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Other governor candidates try to put Jeff Landry in the hot seat in his first debate

Attorney General Jeff Landry speaks to reporters after qualifying for the governor’s race Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, at the Louisiana State Archives building in Baton Rouge.
Wes Muller
/
Louisiana Illuminator
Attorney General Jeff Landry speaks to reporters after qualifying for the governor’s race Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, at the Louisiana State Archives building in Baton Rouge.

This story was originally published on the Louisiana Illuminator.

LAFAYETTE — Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry became a target for other candidates trailing him in the governor’s race at his first — and perhaps only — debate appearance.

“The political insiders lead you to believe that this race is over, and they’re also telling you who to vote for, but I think the voters are smarter than that,” state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, one of four other GOP candidates trying to catch the attorney general, said during Friday night’s Nexstar Television debate.

Hewitt and the other five major governor candidates sparred with Landry during an hour-long broadcast from the KLFY-TV studio. The meetup came exactly one month before the Oct. 14 primary election, which is expected to whittle down the gubernatorial field to two candidates for a November runoff.

Landry is the clear frontrunner in the race, ahead of the rest of the field in both polling and fundraising. His commanding lead gives Landry the luxury of skipping most joint appearances with the other candidates.

The Lafayette debate was the rare case where Landry agreed to appear alongside his opponents. But he hasn’t committed to participating in either of the two remaining televised debates scheduled before the primary elections. Gray Television will hold its debate Sept. 23 at the University of New Orleans, and Louisiana Public Broadcasting will host the candidates Sept. 28 at its studios in Baton Rouge.

“I’m excited to have all of the candidates, specifically the attorney general, to join us for the first time in six months on the stage to talk about issues that matter to you,” Shawn Wilson, Louisiana’s former transportation chief, said in his opening statement Friday night, trying to draw attention to Landry’s persistent absence from forums and debates with his competitors.

Landry, known for his heated rhetoric, kept his cool during the live televised event. But unlike every other candidate, he opted out of the post-debate interviews with journalists once the cameras were off.

The other candidates also failed to draw many clear distinctions between themselves and Landry on matters of policy during the debate.

All said they would be willing to meet with the family of Ronald Greene, the Black man who died after a violent 2019 encounter with white Louisiana State Police troopers outside Monroe. Six of seven candidates, everyone except for political independent Hunter Lundy, said they would support toll roads to help expand infrastructure in Louisiana.

Even on the issue of abortion, where political boundaries are typically bright and clear, the lines were unusually muddy.

State Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, and Wilson said they would support adding exceptions to Louisiana’s abortion ban in instances of rape and incest. Hewitt, Lundy and Republican Treasurer John Schroder stood opposed to the exceptions.

But Wilson, the only major Democrat in the race, evaded questions about whether he considered himself “pro-choice” or in favor of abortion rights. Instead, he would only say that he knows “the importance of trusting women with their own bodies.”

Likewise, Landry didn’t answer a direct question about whether he could support rape and incest exceptions to the state abortion ban that are popular with more than three-fourths of the Louisiana public. Instead, the attorney general described himself as “100% pro-life” and said he would defer to state lawmakers on the issue.

“That is a difficult decision that the legislature, if they so choose to discuss, we can have a discussion and debate to see what comes out. That’s what I feel,” Landry responded when asked about rape and incest exceptions.

Landry also implied he would defer to the incoming state insurance commissioner, Tim Temple, on the state’s ongoing property insurance crisis. Rates for homeowners, commercial and auto insurance are soaring in the wake of three major hurricanes that have struck Louisiana since 2020.

“We should take a team approach. We have an insurance commissioner. I’ve already spoken to him and he believes that we need a special session, so I would certainly support that,” Landry said.

Landy added that he, as attorney general, is suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency over changes to its flood insurance program that are expected to raise rates for Louisiana residents.

The other GOP candidates criticized Landry for taking political donations from trial attorneys, who Republicans blame for driving up insurance costs in Louisiana through lawsuits.

The attorney general and his political action committee have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from trial lawyers, including those famous for suing over auto accidents.

“I work cleanly and openly with everyone, but I will never sell my vote. That’s why [the trial attorneys] are not choosing to donate to me. They are donating to others,” Stephen Waguespack said.

Waguespack used to run the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, an advocacy organization that has been locked in a political battle with trial attorneys for years.

Similarly, Schroder said, as governor, he would allow “trial lawyers, who prey on this state and the insurers of this state,” to participate in discussions of how to bring down state insurance rates but not dictate policy.

Wilson did set himself apart from the other candidates when it came to questions of how to handle any future health pandemic. He was the only candidate who said he would support another mask mandate and vaccines if science suggested it was needed to keep the public safe.

All the other candidates said they would never support the restrictions Gov. John Bel Edwards put in place during the first months of the COVID-19 crisis.

“I think the school closings is one of the most particularly terrible things that we did,” said state Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville. “I would never do that again.”

Schroder and Lundy also made an effort to paint Landry as a corrupt politician who trades in political favors.

“Jeff Landry has already made his decision in fixing the race by having the GOP endorse him before any of these other people got a chance,” Lundy said, referencing the unusually early backing the state Republican Party gave to Landry in the governor’s race.

The party’s move likely brought hundreds of thousands of extra dollars to Landry’s election efforts.

“And of course [Landry’s] desire is to have a runoff with opposition from Shawn Wilson. Shawn Wilson cannot win this race,” Lundy said. “He has zero chance of winning the race.”