Eddie Rispone and John Bel Edwards STOCK

Eddie Rispone (left) and John Bel Edwards (right)

Republican gubernatorial contender Eddie Rispone said Friday incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards "hurt the reputation" of West Point by becoming a trial lawyer "that will say or do anything to stay in power."

Rispone made his comments in an interview on Talkback with Matthew Dunn & Jim Leggett on KSYL-AM radio in Alexandria.

Asked about Democrat Edwards' experience at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Republican said: "Yeah, you know I'm disappointed in that, if I have to be candid. I think he's hurt the reputation of West Point. I don't think West Point wants to turn out a bunch of trial lawyers that will say or do anything to stay in power."

In a hastily-arranged press conference, Edwards unleashed a blistering attack on the Republican's comments.

"I would just point out that Mr. Rispone went to college to not go in the Army," the governor said. "I went to Army in order to go to college. There is a big difference."

Edwards added later, "Am I offended? Yes. I am offended about what Eddie Rispone said about me and about West Point and my service.

"If Eddie had served his country in the military, he might be able to understand why so many veterans are rightfully upset with his comments," the governor said. "His comments speak volumes about him and say absolutely nothing about me."

Rispone turned 18 in 1967, when the military draft tripled in size to provide servicemen for the Vietnam War. Rispone registered for the draft, as required by law, then enrolled at LSU, which allowed him to defer induction into the military. Upon graduation in 1972, when Rispone was available for service, he was not drafted.

Rispone and Edwards meet in the Nov. 16 runoff, and the race is generally viewed as a tossup.

Early voting for the contest begins on Saturday.

The governor's camp pounced on Rispone's remarks because they view the episode as a chance for the governor to tout his military record, and contrast it with Rispone, during the final two weeks of the campaign.

Edwards spent eight years on active duty with the U.S. Army as an Airborne Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division. He served during peacetime but he did training missions overseas, including in Korea.

The governor said Friday he "literally made my living jumping out of airplanes at two o'clock in the morning, something Eddie Rispone would know nothing about."

Edwards' biography, including his time at West Point, was one of the factors in his surprisingly lopsided win over Republican David Vitter in the 2015 race for governor.

The governor also disputed Rispone's repeated assertions that he is a "trial lawyer." 

Edwards said that, after he graduated from law school at LSU, he opened a "small country practice" in his hometown of Amite. His docket shows Edwards worked on wills and successions, testaments and represented individuals and small firms on both the defendant and plaintiff's side.

"When you practice law in Amite, Louisiana and specialize you will specialize yourself right to the poor house," Edwards said.

Technically, trial lawyers refer to attorneys with courtroom experience. In political rhetoric, however, the term has come to mean any lawyer who represents an individual making a claim for damages against a company or its insurer. The term often carries a negative connotation for many Republicans as an allusion to high-powered attorneys who file multi-million dollar damage lawsuits.

Nationally trial lawyers usually contribute far more to Democrats than Republicans. The GOP has used trial lawyers as a way to energize and raise money from their supporters. 

Edwards enjoys considerable support from members of the Louisiana Association of Justice in this year's race as well as previous campaigns.

In a tweet later in the day, Rispone dubbed the governor's reaction to his radio comments as "typical fake liberal outrage."

"John Bel Edwards is just mad about being called a liberal trial lawyer. Which he most obviously is," he said.

Edwards told reporters, "I would defy you to find any bill that has passed the Legislature that I have signed into law that actually benefits trial lawyers since I have been governor. It hasn't happened."

The Republican, who is a Baton Rouge businessman, also sought to defuse any fallout from his West Point comments.

"I love our veterans, their service and West Point and we can't thank them enough," Rispone said in a statement.

He said the only thing he was attacking was Edwards' "job losing, economy draining record."

Edwards said his rival should apologize for his remarks.

"Look, Eddie Rispone is desperate. He is losing. And the people of Louisiana don't like him. And I suspect they like him less today than yesterday."


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.