There’s a memorable scene in the 2004 comedy “I Heart Huckabees” in which a sleazy corporate PR rep named Brad Stand (played by Jude Law), while being confronted by a pair of “existential detectives,” the Jaffes (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman), unintentionally talks himself into a nervous breakdown after off-handedly asking the couple what he had intended to be a dismissive truism.

“How am I not myself?” Stand asks. The married detectives repeat the question aloud, over and over again, as if it’s a Japanese koan, a question so profound that any attempt at its answer threatens to unravel the entire mystery of existence itself. How am I not myself?

Brad Stand goes crazy.

During Wednesday night’s first and only gubernatorial debate between incumbent John Bel Edwards and rookie challenger Eddie Rispone, viewers somehow came away knowing less about Rispone than they had before, and at one point, Rispone seemed to be teetering on the edge of his own existential crisis.

“I am a person,” he said toward the end of the hour, “of myself.” The closed captioning software nearly short-circuited as well.

Rispone has spent the bulk of the runoff campaign selling himself to voters as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Trump Organization while also attempting to individuate from his self-identified “kingmaker,” Lane Grigsby. What he has failed to do at all, unfortunately, is demonstrate even a working knowledge of the job he seeks and the state he hopes to lead.

I wish I were being flippant. Heck, even Dan Fagan, the shock jock conservative radio host who somehow scored a gig transcribing his Morning Zoo routine on the editorial pages of The Advocate, agreed that Edwards won the debate on substance, though, to be sure, Fagan thought John Bel was a big ol’ meanie about the facts and, as everyone knows now, conservative voters are absolutely repulsed by any politician who disparages their opponent for “lyin’,” “cheatin’,” being ”corrupt” or ”lazy” or “low-energy” or “sleepy.” I doubt we will ever forget what happened to the candidate who attacked a favorite of the TEA Party by suggesting the man’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In all seriousness, Edwards, despite what Faintin’ Fagan would have us believe, did all that anyone in his position should be obligated to do: He watched Rispone swing and miss every softball lobbed in his direction.

In their penultimate debate, the two men were allowed to ask one another a question. Edwards asked Rispone why he contributed the maximum to support Bobby Jindal’s campaign for President, and Rispone just straight-up lied, claiming the donation had been made through one of his companies. He checked on it, he said.

It was easier for Rispone to claim he’d committed federal campaign finance fraud (corporations cannot give directly to presidential candidates) than to just admit the truth. When it was Rispone’s turn to ask, he focused on another presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. He wanted to know why the governor was a superdelegate for the Democratic nominee in 2016. (I was there. The answer is simple. The rules automatically gave him a vote, and he supported the candidate who won the most voters in the primary in Louisiana). I get it though: This was about nationalizing the race for governor and promoting blind fealty to Donald Trump as if it signals something virtuous and unsullied; it’s all Rispone is about.

Edwards dropped the question about Jindal on Wednesday’s debate, but Rispone repeated his question about a candidate who is less popular than only one other major party nominee in American history. Hint: He recently declared residency in Florida, and he will be performing at the Improv in Monroe next week.

Veteran political reporter Jim Engster pegs Rispone’s personal net worth at around $40 million, which means that, during the primary, Eddie Rispone spent one-third of his entire fortune on his campaign for governor. That, of course, doesn’t factor in the millions more that his kingmaker Grigsby has pumped into the race. The two men have spent a staggering and disproportionate amount of money for the keys to the Governor’s Mansion, and yet neither one of them has been able to articulate a rationale for their investment, other than simply some vague notion about the accumulation of power.

This is how Rispone answered a direct question about the changes he plans on making in a proposed Constitutional Convention:

Mark Ballard: Beginning with Mr. Rispone. You’ve been advocating a constitutional convention to rewrite the entire document, and Gov. Edwards, you’ve indicated the changes ought to be made through amendments. But whatever approach y’all take, what programs’ funding would you seek to protect? And let’s try to be specific. Would you protect the homestead exemption? Supplemental pay for law enforcement? K through 12 funding?

Eddie Rispone: Of course. We’re going to always protect education, the public funding of education. We’re going to protect law enforcement and our first responders. And we’re going to do those things. We’re going to protect… That’s in there. All those things. And we’re going to protect the citizens of Louisiana. We’re going to protect the unborn. We’re going to protect the unborn, and first… we are going to protect all of those things dear to us. The First Amendment, the Second Amendment, we’re going to do…. When we talk about a constitutional convention, we’re going to have to do things to make ourselves competitive with other states; that’s why we’re 50th. Even the governor talks about it. If we keep doing the same thing….

