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At the West Baton Rouge Parish Detention Center, as Brandon Vice, right, does sign language interpretation, Gov. John Bel Edwards, at lectern, unveils the first performance report of the reform efforts as a result of the bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Initiative signed into law last year Thursday June 28, 2018, in Port Allen, La.

It was probably inevitable that the two major Republican candidates for governor would fall out as the Oct. 12 primary nears. After all, their mutual goal is to force Gov. John Bel Edwards into a runoff, but the overriding goal of the two GOP campaigns is not to finish third in October.

Nobody runs, especially if spending $10 million or so of your own money like Eddie Rispone has, to finish in third place in an open primary. The latter caused a splash with ads hitting Abraham on absenteeism in Congress while running for governor — no great surprise, in fact traditional in Louisiana, where many governors have come from the U.S. House.

The ad also and quite absurdly suggested that Abraham is some kind of fellow-traveler with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The San Francisco Democrat was certainly amused to hear that.

Lanny Keller: No GOP referees in Republicans’ scrum against each other

But Rispone and Ralph Abraham have also run afoul of leaders of the conservative cause in Louisiana on criminal justice reform. That’s a real issue in which conservative leaders are deeply invested.

The slogan “Right on Crime” signifies the national conservative cause to embrace new and smarter ways to protect public safety while reducing jail populations and giving inmates an opportunity for a new life after prison. That initiative has united conservatives with some liberal groups, true, and it has annoyed some of the old courthouse gangs — powerful sheriffs and district attorneys among them — who have vested interests in today’s system.

The Trump White House has also pushed justice reform, and the president himself broke bread with Edwards in a discussion of the issue and Louisiana’s advances in the cause.

But when it comes to justice, both Rispone and Abraham embraced the anti-reform cause.

It has split their party, or at least influential leadership elements of it, one more time.

“The 2017 passage of the landmark package of legislation to reform the state's criminal justice policies continues to have the support of policy groups, as well as business, faith and law enforcement leaders from across the ideological spectrum,” four influential business leaders, headed by Jay Lapeyre of New Orleans, wrote in a statement. “Louisianans should keep in mind that television advertisements airing during the peak of a political cycle often lack substance and misstate facts in hopes of tearing down opponents. We must all continue to speak loudly against false information, while remaining grounded in the facts and data.”

GOP state Sen. Danny Martiny of Jefferson Parish agreed.

Grace Notes: Trump effect responsible for criminal justice reform's popularity in Louisiana? It's possible

The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, based in New Orleans and active in the criminal justice reform movement, is hardly a hotbed of John Bel Edwards voters. The think-tank has been sharply critical of many Edwards policies. But attacking criminal justice reform brought a sharp rebuke — of the two Republicans.

“It's disappointing to see elected officials and candidates for office using criminal justice reforms in disingenuous attacks and political ploys,” said Daniel Erspamer, head of Pelican. “From the beginning, these policies represented a rare instance of bipartisanship. They served as a place for everyone from across the political spectrum and communities across Louisiana, including business, law enforcement, faith, policy and good government leaders, to come together.”

This is a case in which, without directly naming anybody, the conservative leaders are also indirectly praising Edwards. Though the governor came from a family of courthouse-crowd sheriffs, he has been a stand-up guy on the criminal justice reforms, mollifying local officials when possible and collaborating with Republicans and no-party members of the Legislature as well as Democrats.

“The 2017 criminal justice reforms, passed by bipartisan majorities, were based on proven policies from other conservative, southern states,” Erspamer — not Edwards — said in a statement. “States like Texas and Georgia have seen demonstrably improved public safety, decreased rates of recidivism and saved taxpayer dollars thanks to similar reforms, and so far, early data points to the same potential successes in Louisiana.”

Critics can find examples of mistakes and political maneuvering gone awry by Edwards and legislators on the complex subject of criminal justice reform. A thoughtful critique might have been seconded by conservative leaders, but it’s difficult in this campaign to fault Edwards for pursuing, in the main, policies directly blessed by the Trump White House.

Who are the real conservatives in the race? Those who worked across party lines for criminal justice reforms, or bomb-throwers who want to tear down an Edwards accomplishment achieved with conservative support?

Email Lanny Keller at

Our Views: Curing Louisiana’s incarceration addiction

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