Baton Rouge businessman and Republican candidate for governor Eddie Rispone took part in a meet and greet event in Baton Rouge Tuesday night, introducing himself to potential voters.

For many (including this Advocate reporter), it was the first event to see Rispone in gubernatorial candidate mode. The event, held in a side room of TJ Ribs, was officially a meeting of the Greater Baton Rouge Young Republicans, but it included several other guests who came to hear from the ISC Constructors co-founder.

Rispone is one of two Republicans who has announced plans to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, is the other Republican in the race.

Here are key takeaways from what Rispone said and what type of candidate he’s establishing himself as.

Rispone has a compelling personal story that he will be sharing.

The son of a North Baton Rouge, blue-collar family, Rispone worked his way through college and went on to co-found a multi-million corporation that has employed thousands of people across Louisiana and Texas.

Before and after the Tuesday event, Rispone appeared to work the room with ease — shaking hands and chatting with each of the event’s attendees. During his speech, he offered personal anecdotes about his 24 grandchildren, his faith and disclosed that his wife cuts his hair.

“When I started thinking about this … I heard it over and over again, ‘Do you know what you are getting into?’” he said. “It’s all about my faith. I’ve been so blessed in my life.”

Rispone said his father worked for Standard Oil (now Exxon) and he grew up living six people in a one-bathroom home.

“If I wanted anything, I had to work for it,” he said. “It was very simple.”

Rispone received encouragement from Republican governors in other states who also were successful businessmen before deciding to seek public office.

“We have a challenge on our hands,” Rispone said. “It’s very difficult to replace an incumbent.”

Rispone doesn’t support legalization of recreational marijuana and needs more information about medical marijuana.

Whenever Edwards hosts his monthly call-in radio show, it's nearly inevitable that he'll be asked about marijuana legalization. During Tuesday’s event, Rispone was quickly asked about his own views on the issue.

“I don’t know much about marijuana,” Rispone said, laughing.

He said he would definitely be against legalizing recreational marijuana (a position that Edwards shares), and said he would need more information about medicinal marijuana proposals before staking out a position on the issue.

Rispone doesn’t agree with Medicaid expansion, BUT didn’t say whether he would repeal it.

Right after taking office, Edwards signed an executive order expanding the state’s Medicaid health care program for the poor through the federal Affordable Care Act.

Under the expansion, adults can enroll if their household income falls below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $16,600 a year for a single person or $33,900 annually for a family of four. More than 480,000 people, mostly the working poor, have been added to the state’s Medicaid rolls under the expansion.

Edwards frequently touts it as his most significant accomplishment in office, but the expansion has repeatedly come under fire amid audits that have raised questions about accountability and accusations of misspending. 

Rispone cited those audits as evidence of mismanagement and blamed “third generation career politician” Edwards for not hiring the right people to oversee it. He didn’t say whether he would act to eliminate expansion, effectively kicking off thousands of people who have been added in the past three years, but he said he believes that Medicaid was “supposed to be for people who cannot work – the elderly and handicapped” when it was created decades ago.

Rispone played a big role in circulating television ads that ran shortly after Edwards took office, accusing the governor of lying.

Just months after Edwards took office in 2016, a pro-voucher group launched a six-figure statewide television ad campaign that accused him of lying to voters about a scholarship program that serves low-income families.

Rispone admitted Tuesday that he personally financed the pro-voucher ads, which featured mothers who said they relied on vouchers to send their kids to private schools instead of lower quality public schools.

At the time, Edwards called the accusations misleading, as the state budget shortfall required deep cuts in the governor’s executive budget proposal. Eventually, the program faced no cuts after lawmakers agreed to more taxes to shore up the state’s finances.

But Rispone said the episode was a catalyst for his decision to challenge Edwards. He accused the governor of breaking a promise to Catholic bishops in the state and said the governor scared mothers of poor children.

“I was upset about that,” Rispone said. “We finally got the money back in there.”

Rispone strongly disagrees with Edwards’ executive order on the Industrial Tax Exemption Program.

In 2016, Edwards signed an executive order reining in the 72-year-old Industrial Tax Exemption Program — giving locals oversight in the program that affects local property taxes. Before Edwards' executive order, ITEP requests were processed at the state level.

The move was supported by teachers unions and Together Baton Rouge, groups that have questioned the ultimate value of ITEP.

But the order has come under fire from manufacturers that have historically relied on the exemptions and argue that it has complicated the process.

Rispone said he’s had personal conversations with those affected by the change. He accused Edwards of not notifying key industry players before issuing the order, including the Louisiana Chemical Association.

“The governor completely ignores the impact,” Rispone said. “That’s the kind of thing that is job killing.”

Edwards defended changes to the ITEP program during a recent appearance at the Press Club of Baton Rouge as a chance to help local government, but he’s indicated he’d be open to further tweaks.

“We had a situation in Louisiana, where for years, manufacturers could get 100 percent of property taxes exempt for 10 years,” he said.


Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.