Fewer than 20 days remain until the statewide primary election, and while voters may not be either besotted or benumbed by the puffery of political ads, Monday’s Baton Rouge Press Club forum for the three leading gubernatorial candidates had the Capitol press corps endeavoring to get the guys to deliver some substance, in lieu of simple slogans.
Acting anchorman for the forum, Jim Engster, president of the Louisiana Radio Network and host for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ monthly radio show, apparently hadn’t gotten the memo. He started out by lobbing a softball, asking, “Have you ever been a member of another political party, and why are you a member of the party you represent now?”
Gov. Edwards said he had always been a Democrat, since he first registered to vote at the age of 18.
“I’m a Democrat because I believe we have an obligation to do what we can on behalf of all our brothers and sisters, and to lift up those who have not traditionally had every available opportunity,” Edwards added.
Republican Eddie Rispone admitted he started out as a Democrat, but, “That changed when I began working. I believe we need to teach people to fish, not just have them depend on us.”
“I registered as a Democrat at 18,” GOP Congressman Ralph Abraham said. “I didn’t know better then: Now I do. I’m pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-personal fiscal responsibility – all Republican values.”
Next to quiz the candidates was the Associated Press’ Louisiana politics maven Melinda Deslatte. Acknowledging that Gov. Edwards has based much of his campaign on a theme of finally moving past the fiscal mismanagement of the Jindal years, Deslatte asked Rispone and Abraham to clearly state their views on former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“Bobby Jindal isn’t running. I am,” said Rispone, who was greatly engaged – philosophically and financially – in lobbying for Jindal’s education reforms in 2012. And instead of expounding further, Rispone launched a couple of of his catchphrases.
“We need a sea change. I’m the only candidate saying we need a constitutional convention,” Rispone said.
“I agreed with the early Bobby Jindal, who stood for less government, less taxes and more personal responsibility. That’s the Republican mantra, and it’s good for the country and good for our state,” Abraham said.
“When Bobby Jindal came into office he had a one-and-a-half billion dollar surplus, and he left office with a two billion dollar deficit,” Edwards stated. “He plundered the state’s trust funds and left us in the ditch. But now, officially, the national and international credit-granting agencies have designated our fiscal outlook as ‘positive’. We don’t want to go back.”
I had the next question.
“None of you seem willing to utter the words ‘climate change’, much less discuss it, so how do you expect to convince the nation and world of the urgency of our coastal land loss? How can you get anyone to believe we are not a ‘sacrifice zone,’ if we won’t require the oil and gas industry to fix the damage they’ve caused?”
Ralph Abraham had the first response.
“One of my jobs has been as a farmer, and part of that includes protecting the environment,” the veterinarian-turned-physician-turned-congressman said. “There has been lots of controversy over how to protect the coastline, but the one thing we absolutely need to do is stop the legacy lawsuits. The oil and gas industry wants to help, yet we’re not sitting at the table with them to figure out how best to do that. Meanwhile, we’re losing our fishing and oyster industries.”
“When it comes to climate change, Louisiana has a crucial role to play. For every coal-fired power plant that goes offline, they’re converting to cleaner burning natural gas, and that benefits Louisiana’s economy,” Gov. Edwards said. “Right now, we have more coastal restoration projects under way than ever before, because we made sure we paid back the coastal funds the previous administration had raided.”
“And regarding the coastal lawsuits,” he added, “I have not filed a single one. On the other hand, my opponent Ralph Abraham has sued the oil and gas industry.”
The governor walked back to his table, away from the lectern, and picked a document out of the file folder there. “Here it is,” he said, smilingly waving a copy of the lawsuit.
Rispone, unsurprisingly, gave an answer that cheered industry and booed government.
“Industry has done the most to recognize the issue of global warming, and to promote environmental safety,” the founder of ISC Constructors said. “We need to work with them, instead of suing the oil and gas industry, which is nothing but extortion. The real problem is the state Department of Natural Resources. For the past twenty years they haven’t examined a single permit. They just rubber stamp them. When I’m elected governor, my first executive order will be to tell DNR to do its job!”
(Could Eddie Rispone possibly have been doing background research, and reading the Bayou Brief’s “Frack This” series?)
Next, candidates were asked about their stances regarding Louisiana’s criminal justice reforms, enacted in 2018.
“I advocated for the reforms, which were enacted by the Legislature in a bi-partisan manner,” Edwards said, proudly. “All the stakeholders came together. The District Attorneys’ Association supported it. The Sheriffs’ Association supported it. The voters supported it. It’s working as we hoped and expected.”
“It was a good attempt,” Rispone said, “Although the roll-out had problems. That’s because this administration is all about numbers, and many let out early were not prepared.”
“The roll-out was a disaster,” Abraham declared. “Violent criminals were released and have since raped and killed again. There should have been more concern about public safety!”
Then the congressman looked at the governor and wagged his finger, saying, ”That’s misinformation about the lawsuit. It was because a subcontractor didn’t clean up, and it was settled without going to court.”
Gov. Edwards just smiled, and waved the lawsuit paperwork again.
The trio of men were asked about Common Core.
“I was always against it,” Abraham said. “I’m driven by data, and if Common Core worked, by now Louisiana should be number one, not number 48 or 49! This governor says education is his priority one, but only in this, an election year, did he come up with a pittance of additional money for teachers and education!”
“Only in Congress can you spend money you don’t have,” Gov. Edwards replied. “That’s the difference between the state and federal government. Here we have to balance the budget, and we have to work together to do that. We didn’t have the money till the Legislature fixed the budget. And the reality is, the Common Core debate is long over. We have set appropriate standards for Louisiana students, and now we must empower our teachers to teach.”
“I was always against the federal government takeover of our schools. Common Core, that was all Obama,” Rispone said, clearly hoping few would remember how heavily he supported Jindal, who was all-in for Common Core before he was against it.
Then Rispone turned to Abraham, and said, “Regarding your lawsuit, Congressman, that included ‘mental anguish’, because that’s what plaintiff attorneys and…” then he looked over at Gov. Edwards, “It’s what trial lawyers do.”
The candidates were asked what they would change about Louisiana’s constitution, and what other budget areas they would want to see opened up for cuts, rather than the current situation which protects nearly everything except health care and higher education.
“There are lots of constitutional dedications, because legislators thought they were good, and the people voted to do protect those funding streams,” Gov. Edwards explained. “The biggest share of state tax dollars is dedicated to K-12 education. Do we want to cut that? Of course not. What we have proven with my administration is that we didn’t need to make structural changes to our constitution. We just needed to tend to our business.”
“This administration started out with a deficit, it’s true,” Rispone said. “But now there’s a $700-million surplus. And that goes to show that threatening to kick old people out of nursing homes, and threatening LSU football doesn’t work!”
(Sounds like it did work, actually.)
“What we need is an outsider with the courage to make a sea change, and call a constitutional convention so the legislators can do their jobs without having their hands tied!” Rispone continued.
“Louisiana’s constitution says higher education and health care are vulnerable, but with a conservative governor like me and a super-majority in the state House, we can fix that,” Abraham declared. “I’m not saying we should open up the entire constitution for revision, for if we did, we there is danger we could lose our careful protections for the unborn.”
Not really. Those are statutes, not constitutional amendments.
Or, as Gov. Edwards said a few times to his challengers, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. And facts are stubborn things.”
Kind of like the candidates, sticking to their talking points.