About two weeks before the primary election in the Louisiana governor’s race, billionaire New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson made a $50,000 donation to a Super PAC dedicated to reelecting Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The donation was made through Zelia CNP LLC, which lists Benson and the succession of deceased former Saints owner Tom Benson as its officers and Saints President Dennis Lauscha as its registered agent, according to campaign finance disclosures. The firm has made real estate transactions in the past.
Gayle Benson took control of the Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans NBA team when her husband died in March 2018.
The recipient of the donation, Gumbo PAC, has spent millions on television advertising in the governor's race, largely focused on attacking Edwards' Republican challengers. The organization is allowed to raise and spend unlimited sums helping Edwards win reelection as long as does not directly coordinate with Edwards’ campaign. Gumbo PAC was required to report the donation ahead of the 10-day reporting deadline because it is over $1,000 and was made within 20 days of the election. The PAC is run by Democratic political operative Trey Ourso, who declined to comment.
Greg Bensel, a spokesman for the Saints, said, "Gov. John Bel Edwards is a candidate that Mr. and Mrs. Benson have had a close relationship with for many years, sharing a strong belief in service to country and their faith."
As governor, Edwards has developed close ties with the Saints organization. Earlier this summer, he attended a Saints training camp and talked up a deal in the works to keep the Saints in New Orleans through 2035 and do a $450 million renovation of the Superdome, a project that would be the most expensive in the stadium’s 44-year history.
During the visit, he also tossed a football with Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and the interaction was made into a digital campaign ad by American Bridge, another Super PAC that is trying to help Edwards keep his seat as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. The ad, which features Brees prominently, is running in New Orleans amid early voting, which began Saturday and runs for a week.
Gayle Benson has personally made a handful of political donations over the years, giving the maximum $5,000 amount to both Edwards and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, as well as $12,500 to Fund for Louisiana’s Future, a Super PAC affiliated with former Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, records show. Tom Benson was a more frequent giver to campaigns, donating to both Republicans and Democrats over the years.
The primary election in the governor’s race, where Edwards faces Republican challengers Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone, is Oct. 12. If no candidate wins more than 50%, the top two advance to a runoff on Nov. 16. Three lesser-known candidates are also running.
Super PACs have become a significant force in Louisiana politics, and Gumbo PAC played a crucial role in helping to elect Edwards in 2015. It is funded by a wide range of trial attorneys, business interests and labor unions, among others. The Democratic Governors Association, a national organization based in Washington, D.C., in recent days dropped another $700,000 into Gumbo, putting its contributions to the PAC this cycle at $1.2 million, according to the campaign finance disclosures.
Securing Louisiana’s Future, the Super PAC affiliated with Ralph Abraham, is also raking in some donations as the election enters the home stretch. Abraham transferred $30,000 from his congressional campaign account to the PAC. Vitter previously made a similar move with nearly $800,000 from his Senate campaign, and in doing so helped usher in the era of unlimited Super PAC donations in Louisiana.
Abraham’s PAC also raised $50,000 in recent days from Correct Solutions LLC, an affiliate of the private prison operator LaSalle Corrections, which operates the only private state prison in Louisiana, Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, in Abraham’s congressional district.
And Abraham himself loaned his campaign $50,000, records show, the first time he has loaned his own campaign money in the governor's race.
Eddie Rispone, a Baton Rouge businessman who is the other major Republican candidate, does not have a Super PAC affiliated with his campaign, but he has self-funded his campaign to the tune of more than $11.5 million.
The candidates will report their 10-day fundraising figures later this week to the Louisiana Ethics Board.