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Louisiana Governor's Debate Focuses On Policy Differences

Antrell Williams

In a policy-focused second TV debate, Gov. John Bel Edwards and his Republican challengers Thursday drew starkly different pictures of Louisiana's economic and fiscal health, taking some new digs at each other in their final clash ahead of early voting.

The Deep South's only Democratic governor described a Louisiana rebounding from an economic recession and a decade of budget crises, with fewer people uninsured and new state investments in education, though he avoided describing the taxes used to stabilize state finances.

"We did the hard, bipartisan work that was necessary to right the ship," Edwards said.

His GOP competitors U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone depicted a state lagging the South and chasing away its residents with high taxes and anti-business policies.

"We should be the No. 1 state in the South when it comes to jobs and opportunities, and I'm going to do that for our future generations," said Rispone, touting his background as CEO of a Baton Rouge industrial contracting company.

Abraham, who ignored Rispone in the first debate, went after him this time. He struck at Rispone's main campaign pitch, that he's the only "job creator" in the race, the only "outsider" and his opponents are "career politicians." Abraham said he's run multiple businesses, including a farm and rural clinic, and he said Rispone's been "in politics a long time as a donor" to candidates and conservative causes.

When the candidates were allowed to question each other in one segment, Abraham said two of Edwards' state education board members voted to "allow a teacher into a Louisiana classroom who had just lost his teaching certificate in Georgia for sending sexually inappropriate text messages to a minor." Then, Abraham asked the governor: "How can parents trust you to ensure that their children are safe?

Edwards said Louisiana residents know his background "of public service" as a soldier from West Point, a state lawmaker and governor and "know that I will get up every single day to move our state forward and to make sure that everyone is safe." He indicated he didn't know what teacher Abraham mentioned, but said he intended to find out more.

"Please look into it," Abraham said.

Edwards replied, with a jab at Abraham for repeatedly missing congressional votes while campaigning: "I do my job. You don't have to admonish me. I go to work every single day."

Rispone, who has campaigned on his support of President Donald Trump, used his question to take a swipe at Abraham for a 2016 statement suggesting Trump should consider stepping aside from the GOP presidential nomination. But Abraham used the moment to hit back at Rispone for running an attack ad against him, saying the TV spot contains lies.

Voters start casting their ballots for the Oct. 12 election in the weeklong early voting period that begins Saturday.

Polls show Edwards well ahead of his competitors. Abraham and Rispone are vying to keep the incumbent from outright victory in the primary. All contenders run on the same ballot regardless of party. If Edwards doesn't top 50% of the vote, he'll face the second-place finisher in a Nov. 16 runoff, a two-man competition that could change the race's dynamics.

Abraham, a third-term congressman from northeast Louisiana, has led Rispone in most of the race's polls, even though Rispone, who is largely self-financing his campaign, has spent five times as much as Abraham.

All three candidates talked of wanting to put more money into Louisiana's crumbling roads and into early childhood education. Abraham and Rispone also talked about cutting taxes, without describing how they'd cut spending to match the reduced revenue.

Both Republicans said they'd reform the state transportation department to better spend the state's existing gas tax money, and they talked of creating budget priorities.

"We can fix this without raising taxes," Rispone said. "We just need someone who knows how to run things."

Edwards shot back: "If you can always do more with less, one day you can do everything for nothing. And the world doesn't work that way."

Thursday's TV debate was broadcast from an auditorium at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus, hosted by Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Council for A Better Louisiana.