The first Louisiana gubernatorial debate was held Thursday at 7 p.m. in the LSU Student Union Theater and featured three candidates: current Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards and his Republican opponents, businessman Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham.
The debate was hosted by LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and Nexstar Media Group. The debate’s moderators were Nexstar anchors Fred Childers, Jacque Jovic and Chad Sabadie, who is also an LSU adjunct instructor in the Manship School.
LSU President F. King Alexander welcomed the debate attendees and thanked the Manship School and Nexstar Media for hosting the debate.
“LSU is an essential part of our state’s identity,” Alexander said in a welcome address to the crowd. “There is no bigger asset to a state than an asset that brings in $5.1 billion.”
The first question of the evening was about the recent rise in vaping-related illnesses and deaths. The candidates were asked if they would consider banning flavored e-cigarettes as governor.
Rispone said he was not prepared to sign an executive order banning e-cigarette products, but said Louisiana should place warnings on e-cigarette products and look into reducing residents’ use of them.
Edwards said he would want to sit down with the Louisiana Department of Health before making a decision. He said he supported President Trump’s decision to ban flavored e-cigarettes.
Abraham began his response by offering “thoughts and prayers” for the LSU community following the recent deaths of three students within the past two weeks. He said as a physician, he believes e-cigarettes are highly unhealthy for anyone to use and must be regulated.
The next question centered on Louisiana’s shift from a budget deficit to a budget surplus under Governor Edwards’ administration and asked if the candidates would cut the tax burden on Louisiana taxpayers.
Abraham said he would “absolutely” cut taxes if he were governor because Louisiana has the highest sales tax in the country.
Edwards pointed to the state’s investment in education, including a pay raise for teachers and continued support for higher education.
“What we don’t want to do is go back to cutting higher education,” Edwards said.
Rispone also said he would cut taxes as governor because he believes Louisiana has a spending problem.
“As a businessman, it always amazed me how we have a budget deficit,” Rispone said. “How do you have a surplus when you raise taxes? Because it’s the taxpayers money, that’s what it is.”
Candidates were then asked if they would support allowing local governments to decide whether to give tax breaks, or ITEPS, to corporations.
Edwards noted that smaller municipalities within the state needed seats at the table, but Abraham attacked Edwards and said his policies caused small companies to leave Louisiana.
The next question surrounded gun control in Louisiana and if the candidates would support a state law that would require background checks for all private sales of firearms.
Abraham described the Second Amendment as “explanatory” and said he would defend the Second Amendment as governor.
Edwards pointed to his hunting background and said he also believes in the Second Amendment. Edwards said he doesn’t support further background checks on sales of firearms, but stated commercial sales should require background checks.
Rispone also voiced his strong support of the Second Amendment. He said he would not support extending background checks, but agreed with President Trump’s decision to ban bump stocks.
Political communication junior Sarah Procopio asked in a video for candidates to raise their hands if they would support funding TOPS at its current level. All three candidates raised their hands.
Rispone said he would do everything he could to protect TOPS scholarships, but wouldn’t make securing TOPS “a political football.”
Edwards said he would support funding TOPS at its highest level because it keeps Louisiana’s brightest students in the state.
Abraham said Edwards was the only governor that actually cut TOPS and that he would support TOPS to help combat the large number of Louisiana students leaving the state.
Candidates were then asked about the growing cost of TOPS for Louisiana and the growing number of students using the program.
Rispone said the state needs to alter its constitution to fix problems with TOPS, while Edwards argued that keeping tuition low keeps the program’s costs low. Abraham's plan would surround increasing jobs for an increase in revenue.
The next round had no rebuttal and included personalized questions for each candidate.
Edwards was asked about Johnny Anderson, who resigned from Edwards’ administration in the face of sexual assault allegations. Edwards said the employee was fired within half a day once he learned of the allegations against the employee. Edwards was then asked if he reached out to the woman who made the allegations, which he did not.
