The GOP opponents of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-La.) attacked the incumbent’s criminal justice reform policies and other first-term achievements at a candidate forum held Monday in Baton Rouge, previewing a potential line of attack heading into Thursday’s televised debate.
The event was the second of three face-to-face meetings of the candidates in a week, midway between televised debates at Louisiana State University and the University of Louisiana Lafayette.
The format was designed to encourage more detailed policy discussions, but the candidates remained evasive.
When asked to provide three specific policies they would pursue in office, Edwards said he would “maintain the momentum” of his first term. Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone said he would “go to work” and “recruit good people.”
Only Congressman Ralph Abraham, R-La., came close to answering the question, saying he would reverse changes Edwards made to the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, fight Medicaid fraud and call a special session to “address infrastructure, taxes and budget reform” without outlining specific goals for the session.
Edwards, the only Democrat governor in the Deep South, spent much of his time in the race defending popular policies from his first term-- like Medicaid expansion.
Earlier this year, a poll released by Louisiana State University’s Public Policy Research Lab showed that 67 percent of Louisianans approve of Medicaid expansion. Abraham and Rispone have been careful to attack only Edwards’ oversight of the program, saying rampant fraud within the program is costing the state too much money.
Last week, Rispone aired attack ads claiming that criminal justice reform bills Edwards signed into law in 2017 compromised public safety.
The reforms helped reduce the state’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate, and earned widespread public approval-- 70 percent, according to an LSU PPRL this year.
On Monday, Abraham and Rispone repeated those attacks.
“I think our criminal justice reform that we put forth was a good attempt to fix things, but the rollout it where we had a problem” Rispone said. “We had an administration that was most interested in lower numbers and not being prepared to do what needed to be done.”
He and Abraham said the early release programs at the center of the initiative put violent criminals back on the streets.
“That’s got to stop,” Abraham said. “We’ve got to get the sheriff’s, we’ve got to get the DAs in the game talking and coming up with a solution that actually works.”
But Edwards defended the effort, pointing out that sheriff’s and district attorneys helped author the legislation and highlighting the declining murder rates in Louisiana cities.
Similar exchanges have been commonplace in this race. Attacks from Abraham and Rispone have taken aim at Edwards’ implementation of popular initiatives, rather than the policies themselves.
The candidates will meet again this Thursday (September 26) in a debate hosted by LPB and the Council for a Better Louisiana at the University of Louisiana Lafayette.