Gov. John Bel Edwards opened the two-month legislative session on Monday with a speech highlighting the state’s record under his leadership and laying out his policy priorities for the session.

But the politics surrounding this fall’s gubernatorial race hung heavy during Edwards’ annual State of the State speech.

“We have spent a lot of time together in these chambers over the past three-and-a-half years, but because of our willingness to come together and put the people of Louisiana first, our state is finally moving in the right direction,” Edwards, a Democrat running for re-election, said to lawmakers gathered in the House chamber. “Together, through partnership rather than partisanship, we restored fiscal stability and put an end to the greatest budget crisis in our state’s history.”

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Edwards’ two Republican opponents, Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, both attended the event. Abraham watched on from House floor alongside other Republican officeholders.

The election is Oct. 12, with a Nov. 16 runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the primary.

Asked about his response to the speech afterward, Rispone declined to comment.

Abraham, meanwhile, took Edwards to task over it and described the incumbent as a “failed politician with no vision about how to make things better.

“Unfortunately, what the governor’s saying – that the state’s OK – we’re not OK,” Abraham said. “Show me where we are in the top tier and then maybe you’ve got my ear. We’ve got to get the state back to where we know it can be in that top tier.”

And despite the governor calling for “partnership” over “partisanship” in his speech, Edwards campaign spokesman Eric Holl called Abraham’s attendance Monday “a desperate, pathetic stunt from a failing campaign” who wants to mimic the policies of ex-Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“Louisiana doesn't want to go back, which is why Abraham has been unable to get the financial or political support he needs to run a legitimate campaign for Governor, even though he's skipped more votes than almost anyone else in Congress this year to campaign,” he said. “As a result, he's been forced to pull this awkward, embarrassing stunt to try to get a shred of attention he doesn't deserve.”

Edwards delivered what he described as “a very different speech” compared to his other State of the State speeches since taking office in January 2016. Edwards has called seven special sessions during that time – all to address the state's fiscal crises.

“We have spent a lot of time together in these chambers over the past three-and-a-half years, but because of our willingness to come together and put the people of Louisiana first, our state is finally moving in the right direction,” Edwards said in his speech. “Together, through partnership rather than partisanship, we restored fiscal stability and put an end to the greatest budget crisis in our state’s history.”

Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, has faced several roadblocks to his agenda, as the GOP controls both the state House and Senate. House Republican leaders, in particular, have challenged the governor’s policy positions.

“Here’s what I think is so important to remember, we have made tremendous progress in the last three and a half years, not because of one person or one party, but because many people from different parties have come together to make it happen,” Edwards said. “We live in a time where it seems like people are becoming ever more divided. We work to one up each other instead of fighting together for a better Louisiana.”

Edwards highlighted several guests in the audience that have benefited from the governor’s policies, including a Medicaid recipient, a school custodian and a veteran who is a local business owner.

Elayne English is one of the nearly 500,000 people added to the state’s Medicaid rolls after Edwards expanded the health care program through executive order shortly after taking office.

“For many years Elayne, who is a college graduate, was gainfully employed, until the bottom fell out of the economy in 2009,” Edwards said. “She was struggling and had to pull money out of her retirement to pay for her $1000-per month medication.”

English qualified for Medicaid while seeking substance abuse treatment.

“Under the Medicaid Expansion, she was able to get coverage and get her life back on track,” Edwards said, as English watched from the chamber balcony. “She is working and on her way to becoming a paralegal.”

Edwards has repeatedly faced criticism amid audits that have suggested misspending in Medicaid, including by allowing thousands of people on the rolls who earned too much money to qualify.

It's expected to be an issue that he'll continue to face on the campaign trail.

Separately, Edwards has said his No. 1 priority for the session that runs through June 6 is a modest pay raise for teachers and school support staff.

Edwards introduced a teacher, school custodian and paraprofessional among his State of the State guests.

"Make no mistake – the pay goes to the adults, but the investment is in our children," he said.


Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.