Why did one of John Bel Edwards’ opponents sponsor the governor’s prayer breakfast?

Businessman and longtime political donor Eddie Rispone is a GOP candidate running against Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Art Favre, who has known Eddie Rispone for nearly half a century, was taken aback when his friend told him he was thinking about running for governor.

"My first comment was 'Are you crazy, do you want to get into public life?' " Favre recalled.

"But I also think the one trait that Eddie has that many politicians don't have is that Eddie is a make-things-happen kind of guy," he said. 

"To me, that is what we need, strong leadership," Favre said. "I think he would make a great governor."

Rispone, 70, is battling Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat and fellow Republican Ralph Abraham, a congressman from Alto, in the Oct. 12 primary contest for governor.

The Baton Rouge Republican is a blunt-speaking businessman who calls himself an avid outdoorsman and a Christian conservative who is pro-life and pro-Second Amendment.

Rispone has long linked his campaign to his support for another onetime outsider — President Donald Trump — and his campaign office even has a life-size cardboard cutout of the president.

He has already poured around $11.5 million of his own money into his gubernatorial bid, where many polls show him running third.

"It is going to be an uphill battle for him to get there," said Favre. "He does not have as much name recognition."

But Favre and others also say Rispone has made a career of overcoming the odds.

The candidate grew up in a roughly 1,000-square-foot-home on Hollywood Street in north Baton Rouge with his parents and seven siblings.

"My mother took regular milk and mixed it with powdered milk," he recalled.

Christmas usually consisted of one gift, like a baseball glove or BB gun.

"My dad rode a bike to work so that my mother could have a car," he said. His father worked at what is now the ExxonMobil refinery two miles away.

Recreation was riding bikes and fishing in False River, with the candidate in charge of digging up worms.

Rispone attended Redemptorist High School, where he earned all-state honors as a 170-pound senior offensive guard and linebacker.

He began work at the age of 15 when his older brother, Sammy, got him a construction job.

"It didn't take long to realize if I wanted spending money or transportation or if I was going to go to college, I had to have a job," Rispone said.

He worked his way through LSU — including a role helping to build the Pete Maravich Assembly Center — while earning a degree in construction technology.

He spent weekends pumping gas for $1.23 per hour and lived in a 10-by-50-foot mobile home for five years.

After 14 years in construction, Rispone and his brother Jerry, an electrical engineer, launched their own business in 1989.

That firm — ISC Constructors — had revenues of $364 million last year and may hit $400 million this year.

Business associates say his success is no accident.

Jim Shoriak, a former top executive of Marathon Petroleum, got to know Rispone in the early 1990s when the candidate was a contractor for Marathon. "At that time, he was one of the most efficient contractors that we had," Shoriak said.

"He is definitely what I would call a genuine individual, meaning that what he says he means," Shoriak said. "He was always very customer focused, wanting to do the best possible job."

For most of his career, politics held little interest for the Republican.

Shoriak said education became one of the driving forces behind Rispone's run for governor.

In 2011, the candidate became chairman of the Louisiana Federation for Children, which is the state's leading advocate for vouchers — state aid for children from low-income families attending sub-standard public schools to attend private schools.

"I realized 'Whoa, we have a serious problem,' " Rispone said.

About 7,000 children statewide get vouchers, which expanded in 2012 at the urging of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"He believes that the education of the children should be more uniform and not just the people who can afford private school education," Shoriak said.

Favre, who is president and CEO of Performance Contractors, made the same point. "I think he is very passionate about the concerns that we all have in the state of Louisiana on how far backward we are on that situation," he said.

Said Rispone, "I am going to put the children first and let the adults figure it out."

"If a school system is not taking care of the child I want to get the child out of there," he said. 

"And how they do it I don't care," Rispone said. "Either it is charter, home schooling, scholarship, voucher. But we are going to put the children first."

Rispone was named by Jindal to chair the Louisiana Workforce Investment Council, which advised the governor on the needs of Louisiana's employers and its workforce.

"That is how I drifted off into politics," he said of his education and workforce involvement. "When John Bel got in, it just took off. He did everything wrong."

One key mistake, Rispone said, was the governor's decision to expand Medicaid shortly after taking office in 2016.

"We won't be able to sustain it the way we are going," he said of rising Medicaid costs

Rispone's mom and dad first settled in Amite, the Tangipahoa Parish town where Edwards' family has lived for generations.

They later moved to Baton Rouge, where his father worked for Standard Oil and his mom ran the house and raised six boys and one girl.

"Even as a little boy, you got him something to do and he got it done," Sammy Rispone, who is nine years older, said of his brother. "Eddie is about as straight a shooter as you are going to find."

Favre made the same point.

"He is going to tell people what he thinks," he said. "That may not be 100% politically correct."

Sammy Rispone also said his brother's mostly self-funded campaign for governor is a plus. "One good thing about this whole thing is he is not going to be beholden to anybody," he said.

Others say the candidate has a way of bringing out their best efforts.

Matt Rispone, a nephew of the candidate who works at ISC and manages his property, said that in 2013 Rispone asked him to oversee the construction of a lodge and some cabins south of Natchez, Mississippi, with a near impossible deadline to finish by Thanksgiving that year.

"We had contractors turn us down, no way you can get it done," Matt Rispone recalled them saying.

The project was finished and on time.

"He just always has a tendency to push people and make them better because he is such a driven guy and wants everything perfect and puts expectations on other people," Rispone said of his uncle.

Rispone and his wife Linda, both previously widowed, have been married for 13 years and have seven children and 24 grandchildren.

His first wife Phyllis died in 2005 after 35 years of marriage.

Rispone likes saltwater fishing and hunting deer and turkey.

"Whatever I can do with my kids or grandchildren," he said. "I am not one to go in the mountains for two weeks by myself."

He took up bow hunting six years ago and has worked feverishly to master it, relatives said.

Rispone said he sees his rivals for governor as entrenched politicians and made that point repeatedly during the Sept. 19 gubernatorial debate at LSU.

"He is a plaintiff attorney that grew up in a generational political family," he said of Edwards. "With that background, everything has to be political, grow government, more people in government."

And Abraham? "He is a Washington politician."

Rispone, who does little of the traditional vote-hunting like previous candidates, waves away comments that his nearly $1 million in donations to GOP causes hurts his outsider status.

He said he sees Trump as a doer.

"He is not afraid to go out and get things done," Rispone said.

Rispone also alluded to recent Abraham endorsements by other GOP politicians, including U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre.

"They don't want someone like me or Donald Trump," Rispone said of the Republican establishment. "They want someone they can control."

Rispone said there are plenty of examples of successful businessmen becoming governors, including former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

"And they turned their states around, I mean they really made huge strides," he said. "But you won't hear about it. The press won't cover that."

Rispone calls himself the lone candidate who can rescue a troubled government.

"We have one choice this time, and it is me," he said. 

"I am the only one that is going to turn it around, the only one that has the resources, the only one not beholden to the special interests."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.