Governor Debate Review: Small Substance, Bigger Hissy-Fits

The trio of top-spending and top-polling candidates in the governor’s race met for their first televised debate Thursday evening, conducted at LSU’s Student Union Theatre. Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Democratic incumbent, was bracketed by Republicans, Congressman Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone.

A poll conducted earlier in the week by JMC Analytics for Nexstar, the network of TV stations airing this debate, showed Edwards with 41%, Abraham with 24%, and Rispone with 16% support from likely voters. The other three men on the October 12 open primary ballot – Oscar “Omar” Dantzler, a Democrat from Hammond; Gary Landrieu, an Independent from New Orleans, and Patrick “Live Wire” Landry, a Republican from New Orleans – polled just four percent combined, and were not invited to participate.

Beginning with the first question, regarding whether any of them would consider issuing executive orders to halt sales of e-cigarette devices and fluids due to a recent spate of deaths linked to vaping, the debate – for the most part – could be classified as vapid. Much of that was due to the question topics, in addition to the overall format of the program. It had clearly been designed around the survey questions and results garnered by the JMC Analytics poll, for after candidates were asked their stance on certain issues, the moderators would give the poll results on that issue, and then ask if the volume of voter opinions changed the candidate’s stance in any way.

For example, all three men were asked about banning abortion, and whether – if the U.S. Supreme Court concurs – there should be exceptions for pregnancies arising out of rape or incest. Congressman Ralph Abraham, a physician by trade, said, “Life begins at conception, and the decision must be between the mother, the father, and their physician. A life is a life. I don’t support exceptions.”

“I believe the laws Louisiana has passed, including the most recent one, are good,” Eddie Rispone said, regarding the so-called “heartbeat law” that bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. “I don’t think we should change that for any reason.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards

“I recognize there are differences of opinion on this issue, Gov. John Bel Edwards said, “But I am pro-life. Now, that’s not just ‘pro-birth’, because I support all the programs that help the children live their best life. Regarding rape or incest exceptions, that would only be if we are ordered to by the Court. Personally, I signed the bill that I support.”

The moderator for this question, news anchor Jacque Jovic from KTAL in Shreveport, followed with, “Our poll shows 40% of Louisiana residents support exceptions for rape or incest. Does this change your view in any way?”

Uniformly, they said no: the poll in no way changes things.

(News flash: 40% is not any kind of overwhelming majority. It’s no majority at all. Why on earth would anyone think that number might change the opinion of these men who will never have the experience of forced pregnancy?)

This sort of “but the people think this. Are you sure that’s your answer?” questioning, combined with direct answers limited to 60-seconds and rebuttal answers limited to 30-seconds, created a level of irritation for the candidates that ultimately led to their sniping at each other, and ultimately to raised voices and direct accusations of lying and falsehood.

As a longtime observer and many-time moderator of similar events, it seemed to me this debate format had its intended effects. The limited time frame for candidate responses – an hour-long “lightning round” in effect – while giving the impression of “quick and lively debate,” failed to elicit any in-depth policy answers, and served to keep the candidates frustrated and off-balance. That led to the inevitable displays of temper, which, while considered by some to be “good theatre,” do little to inform the voting public.

Stage at the LSU Union Theatre, just prior to introduction of candidates. Screen capture from broadcast.

The eruptions began with the question that followed the abortion issue inquiries, regarding Louisiana’s $14-billion backlog of needed road and bridge construction and repairs. The candidates were asked if they would support an increase in the state gasoline tax to pay for the infrastructure work?

“The problem is politicians, who just keep kicking the can down the road. We need a businessperson, like me, to go in and prioritize the projects and the available money, before we ask the people for more,” Rispone said, in his high-pitched, nasally voice, remarkably reminiscent of Ross Perot. “We need to improve the roads and bridges first, and show the people we can be responsible with the money they’ve already entrusted to the state. Instead, we always hear ‘we need more money.’ Well, not in my administration!”

“From the beginning of my administration, I made sure the Transportation Trust Fund was only spent on transportation projects,” Gov. Edwards said, clearly confident and comfortable with the topic. Yet his voice rose in pitch, signaling he was feeling some urgency to include complex content in his answer. “I supported the task force recommendations in 2017 for an increase in the gasoline tax to better fund the needed work. Thirty years ago, the people agreed toa 16-cent per gallon tax on gasoline. It’s the same amount today. And you can’t do anything the same today with the same amount of money you had 30 years ago. It will be difficult to pass, but in the meantime we’re working on innovative ways to fund projects, like those we’re doing with GARVEE bonds.”

The dinging bell, showing his allotted minute had expired, interrupted the Governor’s last sentence, but Congressman Abraham used Edwards’ statement to launch his answer and attack.

“GARVEE bonds are simply robbing Peter to pay Paul, and DOTD is out of control,” Abraham said. “However, if a gasoline tax has to be passed by the Legislature, I guarantee it will be tax neutral. If we raise one tax up, we will take another tax down.”

“Our poll shows 47% support for an increase in the gasoline tax,” the male moderator from WVLA in Baton Rouge pronounced. “Does that change your stance?”

“No,” Rispone replied. “It confirms my stance. We’re spending $130-million of our current gasoline tax on bureaucrats’ salaries. Te state has not done what it said it would do with that tax.”

“The poll doesn’t change my opinion,” Gov. Edwards responded. Then turning to Abraham, he said, “And GARVEE bonds are an essential part of our overall…”

Abraham interrupted, “That’s not so…”

And the moderator assured the congressman, “You’ll have your chance. It’s the Governor’s turn now.”

