Having seen Eddie Rispone’s performances in the televised debates, more than a few Twitter wits have remarked on the Republican candidate for governor’s resemblance to the late Ross Perot, who passed away in July.
“I’m starting to believe in reincarnation. I do believe that funny little man Ross Perot died, and immediately came back as Eddie Rispone. Call it deja vu, from ‘92!” one rhymster quipped.
Another tweet was more harsh: “Eddie Rispone is like an extra-racist, off-brand Louisiana version of Ross Perot.”
Some of that comparison no doubt results from Rispone’s silver hair and comparatively diminutive stature. Perot, who was 62 when he stepped onto the national political stage in 1992, stood a mere 5’5”. But the majority is due primarily to the high pitch of Eddie’s voice.
“He reminds me of a bad parody of Ross Perot, without any of the redeeming humor of Dana Carvey’s impersonation,” said another social media commenter.
(You can observe and make the mental comparison for yourself, Wednesday night, October 9. Louisiana’s network of Gray-owned TV stations – KSLA in Shreveport, WVUE Fox8 in New Orleans, WAFB in Baton Rouge, KPLC in Lake Charles, KALB in Alexandria, and KATC in Lafayette – will be airing the last pre-primary debate at 7 p.m.).
Both Perot and Rispone could be deemed business moguls. Both have been branded (in the case of Rispone, self-branded) as “outsiders.” But while the surface similarities may be striking, the policy framework behind each man’s facade is vastly different from the other.
Perot advocated for a balanced federal budget, an increase in the fuel tax, and higher taxes on the wealthy. He supported an assault rifle ban, gay rights, and was pro-choice, actively supporting Planned Parenthood. In present-day political descriptives, Perot would be termed “progressive.”
Rispone – as most ambitious Republicans are wont to do – is making every effort to embrace the sobriquet of “most conservative.” He opposes abortion under any circumstances, preferring to assert the “right to life” of the fetus any rights (including life) of the woman who is providing that potential human with all its sustenance. And, no matter what it costs citizens’ quality of life by way of reducing or eliminating current government programs, Rispone wants to lower taxes, particularly his own.
He can be termed a “self-made” multi-millionaire, as was Perot, although we do know Eddie Rispone has had more than a little help from Louisiana taxpayers in achieving his wealth.
He’s the chairman of ISC Constructors, LLC, which he founded with his brother, Jerry, in 1989. (Jerry, by the way, has a son named “Lane”. We can only speculate, but perhaps… in tribute to Lane Grigsby?) ISC is an industrial engineering and construction company based in Baton Rouge, with divisions in Beaumont and Houston, Texas and Sulphur, Louisiana. They design and build electrical instrumentation and control systems for large industrial plants, and employ approximately 2500 people.
As of 2015, ISC was ranked number 19 of the top 50 electrical contractors in the U.S., with annual revenue of $329-million. Since then, the industrial building boom in Louisiana has provided ISC with more work and close to a half-billion dollars in annual revenues.
Rispone’s wealth is great enough that his family foundation has assets in excess of $12-million, according to ProPublica. And he has been able to primarily self-fund his gubernatorial campaign with more than $10-million.
Profiting From the System
With no intentions of casting any aspersions on Rispone’s business acumen or the caliber of work performed by ISC Constructors, there is little doubt that he and his businesses have benefited greatly from Louisiana’s corporate-friendly tax incentive programs, although it’s difficult to quantify the actual dollar amount.
While ISC has participated in nearly every major industrial project constructed in the state over the past decade, they are sub-contractors. The company designs and installs the electrical components and control systems that run the machinery in refineries and chemical plants.
According to the Louisiana Department of Economic Development, from 2008-2016, ISC Constructors was a subcontractor on industrial projects that – combined – received more than $750-million in ten-year property tax exemptions under the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP). Projects at Motiva, PCS Nitrogen, Shell, and Valero Refining created 19 new full-time jobs between them. Other ISC-involved expansions- for Rubicon, TOTAL Chemicals, Exxon Mobil, and Marathon – created no new jobs whatsoever.
That should come as no real surprise because ISC primarily installs new computerized technologies and automation equipment that reduces or eliminates the need for human operators. What they do for these industries is, essentially, geared to eliminating jobs.
ISC has, however, directly benefited from the state’s Enterprise Zone tax credits.
For their work on the Sasol project in Calcasieu Parish, they’ve been getting $2.5 million a year in payroll tax credits since 2014, plus rebates on sales and use taxes for the materials, machinery and supplies used on the project. At ISC’s main headquarters in Baton Rouge, the addition of a new engineering facility, started in 2013, has netted nearly $3-million per year in payroll tax credits, plus sales tax rebates. The LED website currently lists both of these as “active contracts.”
As we have previously reported, in February and March of 2016, ISC Constructors asked the U.S. Department of Labor for permission to hire three foreign citizens, each at a base salary of $56,000 a year, through the controversial H1-B visa system. At the time those applications were made, ISC was in the middle of settlement negotiations with nearly a hundred former employees who were alleging they had not been properly compensated for the hour they had worked. The majority of them were Hispanic, and ISC ultimately settled the trio of federal class-action lawsuits with those 96 workers.
