This has been some week for advance notices regarding the 2019 Louisiana governor’s race which is seemingly just itching to get started. It began with a cascade of rumors that former Shaw Group CEO and one-time Louisiana Democrat Party chair Jim Bernhard would be entering the race as a Republican; those rumors were put to bed Tuesday when Bernhard announced he was out. But no sooner did Bernhard demur but another key figure on the Louisiana industrial scene, Eddie Rispone, said he was in.
Jeremy Alford’s LAPolitics.com had the scoop yesterday, quoting Rispone as saying “I’m thinking about running” and reporting that Rispone is putting together an exploratory committee.
So who is Eddie Rispone, and why would anybody think he has a chance to be elected Louisiana’s governor next fall?
A pretty good biographical reference on Rispone can be found here, in a piece the Baton Rouge Business Report wrote on him while awarding him as the 2016 Baton Rouge Businessperson of the Year. Rispone founded ISC Constructors in Baton Rouge in 1989, and he’s grown it into a company with offices in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Beaumont and Houston and more than 2,500 employees in the industrial construction field specializing in electrical instrumentation and controls at facilities like oil refineries and chemical plants. It’s highly specialized work, but it’s pretty lucrative, which is one reason Rispone has been known for a long time as one of Louisiana’s most prominent conservative and Republican political donors. Rispone has been a past chair of the national Association of Builders and Contractors, he’s chaired the Louisiana Workforce Investment Council and he’s chaired the pro-school choice Louisiana Federation for Children, among other things.
Rispone has also been a player on the local political scene in Baton Rouge, emerging as a key backer of Bodi White’s mayoral campaign in 2016 and heading up Baton Rouge Families First, a group battling the destructive left-wing Alinskyite outfit Together Baton Rouge over things like the Industrial Tax Exemption Program and other economic and social issues. Rispone has also emerged as a key supporter of the movement to incorporate the city of St. George in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish.
He’s been a major donor to both Bobby Jindal and David Vitter, as well as a key backer of the Louisiana Republican Party. Rispone’s name, entered into a search at OpenSecrets.org, brings 217 records of donations to federal political candidates and causes over the years, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Steve Scalise, Pat Toomey,Bill Cassidy and countless others, nearly exclusively on the GOP side. Rispone did back Democrat Chris John when John was a congressman from Lafayette; he’s the only Democrat we could find among Rispone’s federal campaign contributions.
At the state level, a search under Rispone’s name at the Louisiana Ethics Board’s campaign finance portal brings up more than 80 entries, including some $78,000 to the Citizens For A Better Baton Rouge PAC, which backed White’s 2016 mayoral campaign, $200,000 to Empower Louisiana, which backed pro-school choice candidates to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2015, $150,000 to the Louisiana Federation For Children’s political action committees in 2015-17, and $200,000 for the pro-Vitter Fund For Louisiana’s Future. He’s also been a key donor to several recent conservative winners in state legislative elections – Raymond Crews and John Stefanski, for example. This is somebody who puts his money where his mouth is, and he takes on tough battles.
So if Rispone decides to actually run, he could be a formidable candidate with the right strategy and coaching.
We’ve though for some time that there could be an opening in the 2019 race for the Disgruntled Businessman who jumps into the race with a “to hell with all these politicians” message. You get that when you have objectively incompetent state government, an outmigration problem and an economy which has shrunk two years in a row, plus a state budget which is out of control and a never-ending stream of tax increases which don’t seem to be able to catch up to the growth in government spending. At some point people will begin thinking new blood is needed and look outside the political class for leadership.
There is also a long history in Louisiana of underdog candidates winning gubernatorial races out of the blue. It happened in 1979 with Dave Treen, in 1987 with Buddy Roemer, nearly with David Duke of all people in 1991, with Mike Foster in 1995, with Kathleen Blanco in 2003 and with current governor John Bel Edwards in 2015. Voters in Louisiana more often than not are willing to roll the dice on someone nobody believed had a chance when he or she got into the race. The fact Rispone could self-fund a huge portion of a high-profile statewide campaign might very well make him viable.
That said, we’re not going to get too amped up over the prospect of Rispone as the state’s next governor just yet. There are a few obstacles he’d need to clear.
First is that if Sen. John Kennedy decides to get into the race there will be a great deal of pressure on Rispone to get out. Talk to just about any Republican politico in Louisiana and you’re going to hear a solid consensus for the idea that getting rid of Edwards trumps any other consideration and that a repeat of 2015, with multiple Republicans shooting at each other while Edwards goes unscathed, is wholly unacceptable. Most people believe Kennedy beats Edwards, so there will be great reticence to toy with any other options so long as Kennedy is willing to run. Rispone might dabble in the race and serve as a placeholder for Kennedy, and there is value in that if he’s willing to aggressively message against Edwards in the meantime; he might even be successful enough that Kennedy demurs from the race to support him.
The second issue is Rispone hasn’t made a reputation for himself as an orator in Louisiana’s grand tradition. This is something which is slipping of late; Kennedy certainly has that gift of gab, and Jeff Landry might even have too much of it, but Edwards is merely average as a public speaker. For a political newcomer, though, voters are going to want to see some pizzazz and oratory flair; otherwise Rispone will just be some rich guy who wants to play on the political scene.
Here’s Rispone back in 2015 in a Louisiana Federation for Children video explaining the theory behind school choice and why it’s an improvement over the old Soviet-style public education system…
He’s fine as an advocate. He makes a lot of sense and it’s clear he’s passionate and authoritative on the issue. But as a candidate, Rispone is going to need to ramp up his game. Whether he’s got that in him remains to be seen. Soft-spoken guys don’t get elected governor around here.
Third, we’re not 100 percent sure that education, and particularly education the way Rispone wants to do it (which we completely agree with, by the way, and want to see much more of), is what’s going to move voters to vote for someone not named John Bel Edwards. We see three main issues which are killers against Edwards; to beat him a candidate will have to play them right. First is criminal justice reform, and Edwards’ sloppy implementation of it – we’ve had two separate posts about that subject this week (see them here and here). Second is the state’s moribund economy, which shrunk in both 2016 and 2017 under Edwards’ watch and still lags far behind our competitors in Texas and Florida, and one key explanation for it is Edwards’ attacks on the oil and gas industry via those hopeless coastal lawsuits his trial lawyer pals have cooked up. And third is Medicaid, and specifically Medicaid fraud, and the plague of government spending the expansion of that program has set loose – with budgetary Armageddon just around the corner and Edwards standing in the way of any and all attempts to at least reel in the criminal abuse of the program.
Those three issues are what takes Edwards down. Running on a school choice platform and castigating him as a tool of the teacher unions working against things like educational savings accounts and charter schools probably doesn’t generate a consensus at this point. So if Rispone is serious about running, he’s going to have to get very conversant with those things and be able to convince the public he knows them better than Edwards and can win the argument on them.
We’re not saying he can’t do those things. We’re just saying he doesn’t come into the race having proved it. If Rispone wants to try, though, by all means we’re happy to see him do so. If nothing else, this is someone who has proven he’s on our side ideologically. He’s walked the walk. And if he can run and win, we’d be very pleased with such a result.