Trump's 'Outsider' Candidate in Louisiana Governor's Race Has a Long History of Influencing Policy

Leo Laventhal was out early for Louisiana's Election Day on Saturday. As polling stations opened their doors for the closely-watched contest between incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and Eddie Rispone, a Republican multimillionaire businessman and education activist, Laventhal, a retired New Orleans public school teacher, stood on Jefferson Avenue holding a campaign sign.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Washington, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to post one final push for Rispone. The president has campaigned hard for the man who calls himself a "conservative outsider," making three trips to Louisiana in the month leading up to the runoff election.

Like Trump, Rispone was a wealthy businessman with a background in construction, and much of his campaign was based on their ideological similarities: pro-business, anti-taxes, pro-Christians, anti-immigration. "Listen to this candidate and you're guaranteed to hear about two things: business, and the president" began local TV station WAFB's candidate profile of Rispone.

Where the "Trump bump" panned out for Tate Reeves in Mississippi, it ultimately flopped for Rispone, just as it did for Gov. Matt Bevin in Kentucky. His campaign bore a distinctive similarity to Bevin's: Both candidates were the scourge of local teachers unions.

Laventhal, the former schoolteacher, wasn't campaigning for either Rispone or Edwards on Saturday, though he said that race was "probably more important." Instead, he was canvassing for a candidate to the state's House of Representatives. A former executive vice president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, Laventhal had chosen his candidate upon learning that her opponent received funding from the Louisiana Federation for Children, an organization he called the "nemesis" of Louisiana's teachers unions—and a passion project for Eddie Rispone.

Rispone
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Republican candidate for governor, Eddie Rispone, during a rally at CenturyLink Center on November 14, 2019 in Bossier City, Louisiana. President Trump headlined the rally to support Louisiana Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone, who is looking to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Matt Sullivan/Getty

In 2011, Rispone and his wife shelled out $750,000 to produce The Experiment, a somewhat-misleading documentary promoting the shift toward education privatization that occurred in Louisiana during the years immediately following Hurricane Katrina, according to reporting by Lamar White Jr. for Bayou Brief. The next year, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal enacted legislation to create the country's largest school voucher program, wherein low-income families could apply for funding from the state to send their children to private institutions.

That same year, 2012, Rispone helped establish the Louisiana branch of the the American Federation for Children, which describes itself as an advocacy group "dedicated to promoting, protecting, and expanding private school choice and opportunity scholarship programs." Left-wing watchdog SourceWatch described the federation as "a conservative 501(c)(4) dark money group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues. The group was organized and is funded by the billionaire DeVos family."

The idea of the voucher system was to liberate families facing financial hardship from shoddy public schools that would otherwise be their only option. Almost 7,000 Louisiana children were enrolled under a voucher program as of 2019. Instead of improving their chances, voucher programs have cost the state $40 million per year while funneling students into worse schools, a joint investigative report found earlier this year.

"The Louisiana program was not very well conceived. It has discouraged many schools from participating in it, and in fact has encouraged some schools that probably would not have been parents' first choices," Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said on May 6 of the system Rispone worked so hard to develop.

Edwards successfully won over the teachers unions during his previous campaign and his first term—implementing policies like a $1,000 across-the-board raise for teachers.

The United Teachers of New Orleans, once the largest local labor union in the state, has seen its membership shrink drastically since 2005. After Hurricane Katrina, the state temporarily took over management of the city's battered public school system. In opposition to the measure, many institutions sought autonomy by becoming charter schools, a choice even more public schools opted for after the state yielded oversight of New Orleans public schools back to the local school board in 2018. Charter school staff must decide whether or not to opt in to union participation, a move that is often discouraged by administrators, as charter schools are not required to offer teachers benefits like health care and retirement plans on par with those mandated for unionized schools, according to Laventhal.

In New Orleans, as elsewhere in the state, the continual shift toward charters and tuition vouchers was supported by Louisiana's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), which "adopts regulations and enacts policies governing the operations of the schools under its jurisdiction, and exercises budgetary oversight of their educational programs and services." The board is made up of eight elected and three appointed members.

Since becoming governor, Edwards has not had as much say in Louisiana's education policy as his predecessors, thanks to "an unprecedented and coordinated surge of spending by wealthy advocates of expansive school choice polices" that "ensured the ... BESE remained narrowly in the control of the very group of people responsible for helping Jindal create this fiasco," according to White. "Eddie Rispone and his wife personally sank $200,000 to help elect a slate of pro-school choice BESE members," White reported.

"With the support of Eddie Rispone, Bobby Jindal wrecked our state; cutting higher education more than anywhere else in the country, crippling our economy, and racking up a $2 billion deficit. But Gov. Edwards has cleaned up Jindal's mess and gotten Louisiana moving in the right direction. We're investing in education, expanding access to health care for working people, and growing our economy. If Eddie Rispone wins, he'll take us right back to Jindal's failed policies. Louisiana doesn't want to go back," Edwards' campaign spokesman Eric Holl told Newsweek via email Saturday morning ahead of his narrow victory.

Attempts to contact Rispone's campaign yielded no response.

This article has been updated to reflect the outcome of Saturday's election.

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