Perhaps that partially explains this full-page ad Rispone ran in the Times-Picayune on Friday, July 19th, promising violence when and if he is elected.
Education “Reform” Insider
Rispone’s campaign has done its utmost to depict him as a just an average working class, pickup-driving granddad. They dressed him in jeans and a plaid shirt for a TV ad, talking about the Trump bumper sticker on his truck, trying to make you think he’s simply another “good ol’ boy.” That ad, like nearly all his others, pushes a brand name: “outsider.”
After all, political outsiders don’t generally fund and operate political action committees (PACs) of their own, nor do they contribute four, five, even six-figure amounts to candidates or other PACs. Rispone has been doing all of that for the past dozen years.
His entry into the world of political influence can be traced back to 1996, when he began developing deeper connections with the other two men now comprising the Erector Set. That year, Rispone was elected president of Associated Builders and Contractors Pelican Chapter, which Lane Grigsby had helped co-found in 1980. Art Favre served as one of ABC’s vice-presidents. In addition, Rispone was named to the executive committee of LABI’s Board of Directors, on which Grigsby served, that same year.
Over the years, this triad, through their companies, have contributed to ABC Pelican PAC, which Rispone’s son, Thad, now runs. Most recently, that PAC funded the Louisiana House Republican Caucus’s advertising and video campaign, through the four 2018 legislative sessions.
(Side note: political consultant Lionel Rainey, who ran the 2018 Louisiana House GOP campaign, is now managing Ralph Abraham’s gubernatorial run – not Rispone’s.)
Okay, that’s trivia; relatively minor money and influence, especially when compared to the rest of Rispone’s political story. But it does illustrate the long-term connections of the Erector Set cabal, and how long they’ve had to develop and test some of the strategy they’re using in openly seeking power this election year.
Rispone’s first notable taste of political power and influence came after then-Gov. Bobby Jindal named him to chair the Louisiana Workforce Investment Council in 2009. That group, comprised of business owners, public officials, trade and labor group leaders, was tasked with finding ways to prepare for Louisiana’s future workforce needs.
That was where they all began talking about the need for business and industry to “step in” and “assist” public education. The opportunity for business to profit – not just by having better-trained workers – but from the money taxpayers put into public education was too good to pass up. (As early as 2001, Ed Next – a publication of the corporately-funded EducationNext.org – had touted the potential in an article titled The Private Can Be Public.)
Louisiana had already made some moves in the direction of “education reform” (as the privatization movement is generally known), primarily in New Orleans, as financial necessity in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina encouraged the proliferation of charter schools. Additionally, in his first year as governor in 2008, Jindal – a devout Catholic – had pushed for lawmakers to authorize the funding of vouchers, so disadvantaged New Orleans schoolchildren could attend parochial schools, with state taxpayers covering the tuition. Jindal hoped to expand the program, officially referred to as “scholarships”, statewide. Rispone, also a devout Catholic, loved that idea and much of the rest of the “reform” platform. He then, along with Lane Grigsby, engaged in building some of the infrastructure that would help advance comprehensive “education reform” through Louisiana’s Legislature in 2012.
He and his wife Linda put $750,000 into producing The Experiment documentary, about students in New Orleans charter schools. Released in 2011, like the more widely-viewed 2010 film, Waiting For Superman, it became part of the public relations campaign put on by education reformers prior to the 2012 Louisiana legislative session.
As executive producers, Eddie and Linda benefited tax-wise from making the film. In 2010, they received a refundable income tax credit for $213,484.58, through Louisiana’s film tax credit program.
Rispone also started and chaired the Louisiana Federation for Children, a state chapter of the national American Federation for Children, defined by SourceWatch as “a conservative 501(c)(4) dark money group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues. The group was organized and is funded by the billionaire DeVos family, who are the heirs to the Amway fortune.” (Yes, that would be the same DeVos – current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. And on ISC Constructors’ website, there’s a July 2017 article bragging about a meeting Rispone had with the Secretary, and the length of their work together.)
Rispone ran the Louisiana Federation for Children PAC during the 2011 push to elect BESE members who would support giving John White the State Superintendent position, and the PAC also funneled money to legislative candidates who had indicated they backed education reform. The PAC spent $283,000 on those races.
The PAC lay fallow for the next three years, but in the election year of 2015, it started receiving large cash infusions, including contributions from DeVos and the Waltons. Rispone and his wife Linda each put $100,000 in, and at one point, the PAC had more than a half-million-dollars available to spend. It again put money into legislative races, as well as spending more than $122,000 to support three of the candidates for BESE. But the biggest spending came in November 2015, during the governor race runoff. LFC PAC spent over $265,000 on media buys opposing John Bel Edwards.
