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Gubernatorial candidates, from left, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, Eddie Rispone, and Gov. John Bel Edwards

Two ads that attack Gov. John Bel Edwards for having employed a senior aide accused of sexually harassing an underling took center stage during the governor’s race on Friday as the Edwards campaign sought to combat the potentially damaging information.

The Republican Governors Association and Truth in Politics, a 501(c)(4) run by longtime GOP donor and Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, both launched ads on Thursday that attack Edwards for hiring a senior aide named Johnny Anderson who was forced to resign in 2017 over allegations that he sexually harassed an employee named Juanita Washington.

The Truth in Politics ad could be especially problematic for the Edwards campaign because it features Washington speaking harshly of the governor as she looks directly into the camera.

Washington holds up a photo of Anderson and Edwards together and says she was “harassed, groped and assaulted” by Anderson and says of the governor, “When I was hurt, he didn’t care.” She suggests that she lost her job over her complaint.

The ad threatens to tarnish Edwards on a sensitive issue. He sailed to victory four years ago by trumpeting his West Point Honor Code credentials against a Republican candidate, then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who was tarnished by a prostitution scandal.

Two attack ads hit John Bel Edwards on sexual harassment allegations against former aide

That Washington is black could cause some black women – who are Edwards' strongest supporters – to stay home this year. The accusation that the governor is soft on sexual harassment also could cause some liberal white women – who are already uneasy with Edwards for signing into law a strict anti-abortion bill – to not vote.

The Edwards campaign wasted no time by countering the two ads on Friday by releasing an endorsement letter from Jill Craft, a Baton Rouge attorney who specializes in workplace discrimination and who represented Washington during the ordeal. Washington won an $85,000 settlement.

In her letter, Craft does not mention Washington but says, “You have demonstrated quick, decisive action designed to ferret out and remedy workplace discrimination wherever found. On your watch, the State of Louisiana, for the first time, enacted a uniform policy regarding sexual harassment which applies to all state agencies. Prior to this action, virtually every agency in the State had its own policy or, in many cases, no policy at all. Because of you, state employees have a clear path to report unlawful discrimination.”

Craft received $34,000 from the state as part of the settlement.

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When reporters have questioned Edwards about Anderson in recent days, he has said that he enacted the anti-sexual harassment policy in the wake of the accusations against the onetime aide.

Meanwhile, Republicans are bringing out their heavy artillery during the final days of the governor’s race to try to hold Edwards below 50% in the Oct. 12 primary.

Vice President Mike Pence will rally Republicans on Saturday at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, and Donald Trump Jr. will gin up support at the Cajundome on Monday.

Both men are joining the campaign to keep Edwards under 50% to force him into a runoff a month later against either of the two Republican candidates, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham or businessman Eddie Rispone.

Abraham and Rispone are locked in a battle for second place if there is a runoff. Both candidates will attend the events with Pence and Trump Jr.

Abraham on Friday made a public appeal to Rispone to stop running attack ads against the congressman that have outraged many Republicans and that prompted conservative radio talk show host Moon Griffon and U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins to endorse Abraham.

“It’s time to focus all of our attention on what’s most important, beating John Bel Edwards,” said Abraham in the Facebook post. He pledged in return to pull his TV ad response to Rispone’s commercial.

The Rispone campaign wouldn’t take the bait.

“Congressman Abraham has been attacking Eddie for months,” the campaign said in a statement. “Now that he is losing, he suddenly wants to pull a publicity stunt with a call to stop the attacks. That’s a career politician move if there ever was one. He shouldn’t have started a fight he wasn’t prepared to win.”

Abraham campaigned in Jefferson Davis and Grant parishes on Friday and was scheduled to attend a high school football game in Lafayette that night.

Rispone spent the day at his campaign headquarters focusing on money-raising efforts.

Edwards had one public event on Friday, a ribbon-cutting at the new children’s hospital at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge.

Edwards also released a feel-good ad that showed him dancing with his daughter during her wedding reception, meeting with ordinary citizens and driving an old pick-up truck with his wife Donna by his side.

Capital News Bureau reporter Sam Karlin contributed to this report.

NOTE: This story has been updated to include the state payment to Craft.

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.