibility they had at appealing to African-Americans, who comprise 31% of the population and between 27-29% of the electorate.
Dr. Balart passed away two years prior to the publication of Rispone’s hagiographical book, at the ripe old age of 93. Sadly, his son, Dr. Louis Antonio Balart, Jr., who followed his father’s footsteps into medicine and is credited with co-creating a cure for Hepatitis C, passed away this January.
Rispone claims that from nearly the moment he first met Cucho, he felt an obligation to tell the doctor’s story.
With his brazen attacks on the Freedom of Assembly and his fear-mongering that implicitly targets Spanish-speaking immigrants, Eddie Rispone has betrayed the man he had once celebrated, and perhaps ironically, the hostility he seeks to stoke against men and women who are simply exercising their right to protest their government is one of the reasons Dr. Balart claimed he was motivated to flee Castro’s Cuba.
It may seem impossible to believe but the same man who paid for that ad in the newspaper wrote this only five years prior in the dedication of his book, which I decided was worthy of presenting as if it were a competing campaign ad:
Four days ago, this was how Rispone reacted when Gov. John Bel Edwards called the president’s tweets about four members of Congress, all of whom are women of color, needing to “go back” to the countries they came from, “out of bounds,” urging for the need for more civility.
Chapter Four of Cucho: A Journey from Cuba to Freedom is titled “You Have No Business Here.” Rispone details the outrageous bigotry and xenophobia that Dr. Balart had to confront when he first decided to pursue a career in medicine in Louisiana. He had been the director of a hospital in Cuba and had assumed that medical professionals in New Orleans would recognize his qualifications.
Instead, according to Rispone, the doctor was told by a member of the State Board of Medical Examiners, “You have no business here. Get out of the state of Louisiana because you will never get a chance here in the state of Louisiana to practice medicine. In fact, if you touch the urine of a patient, I’ll put you in jail. You have no business here.”
It crushed him.
“That encounter served Cucho his first bitter taste of discrimination in America,” Rispone writes. “That son of a bitch, (Cucho) thought. He found himself whispering the words again, ‘That son of a bitch.’”
As I previously mentioned, Rispone’s book about Cucho is primarily biographical, but it also occasionally attempts to be an alarmist polemic about Castro’s Cuba and a warning to American readers about the possibility of our nation becoming overtaken by an oppressive dictator and his family, a scenario he imagines could only occur under a communist regime. Today, some readers may find his speculation ironic and misguided, particularly considering that the protagonist of his book was able to achieve success not only through his own tenacity and intelligence but also because he benefitted from free public education.
But at its core, the book is about the promise America offers to immigrants and refugees. Rispone himself is a direct descendant of Italian emigrants, and when his ancestors arrived in New Orleans, anti-Italian bigotry was brutal and often violent.
In 1891, eleven Italian-Americans were lynched to death in the city, a massacre for which Mayor LaToya Cantrell officially recognized and formally apologized earlier this year, 128 years later. (The name Rispone is a derivation of the Italian word for “responding”). At the time, New Orleans was home to approximately 30,000 Italian immigrants. Today, New Orleans is home to the same number- 30,000- of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America; Baton Rouge is home to around 10,000.
Today, despite what conservative pundits suggest, the proportion of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has decreased by approximately 14% since 2007. However, according to analysis conducted by Pew, Louisiana is one of five states that has seen an increase, and we do not need to speculate about the cause for this uptick.
Indeed, if anyone should be able to explain the real reasons, it’s Eddie Rispone, a man who has made a vast fortune as an industrial contractor. It has nothing to do with Democratic politics, and it predates the current governor (the increase of 15,000 has not changed since 2014). It also has nothing to do with border security or the lack of a “big, beautiful wall.”
The answer should be obvious to anyone who has lived in the state for the past two decades.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush suspended parts of the Davis-Bacon Act and other immigration labor laws in order to facilitate an influx of construction workers to Louisiana. His decision was not without controversy, largely because it enabled major construction companies to avoid the requirement they pay workers the prevailing wages of their respective fields.
By some estimates, 24,000 undocumented immigrants moved to New Orleans as a consequence, taking jobs with many of the same firms that frequently use Eddie Rispone’s company as a subcontractor. There is no question about it: These immigrants were a part of the backbone of the city’s recovery, and while multiple studies confirm that there is no correlation between undocumented immigrants and a city’s crime rate (indeed, as a group, they are far less likely to commit crimes), we also know that contractors (and their subs) who received major government contracts were more than happy to exploit these workers by paying them substantially less and then pocketing the difference in enormous profits.
At the very least, Louisiana voters owe it to these men and women to seriously consider the moral and ethical justification for Eddie Rispone’s attack and fear-mongering.
And Rispone owes it to the legacy and the memory of his friend Cucho, a man that he admired so much, he wrote a book about him.