Abraham has missed 44% of votes in Congress since the start of his third term, the highest percentage of any sitting representative in the nation. He was asked why he did not step aside in Congress to focus on this race.
Abraham said he “represents our constituents every day” and is in constant contact with his staff on Capitol Hill, who are “solving problems every day of the week.”
Rispone was asked about his contribution of nearly $1 million to federal campaigns since 1996 and if these donations affect his definition of himself as a non-career politician. He said they do not.
“The only reason I’m running-- it’s not an ego trip -- it’s to make this state great again,” Rispone said.
Candidates were then asked if they would support any exceptions to recent abortion laws signed into place. All three candidates stated that they would not support exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
“I believe life begins at conception,” Abraham said. “A life is a life, and the decision is between the woman and her husband.”
Edwards emphasized that he is pro-life, which is backed by his Catholic faith. He said the only way the state would change its current abortion laws, including the "heartbeat" abortion bill Edwards signed, is if forced by the court.
Political communication junior Justin Franklin asked over a video if the candidates would support legislation to raise the state’s gas tax to cut down on the infrastructure backlog.
Rispone said his administration would improve roads and bridges instead of allocating those funds to other projects.
Edwards said it was unrealistic to expect the $14 billion infrastructure backlog to be solved quickly but that it is improving. He emphasized the gas tax is 16 cents now, just as it was 30 years ago.
Abraham said there is a crisis in the infrastructure.
“Just more taxes, taxes, taxes from this governor,” Abraham said. “We are over-taxed to the wazoo. If a gas tax has to be passed by the legislature, as your governor, I will guarantee it will be neutral.”
The next question was on the issue of Medicaid expansion.
“Look, I’m a family doctor. He’s a trial lawyer,” Abraham said in reference to Edwards.
Abraham said the Medicaid expansion under Edwards was “a nightmare” and vowed to fix the state’s program. He also criticized Edwards for firing an MCO for donating to Republicans.
Edwards said Abraham’s statements were false, and the decision was made long before the donation came to light. Edwards also said the MCO donated to both parties.
Edwards was then asked if he stands by his team’s work, and if he would make any changes. He said he stood by his team and Medicaid and referenced a cancer survivor in the audience who needed Medicaid.
Rispone said the state’s current Medicaid program is “unsustainable” and needs revision.
When asked about Medicaid job requirements, Edwards said he supported community engagement for everyone on Medicaid.
Edwards then attacked Abraham for missing more days in Congress than any other Congressman while supporting stricter Medicaid job requirements. The banter between the candidates elicited cheers in the crowd.
Rispone asked if he could answer the question on Medicaid, repeating that he was a businessman.
“They want a job. They don’t want to be on Medicaid,” Rispone said. “I would not be bragging about putting 500,000 more people on Medicaid. I’d be bragging about getting them off Medicaid,”
Abraham said he supports work requirements for Medicaid users that are over 18 years old, don’t have children and are not pregnant.
Candidates were then asked how, as governor, they would use their relationship with President Trump to benefit Louisiana citizens.
Abraham said he thinks he is the only one in the state who has voted in support of Trump-supported legislation and would continue to work with Trump.
Rispone said he is the only candidate that has “always” supported Trump, and alluded to Abraham previously suggesting Trump should step aside when he was a presidential candidate. He suggested similarities between himself and the president, as both are business-oriented political outsider.
Edwards said he’s met with the president on nine different occasions and said he thinks it’s important to work with the president, no matter who it is.
The candidates each had 30 seconds for closing statements.
Edwards emphasized his reversal of Louisiana’s budget deficit to a surplus in his closing statement.
Rispone mentioned that Louisiana’s economy was the slowest in the country in his closing argument. He said the state needs a governor who will create jobs that will allow future generations to stay in the state.
Abraham said that if he were governor, a Louisiana with a strong economy would not be a dream, but a reality.
When given the opportunity for applause, the crowd erupted into cheers, with “Four more years!” being heard from Edwards supporters and “Go, Doc, Go!” heard from Abraham supporters.