After a few weeks of trying to link Gov. John Bel Edwards with supporting unchecked immigration, the Democratic governor’s Republican opponents also are blaming his “trial lawyer” ways for what they call Louisiana’s sluggish economy.

Unlike whether the state should build a wall on the Mexican border, the trial lawyer riff is linked to a relevant policy debate for Louisiana.

“Let’s be clear, our oil and gas industry hasn’t taken a beating from the economy. It’s taken a beating from John Bel Edwards and his trial attorney donors,” Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham stated in a piece released Thursday by his campaign.

It’s a refrain both Abraham, of Alto, and Baton Rouge millionaire contractor Eddie Rispone, the other announced GOP challenger, have been singing for some time now on the campaign trail.

“I’m going to do everything I possibly can as governor to reverse what we have today by this governor,” Rispone told a recent crowd at the Petroleum Club in Morgan City, according to The Daily Review, the city’s newspaper. “Thousands of jobs are lost to feed these greedy trial lawyers.”

Trial lawyers sue companies and their insurers on behalf of injured individuals. Back in the 1980s, GOP strategist Karl Rove discovered that attacking lawyers opened the wallets of contractors and oilmen. Anti-trial lawyer business types provided the seed money that helped Republican George W. Bush defeat a popular incumbent Democrat and become governor of Texas.

But dressing Edwards for a struggle session in a dunce cap and “trial lawyer” placard overstates his past.

As a state representative, Edwards rallied opponents to legislation that negated levee board lawsuits against oil and gas companies, arguing that never before had lawmakers passed a bill that went back in time to defeat an already filed lawsuit. Attorneys in 2015 gave Edwards early money, but those dollars were, in the words of Baton Rouge plaintiffs' lawyer Don Carmouche at the time, as much a statement of opposition to frontrunner David Vitter as support for a Democratic candidate few gave little chance of winning.

That changed after Edwards won, judging from his campaign contribution disclosures.

Soon after being sworn in, Edwards announced plans to beef up efforts to seek damages from oil and gas companies for their role in harming Louisiana's wetlands over many decades. He urged coastal parishes, local governments and school boards to file suit and said the state would sue on their behalf if they didn’t do it on their own — a much more aggressive position than the state had ever previously taken. And he recommended hiring some of those campaign-contributing lawyers to help handle those cases.

Both Rispone and Abraham have promised over and over again on the campaign trail that one of their first acts, if elected, would be to reverse that practice.

Abraham wrote last week that the 42 coastal lawsuits and other litigation are the reason for Louisiana’s slow economic growth. Plaintiffs argue that oil companies should clean up after themselves and that their failure to do so often leads to costly environmental problems for the land and health issues for the people, which taxpayers have to fund.

Before becoming governor, Edwards was a small-town lawyer who handled all manner of issues. He handled successions and wrote contracts, according to records at the Tangipahoa Parish Courthouse.

His trial docket was quite small, primarily representing small businesses in various disputes, such as Amite-based Bayou Sand & Gravel in a 2010 effort to get Crosby Tugs of Galliano to pay for 12 damaged pilings.

Over about a decade, Edwards represented about a half dozen people injured in car wrecks, traditionally the actions most decried by business and insurance companies, but few of those cases were tried and the awards were modest. One of the biggest was in 2012 when Edwards helped win a $388,000 award for a woman severely injured when a truck ran a stop sign.

Nevertheless, after four years on hold, the business community is priming for “tort reform” and sees the October elections as their best chance to find the legislators and leaders willing to pass laws that would reduce access to the courthouse for injured individuals and thereby reduce legal costs for businesses.

“There is no doubt that the broader frustration in the business community is that tort reform never made it out of committee in the last four years,” Louisiana Association of Business & Industry leader Stephen Waguespack said Thursday, adding that he hopes trial lawyers will negotiate after the election. “Too many people now understand that our legal climate has to change if we hope to address the insurance reality."

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