Shortly after Edwards’ inauguration, the Louisiana Federation for Children ran a TV ad campaign attacking the governor. They were upset over possible reductions to the statewide voucher program, which were being discussed – along with other cutbacks – as options for dealing with the budget mess left for Edwards by the Jindal administration. At a Republican meet-and-greet in January 2019, Rispone admitted he had personally financed the attack ads.
And in the summer of 2016, Rispone started a second LFC PAC – the Louisiana Federation for Children Action Fund, putting $150,000 of his personal money into it. Jim Walton contributed another $100,000 to the fund in December 2018, which was Rispone’s last as chairman of LFC, and as the operator of its two PACs. He resigned from the organization due to his gubernatorial campaign.
“God Has Asked Me”
On various occasions, Rispone has told Republican supporters that his decision to run for governor – like his advocacy for school reforms – “It’s all about my faith.”
And as Melinda Deslatte of AP described Rispone: “He chokes back tears when describing a drive to try to help thousands of children who attend public schools deemed failing by the state, saying ‘God has asked me to do something about his kids’.”
That may play well with voters outside the capital region, but those who live in the Baton Rouge area identify Eddie Rispone closely with the “St. George” movement, and all its undertones of white privilege. He’s been one of the biggest backers and funders behind the effort to carve out a new city – with its own school district – utilizing the Baton Rouge suburbs.
That voter initiative is on this October 12 ballot.
St. George and the School District Dragon
In 2012, the same year as the push for education reform, there was also a move to create a new school district within East Baton Rouge parish. State Sen. Bodi White filed bills to create Southeast Baton Rouge Community School System, which required a statewide constitutional amendment, plus separate approval by voters in the new district and voters in EBR parish as a whole. He also had a bill to allow creation of future separate school districts without requiring a constitutional amendment.
The new district would have grabbed 10 schools, including the 3 newest schools built by EBR. The measures died on the House floor.
In 2013, Sen. White tried again. At the time, I was covering education for LPB, and I asked him about this seeming to be a move toward resegregation.
“We’ve been through a lot in this parish in the last 30 years, with desegregation, forced busing. There’s a huge distrust about the school system,” White said, then added it’s not about race – it’s about economics.
“Probably about half of the school-age kids in this parish go to private or parochial schools. It’s an economic concern. Can you afford to send your kids to another school? We can pay it, but it’s killing us. I can’t put any money in my 401K. I can’t put any money in their higher education fund. I can’t upsize my house. You take $30,000 or more – cash – for tuition out of our household budget – it’s crippling us!”
He was certain a new school district was the answer.
“The people who live in this area of the parish would love to be able to send their kids back to public schools.”
Again, no joy in the legislature for a new school district. So by end of 2013, the movement to create the city of St George was launched.
Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University observed at the time, “Though the campaign doesn’t talk about it in these terms, a predominantly white and middle-class area of south Baton Rouge is attempting to secede from a school system and a city that is majority African-American. Instead, they have the temerity to say with a straight face that this has nothing to do with race.“
In 2014, Rispone put $100,000 into the Better Schools, Better Futures PAC, which supported the St. George city creation. That PAC was run by Lane Grigsby.
When the St. George initiative failed to muster enough support to make the ballot, Rispone created the Citizens for a Better Baton Rouge PAC with $125,000 of his own, plus more than $83,000 from fellow member of the Erector Set, Art Favre. That PAC ran ads and sent out direct mailings in support of Bodi White’s 2016 run for mayor of Baton Rouge. (White lost.)
Yet Rispone, who now claims his campaign for the governorship is “all about my faith”, has a real bone to pick with the activist church and community-based organization, Together Baton Rouge, blaming them for the first failure of St. George. Last year, with the renewed effort underway to create the new city, Rispone started a non-profit organization to counter Together Baton Rouge, called Baton Rouge Families First.
“Together Baton Rouge opposed a group of parents trying to get a better education for their children,” he said, when announcing the new non-profit. “It might have been called St. George, but it was really about giving children a better education.”
Acknowledging that TBR’s opposition to cookie-cutter approvals of ITEPs further incensed him, he questioned that group’s actions as an expression of its members’ faith, saying, “If Together Baton Rouge truly wants to help families you would think they would be working with their ally religious leaders in educating congregants about morals, virtues, independence and family life – the bedrock of a sound society.”
“All about faith”? “Educating about morals, virtues, family life”? With all due respect, Mr. Rispone, what do your campaign contributions say about how much you truly treasure those values?
You and your company contributed more than $352,000 to David Vitter – his federal and state campaigns, and his Fund for Louisiana’s Future Super PAC – since the revelation and his admission of a “serious sin” in 2007.
In addition, you gave $100,000 to the Trump Victory fund, and have made every effort to hitch your campaign wagon to Trump’s star. This is the same man who bragged on tape that, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.”
So, unsurprisingly, Trump isn’t saving all his love for you. He and his son and his vice president have been stumping – at the same time, on the same stage – for both you and Ralph Abraham.
Now, Eddie, don’t you wish you were an insider, after all?