But Edwards’ 30-second rebuttal time had expired, and so Abraham cackled, “More taxes, taxes, taxes – that’s all we hear from this governor! I will sign a higher gas tax into law if needed, but only if another tax is taken away.”

The next question addressed Medicaid expansion, and the hackneyed GOP accusations of “waste, fraud, and abuse” within the program. Gov. Edwards went first this round, and was asked if he stood by his teams’ work with Medicaid.

“Absolutely,” he replied, smiling. “Expanding Medicaid was the easiest big decision I made. We saved the state $317-million with the Medicaid expansion. More importantly, it is saving people’s lives!”

Ralph Abraham

Abraham, whose congressional voting record reflects seven votes to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act (the parent law of Medicaid expansion), cocked his verbal first at the governor.

“Look, I’m a family doctor. He’s a trial lawyer. There is waste, fraud, and abuse all through the program,” Abraham said. “More than that, it’s second-rate insurance, and Louisiana citizens deserve better, because they are first-rate people!”

Pointing to his right, where the governor stood behind his own lectern at center stage, the northeast Louisiana congressman continued, “This governor just eliminated one of our MCOs because they supported a Republican candidate!”

This was a reference to one of the five managed care organizations (MCOs) handling insurance for Louisiana Medicaid patients being advised in April that their contract was not being renewed. Louisiana Healthcare Connections has filed a protest, and now an organization going by the name of “Caring Health Solutions” has been putting out digital ads and billboards urging voters to contact Gov. Edwards and bitch about it.

“That is ridiculous and false!” the governor interrupted Abraham’s statement. “The MCO gives to both sides. The decision was made before any campaign finance reports showed the company contributions, so that is one-hundred percent false!”

“That’s a lie!” Abraham fired back.

Eddie Rispone

“It’s fun to watch the career politicians go after each other, isn’t it?” the 70-year-old Rispone asked rhetorically, with a puckish grin. “I’m just a businessperson, and as such, I see that what we have now with Medicaid is unsustainable. If we continue, we’re going to go broke. We need to get good jobs here so our people don’t need to be on government assistance.”

That led, conveniently, to the follow-up question: “Do you support work requirements for Medicaid?”

“I support community engagement initiatives, like that proposed by Republican state Rep. Frank Hoffman.,” Gov. Edwards answered. “His bill didn’t pass, but it prompted a pilot project in his home area – and yours, Congressman – in Monroe.”

The governor continued, “I also support work requirements for members of Congress, and clearly, this gentleman doesn’t do it.”

Earlier in the debate, when each candidate was asked an individually tailored question, Abraham had been grilled about his worst-in-Congress voting record, missing 44% of all votes in Washington, D.C., while he was in state, campaigning for governor, instead.

“Tell people to look at your record in the Legislature when you ran for governor before!” Abraham verbally lashed back.

“I didn’t miss a single day!” Edwards replied, proudly.

“I doubt that,” Abraham grumbled.

“Am I going to get a chance to answer?” Rispone asked, plaintively, “Or are y’all having too much fun watching them?”

That prompted somewhat embarrassed apologies from the moderators, who – while relishing the ripostes between Edwards and Abraham – had obviously forgotten the shortest candidate behind the lectern at the far left of the stage.

“I’m a businessman,” Rispone continued, returning to singing his single-note serenade. “Put everyone to work and they will get off Medicaid. Help them get a better job and they can pay their own way.”

The trio of men were asked about their views on President Trump.

“I’m the only one on stage that has voted with the president,” Abraham stated. “I voted with him for the greatly successful National Tax Cut and Jobs Act. Of course, its effects haven’t trickled all the way down to Louisiana because of the economy-dampening effects of trial lawyers.”

“I’m the only one on stage that has always supported Trump, unlike Congressman Abraham, here, who advised him to step aside,” Rispone claimed. Trump’s success shows what happens when a non-politician, an outsider, a businessman takes the reins. I’m like him – not beholden to special interests.”

“As governor, my job is to put Louisiana first, as I have said all along,” Edwards remarked. “And part of that is having a great working relationship with the President, no matter who he or she may be. I’ve worked with two Presidents, including Obama in my first year. The past three years, I’ve met with President Trump nine times.”

In closing statements, Eddie Rispone observed that this debate was – for them as candidates – the equivalent of a job interview.

“Just remember when you make your choice: our state has the slowest economy in the nation, and is the only state that is losing jobs,” Rsipone said, gloomily.

Gov. John Bel Edwards used the time to enumerate his accomplishments, and how they have benefited the people, attempting to end on a positive note.

He said, “When I walked into office, I found a $2-billion deficit left by my predecessor, Bobby Jindal. Now we are showing surpluses, because we have put what Louisiana needs ahead of what political parties want.”

Abraham had no compunction about ending sourly.

“That’s all this governor does, is blame, blame, blame,” the 65-year-old physician from Louisiana’s poorest region complained. “Instead, imagine a Louisiana where everyone has a good high-paying job. That’s what you’ll have with me as governor.”

Based on reaction as the broadcast ended, the theatre audience was far from convinced by either of the two Republicans. The moderators, expressing thanks and signing off, could barely be heard about the audience chanting – in support of John Bel Edwards – “Four more years! Four more years!”

A nice sentiment, but only an option if we, the voters, are able to survive two more televised debates – on Sept. 26, and October 9 – and three more weeks of this insubstantial bickering.

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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.