- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2019

With Louisiana’s gubernatorial primary drawing closer, the top three candidates sharpened their knives Thursday in the second debate, hammering each other on everything from taxes to work ethic.

Incumbent Democrat John Bel Edwards, who seemed to be playing before a home crowd at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, tried to stay on point, arguing he deserves reelection for increasing economy growth and expanding the health insurance rolls.

His two chief Republican opponents, meanwhile, accused the governor of boosting taxes to grow government and then riding the coattails of President Trump’s economic surge.

The debate unfolded as Mr. Edwards — the only Democratic chief executive in a Deep South state — enjoys a comfortable lead in polls, with his GOP opponents, Rep. Ralph Abraham and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, shifting in the second spot.

In Louisiana’s “jungle primary” system, one of the three must win more than 50 percent plus 1 of the vote Oct. 12 to avoid a November runoff between the top two vote getters.

“There’s been 34,000 new — yes, created — jobs,” Mr. Edwards shot back in response to repeated claims Louisiana jobs have slipped.

Mr. Edwards was referring to his entire four years in office, and when his opponents tried to narrow the attack to the last 12 months the governor insisted “that’s just a false statement.”

In the 12 months ending last August, federal statistics showed Louisiana jobs had increased by 1,500.

At one point, in a segment where the candidates asked each other a question, squabbling broke out between Mr. Abraham and Mr. Rispone when the latter chided the representative for allegedly waffling in his support of President Trump before the 2016 election.

“I’m surrounded by one guy who was a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton and another guy who thought President Trump should drop out of the race,” Mr. Rispone said. “Can you imagine where we’d be if Hillary Clinton was president?”

Mr. Abraham said the feisty businessman was lying about what are bedrock conservative beliefs and said Mr. Rispone knew well “the target we should be working on is the one standing to your left.”

“Your ads are lies,” Mr. Abraham said.

As he did in the first debate, Mr. Edwards pointed to teacher raises and a state deficit when he took office that is now a surplus — a development Mr. Rispone says should be viewed skeptically because any government surplus consists of taxpayer money.

Developments in the race that surfaced Thursday were largely absent from the debate.

For example, Mr. Edwards was not asked about revelations his ancestors were major slaveholders in the antebellum South and that his grandfather supported racist legislation as a Baton Rouge lawmaker.

Similarly, while Mr. Abraham was asked about the responsibility physicians like himself bear for the opioid crisis wracking swaths of rural America, Thursday stories about his ownership share in pharmacies, which ended in 2013, did not arise.

On the death penalty, Mr. Rispone said his Christian beliefs leave him no choice but to oppose it, while Mr. Edwards and Mr. Abraham offered a less concrete position in which they would allow carefully observed and comparatively merciful executions.

Mr. Rispone was also asked about why he has made immigration an issue in the campaign, given a governor’s limited ability to deal with the issue and Louisiana’s alleged lack of sanctuary cities.

The premise of the question was absurd, Mr. Rispone said, calling out New Orleans as a place where protests against ICE are conducted with the tacit support of City Hall.

In the end, Mr. Edwards argued the combined state and local tax burden on Louisianians is the 5th lowest in the nation — the exact spot it occupied when he took office in 2016 — and that “now is not the time to turn back; our best days are ahead of us.”

Mr. Rispone stressed one of his top themes — his outsider status — saying that “we need a CEO over our operation.”

Drawing the final closing statement, Mr. Abraham referenced his repeated arguments the state’s “tax structure is such that there are too many — it’s too complicated and it’s too high. But help is on the way.”

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