You get the idea. It’s a free association word salad made of the talking points memo he’d memorized. He talked twice about firing the water boy for the LSU Football team if the team had a losing record.

He seemed to have no clue that Jeff Landry was suing in federal court to strike down guaranteed health insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The governor asked what he’d do if Landry was successful.”The law is already in place,” Rispone claimed. Yes, yes, but that’s the law he wants to strike down. Then, Rispone simply moved on.

At one point, he mistakenly and bizarrely argued that employment numbers from the United States Bureau of Economic Data were from 2012; they weren’t.

When Edwards asked how Rispone would ensure Louisiana improved equal pay outcomes, Rispone pretended as if the problem didn’t actually exist… at least in his industry. “But you’re not running to be governor of your industry,” Edwards hit back.

He asked what the governor would do to punish New Orleans for being ”a sanctuary city.”

“That’s a stupid question,” Edwards hammered back, citing findings by the Trump Administration Department of Justice for emphasis.

From L-R: First Lady Donna Edwards, Gov. John Bel Edwards, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and James Carville at an event honoring Edwards at Carville and Matalin’s family home in New Orleans. Photo by Lamar White, Jr.

Two days prior, at a packed campaign fundraiser at James Carville and Mary Matalin’s home in New Orleans, the governor pointed out something that should seem obvious, particularly to those who live and work in the Big Easy.

“My opponent is actively campaigning against the city of New Orleans,” he said. There are other words for Rispone’s strategy.

“And he is only campaigning for the votes of members of a single political party,” Edwards explained.

Rispone may not be willing to share what he plans to do if elected, and there is likely a good reason: It’s not because he is actually clueless; you don’t spend $12 million of your own money unless you have a set of priorities, and based on the little we have been able to piece together, Rispone’s primary objectives have nothing to do with helping Trump build a wall. He has no desire to solve our backlog of transportation infrastructure projects. When Rispone boasted that he would create 25,000 new jobs during his first term, Gov. Edwards acknowledged his opponent’s ambition and reminded him that he had created nearly 40,000 new jobs since his election.

There’s a reason he hasn’t bothered to do his homework about the job he’s applying for. John Bel Edwards touched on it during Wednesday’s debate: Eddie Rispone is running to be governor of his industry. If he wins, the rest of the state may suffer, but Rispone, Grigsby, and their family-controlled, mega-wealthy construction companies will never need to ask permission for anything again. And that’s why, right now, they’re going for broke.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar White, Jr. is an award-winning writer and the publisher and founder of the Bayou Brief, Louisiana’s only statewide news and culture publication. Born and raised on the banks of the Red River in Alexandria, he is a proud product of the Louisiana public education system and a graduate of Rice University in Houston and SMU’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas. Lamar has been writing about politics and public policy in Louisiana for twenty years, beginning as a weekly youth columnist for his hometown paper, the Town Talk. After earning his undergraduate degree in English and Religious Studies, Lamar moved back to Alexandria, where he launched a popular blogsite, CenLamar, and worked for five years as the Special Assistant to the Mayor. He exposed significant problems with Louisiana’s school voucher program, which resulted in a series of other investigations and ultimately in the removal of several schools from the program. He was the last person to argue online with Andrew Breitbart. He investigated and then broke the report that U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise had once attended a white supremacist conference. He was the first to share a photograph of Bobby Jindal’s portrait in the state Capitol. He exposed U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy’s incomplete timesheets while the then-representative moonlighted as a physician. He earned headlines in Texas after the gubernatorial campaign of Greg Abbott falsely claimed he had been exploited as a “campaign prop” by Abbott’s opponent, Wendy Davis, and after exposing U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign for relying on online “bot farms” to counter Beto O’Rourke, and he earned headlines in Mississippi after publishing videos of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith making bizarre comments about public hangings and voter suppression tactics which were both perceived as racist. Lamar was the recipient of the 2011 Ashley Morris Award, given to the writer who best exemplifies the spirit of New Orleans, and in 2019, he was honored as one of Gambit’s Top 40 Under 40 and as the year’s Outstanding Millennial in Journalism at the annual Millennial Awards. He has been the subject of profiles in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Above the Law, and the Advocate and has appeared multiple times as a guest on CNN and MSNBC. Lamar currently lives in New Orleans with his two golden retrievers, Lucy Ana and Ruby Dog.