Yesterday at the Hilton in downtown Baton Rouge, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy held its 2019 Solutions Summit, which was a showpiece of sorts for a number of policy ideas it would like to move Louisiana toward – among which are tax reform, a relaxation of the burdensome occupational licensing laws in the state, changes to Louisiana’s runaway Medicaid program, legal reform and others. But it was at the lunch portion of the program, when the two GOP gubernatorial candidates Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone participated, when some real news was made.
Specifically, that Rispone became, in the eyes of most of the attendees, a strong contender to knock out incumbent Democrat John Bel Edwards and take the governor’s mansion.
To date, Rispone – whose name ID with Louisiana’s voters is about what one might expect for a businessman making his first foray into elected office some seven months out from the primary election; in the most recent poll of the race released earlier this week 71 percent of the respondents had no opinion of him as a candidate – has polled at or slightly below 10 percent. That has put him considerably behind Abraham, who polls somewhere around 30 percent or maybe a little higher, and Edwards, who polls between 40 and 45 percent as the incumbent Democrat, in a three-way race. But while Rispone doesn’t lead Edwards in any polling, he does poll within striking distance of the governor in most head-to-head surveys.
Meaning that Rispone, like Abraham, has always been a viable contender to knock Edwards out. The question is whether he can climb over Abraham into the runoff to have a shot at doing that.
And Rispone’s circumstances in the early days of the campaign have been a case of good news-bad news.
The good news, obviously, is the $5.6 million war chest Rispone had as of his most recent campaign finance report for the period ending Dec. 31. That isn’t quite the $8.4 million Edwards declared, and $5 million of it came from Rispone’s own coffers, but with a bankroll like that he defnitely has the resources to compete in the race.
The bad news is that with the lack of name identification arising from having never run before, Rispone also had the problem of inexperience in running for office. How to give a tight, on-message stump speech, for example. How to answer questions on issues with concise, descriptive statements which stand out in the heads of voters. These are things most people think they could do if they ever ran for something, only to find out it takes a ton of practice and not a small amount of talent to actually pull off.
In previous appearances it was clear Rispone was still in development with respect to delivering a campaign message. He never really committed any serious gaffes, but in baseball terms he wasn’t really getting the barrel of the bat on the ball either. As such, we’ve consistently heard “he’s not there yet” from those in attendance at his events, and when we’ve seen him we’d have had to agree.
But yesterday was a bigger step. Rispone delivered a quality stump speech focusing on his own working-class upbringing in North Baton Rouge and his Catholic education and values, and his experience over 30 years building an industrial construction business which now does well over $300 million in annual revenues – and applying the lessons learned through that experience to solving Louisiana’s myriad administrative and fiscal problems.
Atop that application, Rispone noted, would be zero budgeting. Namely, every year Louisiana should start with a budget of zero, and then add items according to priority in state spending until there is no more revenue to be spent. Naturally, there isn’t a government on earth which has actually adopted that practice, but that isn’t much of a criticism of Rispone’s strategy – he comes from business, where wasting money means not having it to take home, and the ballooning state budget being completely unsustainable in Louisiana is a good indication that a fresh look zero budgeting would offer might improve some things.
Is it an unrealistic idea? Maybe. Louisiana running a $31 billion state budget while its economy and population shrinks is hardly realistic either.
Rispone touts the fact he’s an outsider to politics, which might be a great asset depending on how sour a mood the state’s voters are in when the campaign really heats up, and says that outsider status means he’s able to serve as a change agent the others in the race might not be. It’s a similar pitch to the one Donald Trump made in winning the presidency in 2016, though the soft-spoken Rispone, who comes off as gentlemanly rather than bombastic, won’t resemble Trump much from a style standpoint.
But Rispone’s learning. During the second part of his presentation, when asked questions by Pelican CEO Daniel Erspamer, he relayed the story of an encounter he had with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott a couple of weeks ago. Abbott, who came to Louisiana on a fundraising tour for the Republican Governors’ Association (which will play heavily in this race on Rispone and Abraham’s behalf), had noted that Texas’ economy has greatly outperformed Louisiana and outmigration from the Bayou State in both citizens and businesses had played a role. But Rispone said his response to Abbott was “when I’m governor, we’re gonna kick your butt.”
Nobody in Louisiana has talked about kicking Texas’ butt for a long time, and the audience got a nice charge out of that line.
Another applause line Rispone launched was when he proposed a constitutional amendment forcing any tax increase to go before the voters before it could be adopted – which in front of the Pelican Institute’s crowd was a sure winner. Given the past four years of never-ending tax increases, it’s no surprise the audience liked hearing an effort to restrict tax hikes – though we worry, based on the experience of cowardly legislators furthering constitutional amendments onto the public rather than stepping up to kill bad ideas, whether Rispone’s amendment might actually make it easier to pass tax increases while intending the opposite.
Rispone didn’t go into detail on another key part of his message, that being the reorientation of the structural relationship between state and local government, but he did hint at it. And he mentioned something else interesting, that being a meeting he had with a group of business and political leaders in Lake Charles interested in rebuilding that city’s dilapidated I-10 bridge before it falls into the lake; that group came up with a proposal that wouldn’t have cost the state anything on net, only to see it go nowhere when presented to the governor. Rispone mentioned that story as an example of what could change with more competent leadership than Louisiana currently has on the Fourth Floor.
It’s pretty clear Edwards’ camp got a bit hot under the collar over the performance. The governor’s increasingly shrill spokesman Eric Holl put out this rather shrieking statement: “Abraham and Rispone both acted like Bobby Jindal today: Abraham skipped his votes in Congress to campaign for higher office, and Rispone announced that he’s considering eliminating every single critical public service in Louisiana as part of a political ploy,” Holl said. “Gov. Edwards worked on a bipartisan basis to clean up Jindal’s mess and turn the $2 billion deficit into a surplus. Thanks to that surplus, we can finally invest in our teachers, schools and higher education.”
When you’re still talking about Bobby Jindal in 2019, you’re out of material. And if your response to zero budgeting is to claim it means eliminating critical public services, when the entire point of zero budgeting is to identify which items are critical and fund those as a priority over things which are not critical, nobody should give even a cursory thought to anything you say.
It isn’t like Abraham had a bad day yesterday. He was folksy, and he talked a lot about Louisiana having immense natural resources and great people who ought to be more prosperous, and Abraham said the first thing he’d do as governor is to disband Edwards’ cabal of trial lawyers attempting to pump up coastal lawsuits against the oil and gas industry – which earned him applause from the audience. But overall he wasn’t quite as on-message as Rispone; something which was a bit of a new development.
Either one are perfectly plausible winners over Edwards, as the polls consistently show. And both are still candidates in development, which is to be expected seven months out from the primary. But now there’s a real race to carry the Republican standard, and that’s a development those of us ready to see Edwards be an ex-governor can take solace in.