Louisiana Spotlight: The mud flies as governor race nears end
By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana governor’s race has devolved into a trash-talking slugfest in its final days ahead of the Nov. 16 election.
Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards and his Republican challenger Eddie Rispone have traded accusations of race-baiting and veteran-bashing. The state Republican Party dredged up ancestral history to hurl insults at Edwards. And the only debate of the runoff competition disintegrated into finger-pointing about lies told on the campaign trail.
A negative turn likely was inevitable when the governor’s race reached a head-to-head matchup between Edwards and Rispone. In tight runoff competitions like this one, campaigns regularly turn to attack ads to try to peel support off their challenger.
Any questions about just how intense the mudslinging would get were answered in the only runoff debate between Edwards and Rispone. The two men talked over each other, accused each other of falsehoods and offered little in the way of a policy discussion.
Rispone accused Edwards of releasing dangerous criminals. Edwards accused Rispone of planning to strip health care from hundreds of thousands. Both candidates accused each other of lying and fearmongering.
At one point, Edwards told his Republican challenger: “You don’t know what you don’t know. And quite frankly, what you don’t know is astounding.”
Rispone, meanwhile, knocked Edwards as a “liberal trial lawyer” and a “career, tax-and-spend politician” in nearly every response he gave. Outside of his support for Trump, those criticisms of Edwards are among Rispone’s favored talking points.
A few days later, Rispone repeated those criticisms of Edwards in an interview with an Alexandria radio station — but then added another. He said the Democratic incumbent, a West Point graduate, has “hurt the reputation” of the military academy because of his work as a trial lawyer.
Edwards called the comments offensive and Rispone desperate.
“If he had served his country in the military, he might be able to understand why so many veterans are rightfully upset with his comments,” Edwards said.
The moment gave Edwards an opportunity to highlight his military service, both at West Point and his time as an Army Ranger. He’s running TV and radio ads about the topic and put out statements from veterans praising his service.
Rispone said his radio interview comments stemmed from “two West Point people” who told him they were embarrassed by Edwards’ behavior. Rispone wouldn’t name them.
“I love veterans. I support veterans,” the Republican contender said. “What I was talking about was a liberal, tax-and-spend trial lawyer as our governor. And then they flip that around trying to say I don’t like vets. That’s ridiculous.”
While Edwards continued to hammer Rispone on the West Point comments and call him “phony Rispone,” Rispone added a new complaint of his own against Edwards. He blamed Edwards for anti-Trump radio ads, including one linking the president and Rispone to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
“That’s how low they will stoop to win this race. It’s incredible. It’s disgusting,” Rispone said.
The advertising was done by the New Orleans-based Black Organization for Leadership Development, or BOLD. One of several radio spots, the ad encouraged minority voters to “vote against hatred” by choosing Edwards.
Edwards said he wasn’t involved in the advertising. The Duke-themed spot is no longer running, according to a BOLD member. Still, Rispone is using it to energize his voters, including clips from the radio spot in his own ads and bringing it up in speeches.
Rispone doesn’t mention, however, that his own party invoked race even as it criticized Edwards and his backers for stoking racial tensions.
In an email, the Republican Party described Edwards as coming from a family that “has been racist for generations.” The email linked to conservative news sites’ descriptions of Edwards’ family as slave owners before the Civil War and his grandfather as a segregationist lawmaker.
Edwards’ campaign provided comments from the leader of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus defending Edwards’ record as fighting for equal opportunity and a statement from Edwards saying his ancestors’ actions “if true, do not in any way reflect my views.”
As Louisiana reaches the last week before the election, the remaining ballots likely will be cast among more volleying of attacks, rather than substance.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte