The New Orleans branch of the NAACP on Thursday called on U.S. Sen. David Vitter to stop airing a television ad telling viewers that his Democratic rival, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, would release thousands of “dangerous thugs” from prison if he is elected governor.

Morris Reed, the organization’s president, accused Vitter’s campaign of “race baiting” and seeking to “strike fear in the hearts of the white community.”

The advertisement, which has attracted national media attention and underscored the increasingly rancorous tenor of the governor’s race, seeks to tie Edwards to President Barack Obama and invokes remarks Edwards made last month at Southern University about the need to stem the growth of Louisiana’s prison population.

The ad warns that, like Obama, who has advocated the release of thousands of federal prisoners, Edwards “will release 5,500 (convicts) in Louisiana alone — 5,500 dangerous thugs, drug dealers (released) back into our neighborhoods.”

The narration is accompanied by an image of a black man wearing a do-rag and a white man sipping a beer.

Reed took umbrage at the advertisement’s use of the word “thug,” which he described as a slur that “could be placed in the same category” as the N-word.

“It attempts to polarize, in our opinion, the races in our state, by driving a wedge between the black community and white community and attempting to frighten the white community about the possible release of a large number of inmates from the prison system,” said Reed, a former prosecutor and Criminal District Court judge. “We don’t think we should blanket the entire prison community as thugs.”

He continued: “We resent the fact that Mr. Vitter would resort to such demeaning tactics as to paint with a broad brush the entire African-American community, those who are incarcerated, and throw them away by making references, negative connotations to them as thugs.”

Reed also appeared to make an oblique reference to the prostitution allegations that have long dogged Vitter, as well as the senator’s admission several years ago to committing a “serious sin” after his phone number appeared in the records of the D.C. Madam.

“We know that there are a lot of individuals who have committed crimes that have not been prosecuted,” Reed said, adding that Vitter “should keep that in mind. … Would he like to have those categorized as thugs also, the thugs that we do not arrest?”

Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar said the senator “told the NAACP that he’s not about to take down his ad.”

“Edwards’ and Obama’s almost identical proposals to release 5,500 to 6,000 criminals from prisons are dangerous and irresponsible,” Bolar said. “They’d release dangerous thugs, as defined by Merriam-Webster, who’d threaten ALL of our neighborhoods.”

The Edwards campaign released a statement this week calling the spot the first “of many ads in Vitter’s desperate smear campaign.”

Edwards said he has never suggested “releasing prisoners” but called for reducing the state’s incarceration rate by addressing the “treatment of nonviolent offenders.”

“I suggested that we take a smarter and more cost-effective approach to punishing and rehabilitating nonviolent offenders,” Edwards said in a statement. “My plan would save a minimum of $40 million per year, and clearly wouldn’t impact public safety.”

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