Incumbent Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and Republican Congressman Ralph Abraham solidified themselves as the frontrunners of their respective parties Thursday night in the first gubernatorial debate of 2019.
Eddie Rispone, a Baton Rouge businessman and self-described political outsider, dismissed Edwards and Abraham as “career politicians,” but struggled to provide detailed policy proposals of his own.
In a poll released by debate hosts Nexstar Media Group earlier this week, Edwards led all candidates with the support of 41 percent of respondents. Next was Abraham with 24 percent followed by Rispone at 16.
That pecking order carried over to the debate stage Thursday night.
Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, touted the budget stability achieved during his first term and defended the sales tax increase he signed into law to bolster the budget.
In 2015, the legislature passed a temporary half-cent increase to the state sales tax to balance the budget. Last year, the legislature renewed most of that increase until 2025.
Edwards supported the move, saying the increased revenue has allowed the state to better fund higher education and give K-12 teachers in public schools a long-awaited raise.
“The worst thing we can do as a state is to go back to the structural budget deficit we just came out of that we had for the better part of 10 years,” Edwards said.
Both Republican challengers criticized those increases, but the toughest attacks came from Abraham.
“You said that raising the sales tax will kill the Louisiana economy,” Abraham said, reading from an op-ed Edwards wrote as a state representative. “Congratulations Governor, you’ve killed it and it’s because our taxes are too high.”
Edwards dismissed those comments, citing the state’s lowest unemployment rate in 11 years and an anticipated budget surplus of $500 million in the last fiscal year.
Rispone, who has never held political office, said the state needs to be run like a business, and that he’s the man to do it.
His answer for almost every policy question was to create jobs and stimulate the state economy by decreasing taxes and creating a business friendly legal environment. But that refrain lacked specificity.
“You know our problem is we’ve had politicians heading this up for years and years kicking the can down the road,” Rispone said of the state Department of Transportation’s backlog of infrastructure projects.
“That’s why we need a businessperson, not a bunch of politicians... always asking for more money.”
Rispone stirred controversy in the days leading up to the debate with his attacks on Edwards and, for the first time, Abraham.
Top state Republicans criticized Rispone for challenging Abraham’s attendance record in Congress and alleging that Abraham lied about donating his congressional salary to charity.
Rispone did not repeat his attacks on the debate stage Thursday, but the moderators did, asking Abraham to explain why he missed 44 percent of his votes on Capitol Hill.
Abraham’s absences sparked one of the most contentious exchanges of the evening.
When Abraham called for work requirements for Medicaid recipients, Edwards took a swipe at him saying he did not support such requirements, but did, “support work requirements for members of Congress.”
“I challenge the audience to look at your record when you ran for governor, when you were in the legislature,” Abraham shot back, sparking a rally of retorts before the moderators regained control.
The candidates did agree on some issues.
All three were in lock-step in supporting legislation Edwards signed into law earlier this year that would ban abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy without exceptions for rape or incest.
Each candidate also said he would oppose any effort to ban semiautomatic rifles, support fully funding the TOPS scholarship program and collaborate with President Donald Trump on projects benefiting the state.
Edwards, Abraham and Rispone will meet again in a candidate forum at the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday.
The next televised debate will be co-hosted by Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Council for A Better Louisiana Thursday Sept. 26 at the University of Louisiana- Lafayette.