When Gov. John Bel Edwards rode to reelection earlier this month, he dashed the hopes of some St. George supporters that one of their own, Eddie Rispone, would hold new power to stand up the city that residents in the southeastern part of East Baton Rouge Parish recently voted to create.

Rispone, a Republican, narrowly lost in a runoff where he campaigned as a businessman and an outsider in the mold of President Donald Trump. While he lost East Baton Rouge Parish, he did well in the St. George area — no surprise given that he lives there and has long been a supporter of the St. George movement.

Had he won the governor’s race, Rispone could have molded St. George in new ways, as state law calls for the governor to appoint an interim mayor and council members to a “newly incorporated municipality.” Edwards now faces the decision over whether to appoint officers to St. George as a legal challenge plays out over its creation. Some are already warning that how the governor chooses to handle St. George could have consequences for his relationships with local officials and legislators in the parish.

“For me, and for many legislators from Baton Rouge and around the state who are familiar with it, I think that’ll set the tone of our relationship for the next four years,” said state Sen. Bodi White, a Central Republican who represents part of St. George and has been an ardent supporter of the movement to create the city. 

Edwards is “here to meet with” St. George supporters when they are ready, said spokeswoman Christina Stephens. She noted that Edwards had scheduled a meeting with St. George’s backers shortly after the incorporation passed in October, but the St. George contingent asked to cancel it.

Andrew Murrell, a St. George attorney and spokesman, said his group decided to push back meeting with the governor until after the runoff. There’s no doubt that a Rispone victory would have added a certain level of comfort to future conversations between the governor’s office and the St. George camp, given that Rispone is a St. George resident and supports the movement. Neither Rispone nor his campaign spokesmen returned messages for this story.

Now that Edwards has been reelected, both Murrell and White want Edwards to quickly appoint the interim leadership for the new city. They say that doing so will have no bearing on the lawsuit that East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and others have filed over the St. George incorporation.

Attorney Mary Olive Pierson, who is representing Broome and the others, said she will not let that happen. A governor cannot appoint leadership to a municipality that does not exist yet, Pierson said. And she added that the city will not exist until the courts issue a final ruling on whether the creation of St. George will adversely affect East Baton Rouge Parish as a whole.

“Contrary to popular opinion in St. George that they became a city on the night of Oct. 12, they didn’t become anything,” Pierson said. “They’re deluding themselves by thinking that the governor in this case could do anything for or against them until they become incorporated.”

Edwards has a good relationship with Broome, a fellow Democrat whom he endorsed over White in the 2016 mayor-president’s election. He has also shown his willingness to back Broome in fights related to St. George.

The governor vetoed a bill this summer that would have set up a St. George transition district, rejecting the legislation after White tacked on an amendment that would have let St. George escape paying for bonds, pensions and other costs that St. George previously negotiated paying off with City Hall. Broome supported the initial version of the bill, but implored a Senate committee to reject it after White’s amendments, saying St. George wouldn’t be paying its fair share of debt for projects like a $15 million renovation that turned the old Woman’s Hospital on Airline Highway into a law enforcement complex.

The Legislature ignored the mayor’s warnings and passed the bill, but Edwards wrote in his veto message that he could not ignore the “grave concerns” of both Broome and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. He wrote that he wanted to ensure “St. George, like any other municipality in the state, pays the bill for the services its residents have received and does not leave those obligations with those outside of its boundaries.”

“We’re just thankful that Gov. John Bel Edwards has stood up here in the past and made sure this issue is being treated fairly,” said Mark Armstrong, Broome’s spokesman.

The veto gave extra fodder to those who hoped to make St. George an issue in the governor’s race. Former state lawmaker Woody Jenkins, now a newspaper publisher, described Edwards as anti-St. George in a preelection edition of his new St. George Leader newspaper, in which he promoted Rispone’s candidacy.

“Rispone has been an active supporter and donor to St. George since 2014,” Jenkins wrote, adding that Rispone was likely to appoint pro-St. George officials to top offices.

Stephens, the spokeswoman for Edwards, said the governor will “give thoughtful consideration” to potential St. George appointments and work with people from the community to make them.

White said he hopes that’s true. He has enjoyed a good relationship with Rispone, who has financially backed his campaigns including by creating and donating $98,000 to a PAC called Citizens for a Better Baton Rouge that backed White in the 2016 mayoral election.

“Eddie was very familiar with the model they wanted to set up for a municipality — he supports less employees, cheaper services,” White said. “But Eddie Rispone didn’t win. I still expect this governor to do what the law calls for and appoint this council, this mayor, this police chief.”

Lionel Rainey, a longtime St. George adviser and political consultant, agreed with White. (Perhaps ironically, Rainey managed the gubernatorial campaign of U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, Rispone’s main primary rival.)

“If Eddie was the governor, things would have progressed at a faster rate,” Rainey said. “But this thing is going to end up where it was always going to end up — getting passed and installing leadership.”

St. George’s opponents remain unconvinced.

More than 100 people who live within St. George's boundaries have filled out paperwork to annex their property into the city of Baton Rouge, while more than 500 property owners have reached out to the anti-St. George group Better Together about annexing as well, according the group's leader M.E. Cormier.

Several major commercial properties have also requested annexation, including six buildings in the United Plaza office complex on Essen Lane, worth more than $6 million. If successful, more annexations along those lines could negatively affect St. George’s property tax base.

“I have the utmost confidence that our suit will be successful, so I don’t think the governor will have any role in the creation of St. George, because such an event will not happen,” Cormier said.

Email Andrea Gallo at agallo@theadvocate.com