U.S. Sen. David Vitter on Wednesday night renewed his charges that Democratic rival John Bel Edwards is promoting an irresponsible plan to release dangerous criminals onto Louisiana streets.
Vitter, during an event at Southern University, defended campaign ads that have blasted criminal justice changes that Edwards backs. The Republican said his opponent has pledged to trim the state’s prison population by 5,500 inmates. “That is not criminal justice reform,” Vitter said. “I believe that is very, very irresponsible.”
Edwards has said Vitter’s accusation is wrong and misleading. When the issue was previously raised by Vitter, Edwards said he would not wantonly release inmates from prison and that Vitter took the number out of context.
The gathering 10 days before the Nov. 21 runoff was unusual for two reasons.
It featured Republican Vitter, but not Edwards, appearing at a historically black university in an appeal for votes widely expected to go to the Democrat.
The session also marked the third high-profile appearance by Vitter in three days after weeks of criticism by Edwards and others that Vitter was ducking forums in favor of an above-the-fray campaign.
Vitter said Edwards missed the gathering at Southern to attend a campaign fundraiser hosted by “trial lawyers.” “Is it a cheap shot to say I came but the other guy didn’t?” Vitter asked the crowd.
But Barbara Anne Eaton, a Baton Rouge Realtor, said Thursday that Edwards at the time was attending a meet-and-greet at a Baton Rouge home. The event drew about 200 people and been scheduled weeks before the forum was announced.
On Thursday morning, in response to Eaton, the pro-Vitter America Rising, a group that employs a videographer to follow Edwards around and gather images that have been used in pro-Vitter commercials, emailed The Advocate a video showing Edwards talking to a member of the law firm of Gordon McKernan, a Baton Rouge lawyer who represents injured accident victims in lawsuits against companies and their insurers. The Vitter campaign also released a photograph of Edwards standing with McKernan and Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who was elected the Louisiana Legislature in the October primary.
Edwards said he made five appearances Wednesday afternoon, including at an event in McKernan’s office in the late afternoon. The largest event was at the Eaton home, which was scheduled long before organizers asked for Edwards’ participation in the forum.
The Rouge Collection, which organized the forum, earlier had accused Edwards of intentionally skipping the event so that he would not be linked to comments that could hurt him in the contest.
Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection, sent out a news release Monday evening, after raising the claims on social media earlier that day. The Rouge Collection sponsored the forum, along with the Southern University Department of Student Affairs and the Southern University SGA.
“We want our community informed, and John Bel Edwards is a Democrat, this should have been an easy crowd for him, but they are simply afraid of losing white supporters,” Chambers wrote in his news release. “I understand that politically, but as a black man, I simply cannot excuse it.”
Chambers also said he received a cease-and-desist email after raising his claims online. “Please be advised that any false statements you make about our campaign are being captured and reviewed by our attorneys,” the Democrat’s campaign wrote in an email to him.
The Edwards campaign has said Chambers is wrong about why the candidate would not be at the event.
Vitter also said campaign ads that accuse Edwards of wanting to release “thugs” from state prisons carries no racial overtones.
He was asked about the issue during the forum.
“There is no racial part of the definition of thug,” he said after the gathering. “President Obama has used the word thug. There is no racial overtones to the images we used in the ad.”
Aside from Vitter, candidates for lieutenant governor and other offices agreed to attend the gathering.
Vitter and Edwards spoke on the historically black college campus before the Oct. 24 primary.
Remarks that Edwards made about the need to trim Louisiana’s prison population sparked anti-Edwards campaign ads that accused the Democrat of planning to release dangerous criminals.
Edwards disputed the accusations, and the ads have been criticized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Vitter and Edwards have both accepted invitations to attend the Together Louisiana Statewide Assembly on Friday.
That event is set for 2 p.m. at the Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, 9700 Scenic Highway, Baton Rouge.
In another event, Vitter — but not Edwards — plans to attend a governor’s forum hosted by the Louisiana Family Forum.
It is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Jefferson Baptist Church, 9135 Jefferson Highway, Baton Rouge.
Elizabeth Crisp, of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog/