It should be the best of times for Lane Grigsby, the Baton Rouge contractor and mega-donor.
He has outsized influence within the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state’s most powerful business lobby.
He and other rich businessmen spent millions of dollars to elect a like-minded board that sets policies for Louisiana’s K-12 public schools.
He and his conservative allies have routed Democrats over the past 20 years, leaving the Republican Party with big majorities in the state House and Senate after the Oct. 12 primary elections.
"He’s unique and bigger than life in politics," said Bernie Pinsonat, who has worked for Grigsby as a pollster and political consultant. "Nobody spends money like Grigsby. No one is remotely close. He doesn’t win all the time, but he’s certainly always willing to try."
And now the biggest prize in Louisiana politics, the Governor’s Mansion, is within reach for his pal and political ally — electrical contractor Eddie Rispone, a neighbor behind the gates of the exclusive Country Club of Louisiana subdivision who has called Grigsby “a mentor.”
It was Grigsby who told Rispone that he should create his own company, ISC Contractors. It created the fortune that Rispone has used to self-finance his gubernatorial campaign.
The two men want Louisiana to rewrite its state constitution, although Rispone has steadfastly refused during the governor’s race to say exactly what changes he wants to make.
Friends and enemies believe that if Rispone defeats Gov. John Bel Edwards in the Nov. 16 runoff, Grigsby, who aggressively seeks what he wants, would try to impose his will on a man who has never held political office before and has few stated plans to address the state’s most pressing problems.
Grigsby offers some clues about what he would push for. Grigsby has spent freely to try to throttle labor unions and trial lawyers, and has said privately that he wants a new constitution to end the state funding of local law enforcement, to consolidate the government operations of rural parishes to make them more “efficient” and to merge certain colleges and universities. All three proposals have been floated before but have been too controversial to win traction with state legislators.
The normally talkative Grigsby is lying low now, following orders from the Rispone campaign that he button up his mouth.
It’s his mouth that got him into trouble.
First, Grigsby tried to push a Baton Rouge state Senate candidate out of an odd three-way runoff with a promise of a judgeship instead — and the seeming quid pro quo was exposed by Stephanie Riegel in the Baton Rouge Business Report.
In a follow-up story, he crowed to Riegel, “I’m the kingmaker. I talk from the throne.”
Grigsby said afterward that he made the comment in jest. But the damage was done.
Edwards didn’t miss the chance to make hay, calling Grigsby “the puppet master calling the shots with Eddie Rispone. If that's the guy that Eddie Rispone is hooked to the hip with, it speaks volumes about how dangerous Eddie Rispone is for the state of Louisiana.”
Days after trying to get a state Senate candidate to drop out of a race and clear the way for his favored Republican with promises of future h…
Rob Maness, a former bomber pilot who has a following among conservative Republicans, announced he was so disgusted with Grigsby’s heavy-handedness that he was leaving the GOP and won’t vote for Rispone.
Rob Maness, a longtime Republican and repeat candidate for U.S. Senate, dropped out of the Republican party on Thursday and renounced GOP dono…
“I haven’t had a good week,” Grigsby said when contacted for this article before declining an interview request. He said that he wanted to talk but that friends volunteering for the Rispone campaign warned him he might stick his foot in his mouth again and hurt his friend’s chances of winning.
Grigsby may have gone silent, but a political action committee he formed has not. Called Truth in Politics, it launched an attack ad late in the primary campaign in which Juanita Bates-Washington, a mid-level appointee in the Governor’s Office, blamed Edwards for sexual harassment on the part of her supervisor, Johnny Anderson. Truth in Politics has continued to fan Bates-Washington’s allegations, seeking media coverage for a lawsuit against the Governor's Office to obtain various public documents.
Grigsby went looking for a candidate to send Edwards packing after a previously unreported attempt in 2017 by both men to find common ground ended with the contractor abruptly leaving a breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion.
Grigsby and Rispone tried to recruit various people to run, including Stephen Waguespack, president and chief executive officer of LABI and a former chief of staff to Gov. Bobby Jindal.
It was Rispone who decided to step up.
This article is based on four dozen interviews. But Rispone's campaign spokeswoman, Ruth Wisher, did not respond to email requests for an interview with Rispone to discuss his relationship with Grigsby.
Even Grigsby’s critics acknowledge that he has contributed generously to charitable causes in Louisiana. In 2007, he created the Boo Grigsby Foundation (Boo was his mother’s nickname), and according to its website, it has given $2.5 million to a long list of educational entities (Teach for America of South Louisiana and Catholic High School, to name two), medical causes (Alzheimer’s Services of Baton Rouge and the Epilepsy Foundation), as well as the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and the Knock Knock Children’s Museum in Baton Rouge (among a long list of others).
Career Compass Louisiana, a highly regarded Baton Rouge-based nonprofit, has received $1.5 million from the foundation since 2009 to provide college scholarships for nearly 100 students, said Carrie Peña, the group’s development director. Career Compass has received an additional $500,000 directly from Grigsby to provide college and career coaching for East Baton Rouge Parish public school students.
“He’s always been very open, transparent, giving, concerned and caring about these students,” said Julie Scott, the group’s co-founder and co-executive director. “He’s always been a big proponent in making Louisiana better, and it starts with the students.”
Allies in the business community praise Grigsby’s commitment to electing conservative candidates.
“I applaud his 30-year record of getting in the arena instead of just sitting in the stands and complaining,” said Rolfe McCollister, publisher and co-owner of the Baton Rouge Business Report, which has endorsed Rispone. “He gets involved, gives his money and says ‘Damn the torpedoes.’”
Along the way, Grigsby’s torpedoes have destroyed the political careers of numerous Democrats with negative ads that often contain half-truths or falsehoods. He has also targeted some Republicans who upset him, most notably then-East Baton Rouge Parish President-Mayor Bobby Simpson when he sought reelection in 2004.
“He wants to control government without running for office. He would not get elected to anything if he ran for office. Because he’s not a nice person,” said Mary Olive Pierson, a Baton Rouge lawyer and Democrat who has tangled with him in elections.
In an interview several years ago, Grigsby said the motivation behind his giving is simple. He is determined to create a better future for his nine grandchildren — and for tens of thousands of other children in a state that has provided what he called “a blessed life.”
However, more than one person, speaking on condition of anonymity, offered harsh assessments of Grigsby’s motives, calling him power-hungry and overly impressed with his own views.
Grigsby, 77, was raised in Alexandria by his mother after his father disappeared when Grigsby was 2. He dropped out of LSU when money ran short, joined the Army and won admission to West Point but dropped out after his newlywed wife got pregnant. He finally graduated from LSU with a degree in civil engineering. He stayed in Baton Rouge and, in 1973, created Cajun Contractors and Engineers.
A shrewd businessman, he treated his employees well and built his firm into one of the biggest industrial contractors in the South. Now called Cajun Industries, the company has annual sales of about $500 million per year that it earns building sewer lines for local governments, wharves for industrial plants and transmission lines for power companies. In 2016, he sold Cajun to his son Todd and son-in-law Michael Moran. He serves as the company’s chairman emeritus.
Grigsby hasn’t been content with business success alone.
In the late 1980s, he began contributing to political candidates he believed would further his anti-union, low-taxes ideal of government.
By 2004, he had turned to creating PACs to trash candidates he opposed. That year, his Baton Rouge Next PAC spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that Simpson served just a single term. Simpson had gotten crosswise with Grigsby over his plans for a $1 billion sewer project. Simpson, who lost to Democrat Kip Holden, declined to comment for this article.
In 2006, Grigsby turned his sights on William Daniel, who was running for a state Senate seat in Baton Rouge against a doctor named Bill Cassidy. Cassidy won as Baton Rouge Next sent mailers to voters that questioned Daniel’s commitment to family values because he was divorced. Daniel also declined to comment for this article.
In 2007, Grigsby created Our Louisiana PAC, which targeted at least six legislative candidates. One mailer tarred Pat Culbertson, a Republican member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, as “a tax-and-spend liberal.”
“I’m all about freedom of speech, but it amazes me that people could just lie and distort my record,” Culbertson told The Advocate then, adding that he didn’t know why Grigsby attacked him.
In 2008, Grigsby boosted Cassidy again, this time in a congressional race to represent metro Baton Rouge. Cassidy was challenging Don Cazayoux, a Democrat who had won the seat in a special election that year.
The race appeared to be a tossup, but Michael Jackson, a black state representative from Baton Rouge who had lost badly to Cazayoux in the Democratic primary, jumped into the general election campaign as an independent.
Grigsby, family members and employees gave about half of the money raised by Jackson, who had no shot at winning a race in a white-majority district where Cassidy and Cazayoux, both of whom are white, each raised more than 10 times as much as he did.
Cassidy won the race with 48% to 40% for Cazayoux. Jackson collected only 12%.
Having Jackson on the ballot “was the deciding factor,” said Katie Nee, who was Cazayoux’s campaign manager. “You can’t win as a Democrat in a swing district in the South without the full backing of African-American Democrats.”
Cazayoux declined to comment for this article. Jackson declined to answer questions but wrote in an email, “The reality is that Lane Grigsby has contributed to every major campaign in Louisiana over the past 15 years.”
In 2015, Grigsby created the Empower Louisiana PAC to elect candidates to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets K-12 policy for Louisiana. He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and others to support candidates who would keep John White as the state superintendent of education and who would promote charter schools as public schools and publicly funded vouchers for private schools. Their candidates won seven of the eight seats up for election that year.
One of the candidates Grigsby took out with a nasty negative ad campaign was Lottie Beebe, a one-term incumbent from Breaux Bridge who had opposed White’s selection and the expansion of charter schools.
Beebe recalled that one campaign mailer said she wasn’t a Republican — she was — and pictured her next to Hillary Clinton, a popular conservative foil.
“I’m a Christian,” Beebe said recently. “It’s wrong what he’s doing.” (Grigsby, who calls himself a life-long Christian, was raised Methodist but worships at the multidenominational Grace Life Fellowship.)
Beebe added that she won’t support Rispone in next month’s runoff because of his connection to Grigsby. “He will more or less rubber-stamp Lane Grigsby’s education policies.”
Woody Jenkins, a former state representative and an influential arch-conservative, doesn’t like Grigsby’s penchant for negative campaigns. But he praises the contractor as a “man of integrity.”
“He’s hard-charging and determined to do what he thinks is right,” Jenkins added. “He’s a force for good.”
In the 2015 governor’s race, Grigsby supported then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter. John Bel Edwards had committed two cardinal sins: he had the support of trial lawyers and of labor unions. That he was a Democrat didn’t help, of course, although Grigsby did give him $5,000 to maintain access.
On Sept. 20, 2017, Grigsby and Edwards met for breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion to see if they could find common ground to fix Louisiana’s ongoing budget problems. The Governor’s Office also hoped to win his endorsement for reelection. Mark Cooper, the governor’s Republican chief of staff, and Tim Barfield, who had served as revenue secretary under Jindal, set up the meeting and attended.
According to Cooper, Grigsby made two demands. One was to insist that Edwards agree to convene a constitutional convention if he served a second term.
Grigsby said Louisiana needed to end the constitutional requirements that direct most of the state’s tax revenue to K-12 schools and to health care. Cooper said Grigsby also voiced support for merging universities — which could lead to the closure of Southern University of New Orleans or Grambling — and for merging the government operations of rural parishes that are stagnating.
Cooper said Grigsby made one other demand: that Edwards renew the temporary 1-cent sales tax increase that state legislators and Edwards had approved in 2016 to eliminate the budget deficits inherited from Jindal.
Edwards, according to Cooper, declined to endorse the 1-cent sales tax renewal, saying he wanted to keep his options open. (He and state lawmakers renewed a lesser amount — 0.45 cents — in 2018.) Edwards also would not agree to the constitutional convention.
“Lane abruptly got up and said, ‘We’re done, and I’m going to find myself another candidate,’” Cooper said. “We thought it could be a productive meeting. Instead of compromise, it was only his way. It was very disappointing.”
Said Grigsby, in his one on-the-record comment for this article: “Mark’s recollections are not accurate that I stormed out and was mad. I walked out with what I had expected to get.”
Grigsby has had an eventful 2019.
In September, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Grigsby and his wife, accusing them of owing the federal government $779,000 over improperly claimed tax deductions. Grigsby has said the government lawyers were mistaken.
In the political arena, Grigsby has been quietly supporting state Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, to be the next speaker of the House and state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, to be the next Senate president.
And now Rispone could be the next governor. To help ensure Edwards didn’t win the primary outright, Grigsby spent $100,000 on radio ads that promoted the candidacy of Omar Dantzler, a black bus driver and bail bondsman who is a Democrat. Dantzler won only 0.8% of the vote.
Still, Edwards was forced into a runoff against Rispone when he captured 46.6% in the primary and the businessman won 27.4%.
Four days later came the reports that Grigsby had called outgoing state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, to ask that he pass word to state Rep. Franklin Foil that he should quit the race to replace Claitor. The contractor would help Foil land a judgeship as a reward.
Known for funding conservative causes around the country, Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby offered future help to keep the state senator r…
Claitor didn’t tell Foil.
“I had concerns that it was illegal,” Claitor, a former prosecutor, said in an interview. “If it wasn’t illegal, it disregarded (the) 25,000 votes (won by Foil in the primary).”
The fallout shined an uncomfortable light on the relationship between Rispone and Grigsby.
"No one controls Lane; no one controls me either," Rispone said in an interview, adding that Grigsby made a mistake but that they remain friends.
Republican gubernatorial contender Eddie Rispone on Monday disputed charges by Gov. John Bel Edwards that controversial GOP donor Lane Grigsby…
Advocate librarian Judy Jumonville contributed research to this article.