GOP Louisiana governor candidate: Edwards’ approach is wrong
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Republican businessman Eddie Rispone said he entered the Louisiana governor’s race because he disagrees with Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards’ “whole approach to running the government,” from cabinet picks to financial policies.
A wealthy industrial contractor and first-time politician, Rispone announced his gubernatorial candidacy three months ago after listening to frustrated Republicans looking for someone to challenge Edwards on the October ballot. Rispone said he didn’t see any strong GOP candidates stepping into the race, and couldn’t imagine watching Edwards win a second term.
“The whole philosophy’s wrong,” Rispone told The Associated Press about Edwards’ performance, in the candidate’s first wide-ranging interview since jumping into the race.
Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a doctor from rural Richland Parish, launched his own gubernatorial bid in December, raising concerns about infighting within the GOP rather than a united focus on defeating Edwards. Rispone dismissed such worries.
“Right now, I don’t think it’s hurting anything. It does motivate you to go out and raise money, get things done,” he said.
To show his seriousness as a candidate, Rispone poured $5 million of his own money into the race — and said he intends to spend it.
Though the mild-mannered, self-made Baton Rouge businessman is making his first bid for public office, Rispone is no stranger to Louisiana’s political scene.
He’s a longtime donor to conservative candidates and causes. Rispone worked closely with former Gov. Bobby Jindal on workforce development initiatives and a sweeping education overhaul that expanded charter schools and voucher programs using tax dollars to help send children to private schools.
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.” He bristles when discussing Edwards’ opposition to many of the “school choice” efforts Rispone favors.
“John Bel has fought us tooth and nail on that,” he said. While he acknowledges Edwards’ education agenda has been stymied in the majority-GOP Legislature, Rispone replies: “I’m tired of playing defense. I’m ready to do something for these children.”
Edwards, whose wife was a public school teacher, is closely allied with teacher unions and traditional public school leaders. He’s argued Louisiana needs to invest more strongly in public schools, rather than divert tax dollars to other education programs that don’t serve the entire population of students.
Beyond education, Rispone criticizes Edwards’ approach to stabilizing the state’s budget, saying the Democratic governor too quickly turned to taxes to fill gaps. But Rispone said he also disagreed with Jindal’s decision to repeatedly patch together budgets with short-term financing rather than match state spending to annual, recurring revenue.
Rispone said if elected, his department chiefs would be tasked with “starting with zero budgets and proving that you need all that money.” He said Edwards “didn’t go out and recruit the absolute best people to run these agencies.”
Louisiana Democratic Party spokesman Eric Holl said Rispone’s prior support for Jindal, who left office unpopular with voters, shows the Republican candidate is out of step with the state.
“Louisiana doesn’t need to go back to the record deficits and broken government of Bobby Jindal,” Holl said in a statement.
To distinguish himself from Edwards and Abraham, Rispone repeatedly returns to his background in business. He built a company that offers engineering, construction and maintenance services to chemical and other industries, employing more than 2,500 people in Louisiana and Texas.
“I think when it comes to Ralph, our policies are going to be the same, very similar. I think the big difference there is the skillset you bring to it,” Rispone said.
On some issues, Rispone wouldn’t yet stake out specific policy positions.
For example, he criticized Edwards for what he considers a poor rollout of the governor’s signature Medicaid expansion program. But Rispone wouldn’t say whether he supports the expansion or would seek to undo the addition of nearly 500,000 people to the government-financed health insurance program, a move that cut the state’s uninsured rate in half.
“I’m sitting on the outside. I don’t know all the details yet,” he said.
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