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Reports on Louisiana politics, government and the people shaping state policy

Tonight: Gubernatorial candidates to square off in first debate

Louisiana's Capitol building in Baton Rouge on April 5, 2022.
Kezia Setyawan
Louisiana's Capitol building in Baton Rouge on April 5, 2022.

It’s September, which means election season in Louisiana is ramping up in earnest. And on Thursday night, most of the state’s major gubernatorial candidates will participate in the race’s first debate, broadcast live on television and online.

Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, the presumed frontrunner for governor, is skipping the debate, citing concerns with the Urban League of Louisiana’s role as one of the event’s organizers. Last week, Landry’s campaign said he’s concerned the organization won’t treat him fairly, and questioned the impartiality of the group, a civil rights organization with a predominantly Black membership.

The Urban League pushed back, saying in a statement that it “is proud to be a nonpartisan organization who unapologetically advocates on behalf of Black Louisianans and other underserved communities.” It said its primary concern is to help offer a platform for candidates to make their case to Louisiana voters.

Landry has dodged several forums and events with other candidates over the summer, refusing to participate unless he could be on stage by himself. Several of his opponents, including other Republican candidates, have criticized his absence.

Republican Richard Nelson, a state representative from Mandeville and the youngest of the major candidates, has been excluded from the debate because of his poll numbers. Nelson argues that he is statistically tied with two other candidates in the debate. Nelson called his exclusion a “disservice to the voters,” especially given his age and policies — which he feels distinguishes him from the other candidates.

The Republican Party of Louisiana, which has endorsed Landry, announced last week that it would like other candidates from the party to also boycott the debate, but Republicans Sharon Hewitt, John Shroder and Stephen Waguespack have said they are all planning to participate, alongside Democrat Shawn Wilson and Independent Hunter Lundy.

The candidates will grapple with some of Louisiana’s most pressing issues, including the economy, crime, education and insurance. Crime was cited as the top concern in the 2023 Louisiana Survey, an annual report on residents’ opinions about the direction of the state, for the first time in 20 years. After crime, Louisianans cited the economy and education as the next two most pressing topics.

The debate begins at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on WWL-TV Channel 4 in New Orleans, and live streamed on WWL-TV’s YouTube channel and website.

It will be co-hosted by WWL-TV, The Times-Picayune, the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, the Urban League of Louisiana and several other television stations around the state.

Molly Ryan is a political reporter and covers state politics from the Louisiana Capitol.