BRAC economis development summit

Gov. John Bel Edwards is questioned by Harry J. “Skip” Philips Jr., a Baton Rouge business lawyer, at a statewide economic development summit in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday evening found himself fielding questions alone before a room full of industry executives and business people after his challenger in the runoff election for governor – Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone – skipped what was slated to be a statewide forum at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

The Democratic governor, facing a crowd that would likely be friendlier to Rispone, a longtime industry executive, used the opportunity to lay into his Republican opponent for dodging public events where he would have to lay out a detailed policy plan. The event was presented by Entergy, hosted by BRAC and sponsored by regional chambers of commerce.

The Statewide Economic Development Summit was initially designed as a forum where the two candidates in the runoff would field questions about policy issues, but Rispone did not attend. His campaign refused to say what he was doing instead.

“Why are we in front of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, these are business people in Baton Rouge ... without the Baton Rouge area business candidate in this room, taking part in this forum?” Edwards said. “I understand his calendar didn’t support this particular event, I’m just going to tell you it was intentional and it speaks volumes that he doesn’t have a vision to share about what this state ought to look like moving forward.”

Rispone, co-founder of ISC Constructors in Baton Rouge, has eschewed many of the forums and other events that are staples in Louisiana gubernatorial campaigns. He skipped separate forums hosted by the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, the Louisiana Municipal Association and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana during the primary, and he was rarely available to the media until the home stretch of the primary election.

“Unfortunately our schedule does not allow us to participate in the BRAC summit,” Rispone spokeswoman Ruth Wisher said in a statement. “With only five weeks between the primary and the runoff there will regrettably be events and opportunities that we must decline. Eddie is crisscrossing Louisiana meeting with voters every day and will continue to do so until Election Day.”

Edwards rejected Rispone’s outlook on several key policy areas and pitched himself as a governor who has grown the economy and stabilized Louisiana’s finances, lifting the state out of a recession. Rispone has argued Louisiana's economy is floundering. 

"The economy is booming," Edwards said. "My opponent is saying things and I don't have a clue where they’re getting that information." 

Rispone’s tactics – bolstered by more than $11.5 million in personal cash – did win him a runoff spot ahead of his Republican challenger Congressman Ralph Abraham, who had far less money and who embraced the forums and retail politics before falling short with 24% of the vote in the primary, compared to Rispone’s 27%.

Edwards, who had an opportunity to win the election outright in the primary, fell short with about 47% of the vote. He faces Rispone in a Nov. 16 runoff, and Republicans are hoping President Donald Trump will help lift Rispone to the governor’s office by returning to the state to stump for him.

Rispone’s absence at Tuesday’s forum was more striking because of its host, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, of which Rispone’s company, ISC constructors, was an investor as recently as last year. The crowd of business executives would have been a generally friendly audience to a Republican businessman from Baton Rouge with the backing of the state’s largest business and oil industry groups. Instead it was the Democratic governor who showed up and fielded a wide array of questions in what became a “fireside chat with the governor.”

Edwards defended his overhaul of a lucrative tax break for manufacturers, the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, telling the room of businesspeople the program has grown under his watch and that the changes are working as intended.

“It’s a fairer system and it’s a system now that works more like other states,” he said.

The governor also said the state Louisiana Economic Development agency is working on another round of changes to ITEP to ensure localities cannot have rules that are “inconsistent” with the state’s.

He waxed on tax policy, tort reform, pensions, coastal restoration and transportation, highlighting where he agrees with the state’s business community. He won applause for his support of a passenger rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that has been discussed for years but which has never been funded.

Rispone, a longtime donor to GOP causes in Louisiana, has promised to undo Edwards’ overhaul of the ITEP program, which gave local officials a say in whether to approve the local property tax exemptions and tied the awards to jobs, among other things. Rispone has said he intends to do a new reform of the program that would not give locals a vote on the exemptions.

Last year, BRAC and Rispone’s company ISC Constructors fought on the same side of the battle over ITEP, which exempted billions of local revenues for decades while companies cut jobs, according to an Advocate investigation. 

Rispone’s key issue is a constitutional convention, but he has not said what exactly he wants to change in the state’s constitution.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com