Eddie Rispone and John Bel Edwards STOCK

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

If the rhetoric were not so nasty, this would be called the silly season of the campaign for governor of Louisiana.

In a poor state, desperate for advancement and innovation, leading candidates for governor are quarreling over racially charged issues that are less relevant than inflammatory. The crass nature of the disputes is not just a turnoff for voters as polls remain open for early voting. The rhetoric underlines a failure of the candidates’ basic instincts for leadership.

Perhaps the silliest issue first: The charge from the Louisiana Republican Party, and conservative media outlets nationally, that incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards’ family — renowned politically in Tangipahoa Parish for generations — included slaveholding ancestors, and his grandfather voted for segregationist measures in the Legislature in the 1950s.

Perhaps true, but not germane to the record of today’s Edwards, who has won strong support from the black community.

This dredging up of the past by Republicans was in part a consequence of Edwards’ supporters evoking a more recent state embarrassment, David Duke. Statements by BOLD, the New Orleans political group, linked Republican candidate Eddie Rispone not only to President Donald Trump and former Gov. Bobby Jindal, both controversial figures, but also white supremacist Duke, who made the 1991 runoff for governor.

The president’s inflammatory language is well-known, but we don’t believe he’s in a class with Duke. Even less so are Rispone and Jindal. The GOP clumsily asserted that Edwards believes Republican voters are racists.

Previously, Rispone made his own mistakes, speaking disparagingly of the United States Military Academy at West Point, having produced Edwards, a “trial lawyer” clinging to power, in the challenger's view.

What do these unfortunate episodes have in common? Neither candidate has responded well to them.

Rispone’s gaffe on a radio program, we are confident, does not reflect his true opinion of veterans like Edwards and their commendable military service. But he failed to grasp this and declined to apologize.

In the governor’s case, the linkage of those with whom he has had legitimate disagreements — Jindal and Rispone — with Duke should have been immediately and forthrightly criticized. Louisiana needs as little association with Duke as possible.

Both candidates have been hiding behind political skirts, saying others are spouting nasty things about the other, though beyond the control of the principals in the race. With apologies to lawyers like Edwards, these are petty legalisms.

Leadership is about taking a stand against bigotry and smears. The slurs on Rispone relative to Duke deserved a prompt rebuke from Louisiana’s governor, and he managed to do just that after a couple of days. And for his part, Rispone, although a first-time candidate, ought to be aware that humility when one makes a mistake, like his West Point remark, is one of the qualities that people want and expect from leaders.