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Analysis: Temporary secretary of state treated as incumbent

October 15, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s interim secretary of state has been in the job fewer than six months, not elected to the position and only ascending to it because of a scandal. Still, Kyle Ardoin is running as an incumbent.

That campaign decision has put a target on Ardoin’s back from the other contenders seeking the job as Louisiana’s chief elections official on the Nov. 6 ballot. It’s also given Ardoin the office’s baggage, including controversies that aren’t helpful to his message.

Ardoin, a Baton Rouge Republican, is running on his eight years as first assistant secretary of state and the handful of months in charge. He’s made experience the centerpiece of his campaign since the moment he announced he was running for the job — after repeatedly saying he had no intention of entering the race.

“Can we afford on the job training?” Ardoin said at a recent forum. “There’s not a single candidate that has the depth of experience that I have and the unique cybersecurity experience that I have to deal with the election issues that face our state today and our nation.”

Some of the other eight candidates in the race point to two recent controversies in the office involving sexual harassment allegations and claims of bungled voting machine replacement work, and they ask: If this is the experience and leadership Ardoin offers, should voters want it?

“Kyle Ardoin is not qualified to lead the secretary of state’s office,” said Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baton Rouge Republican running for the position.

Rep. Julie Stokes, a Kenner Republican also in the race, said: “This department has seen a lot of ruckus lately ... I think that it’s high time that we have a fresh set of eyes, we remove the scandal from the office and start fresh.”

Beyond Edmonds and Stokes, other contenders include former Sen. A.G. Crowe, a Pearl River Republican; Turkey Creek Mayor Heather Cloud, a Republican; and Renee Fontenot Free, a Baton Rouge Democrat who worked as top aide to two previous secretaries of state.

The special election was called after Republican Tom Schedler resigned, accused of sexually harassing an employee.

Ardoin, Schedler’s first assistant who took over in May, sought to distance himself from the sexual harassment scandal that pushed him into the job, saying he didn’t know about the allegations until the woman filed a lawsuit against Schedler. He’s said he enacted the “strictest policy in all of state government” against sexual harassment since he’s been in charge.

But Ardoin’s opponents also are panning the secretary of state’s work to replace Louisiana’s 10,000 voting machines — work that started when Schedler was in charge of the office and continued when Ardoin took over. And they got more ammo in that fight Wednesday night, when the chief state procurement officer, finding problems with the vendor selection, threw out the voting machine contract award and said the bid process would have to be redone.

Free called the handling of the voting machine contract work a “fiasco.”

“When I served as first assistant secretary of state from 2004 to 2008, I was in charge of the procurement of the voting machines we still use today, and I did it without a hint of scandal,” she said in a statement.

Edmonds said the decision showed Ardoin’s mismanagement of the office.

“It’s time to end this scandal-plagued administration. It’s time to clean up Kyle’s mess. This just brings embarrassment to the office,” he said.

Before the contract award was tossed out, Ardoin described the evaluation process as fair and suggested criticism about the selection was “baloney.” After the decision was issued, Ardoin lashed out at Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, accusing the chief procurement officer — who is in the Edwards administration — of siding with a losing bidder because the company’s lobbyist is an Edwards supporter. The Edwards administration said that claim was absurd.

The problem for Ardoin is that running as an incumbent comes with both the good and bad of the office.

He replies that the criticism isn’t a commentary on his management, but of his “front-runner status” as incumbent: “They’re playing politics. I’m leading a state agency.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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