Jim Beam column: Graves out, but has substitute

Published 8:08 am Saturday, March 11, 2023

Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves of Baton Rouge isn’t running for governor. So who is he talking about when he says, “In the coming days, the field for governor will brighten. And Louisiana will have a generational opportunity to write America’s greatest comeback story.”

Graves sent that email message to his supporters, and The Advocate reported it was an apparent hint of Stephen Waguespack entering the race.

Waguespack is president and CEO of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. The newspaper said Graves and Waguespack are close friends.

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Waguespack did announce his candidacy Thursday. “The stakes are high, time is of the essence and I cannot sit on the sidelines when the future of our state is at stake. I am committed to doing everything in my power to help the people of this state have good jobs, quality schools and safe communities…,” he said.

Republicans have dominated the campaign so far, and political observers are wondering what effect Waguespack’s entry, who is also a Republican, would have on the race. He would presumably take on the role of moderate Republican that Graves would have filled, according to bis.neworleans.com.

The Illuminator reported that Republican donors who are unhappy with the current field had been pressuring Graves to run. Donors are particularly concerned that Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry might win.

“They believe Landry is too much of a hothead and too concerned about partisan issues to be an effective governor,” The Illuminator said.

The other major Republican candidates are state Treasurer John Schroder, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell and state Rep. Richard Nelson of Mandeville.

Hunter Lundy of Lake Charles is running as a political independent. Some minor candidates have announced and others are expected to sign up during the Aug. 8-10 qualifying dates.

Shawn Wilson, the former state transportation secretary, is the first prominent Democrat to enter the race. He has the full-fledged support of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Rep. Troy Carter of New Orleans, the only Democrat in the Louisiana congressional delegation.

Mary-Patricia Wray, a political consultant in Baton Rouge who helped Edwards win in 2015, told The Advocate, “The more high-profile endorsements that Dr. Wilson can pick up, the less likely it is to see another well-known Democrat get in the race.”

Wray added, “The power of these endorsements is not that it will convince voters — they’re not yet paying close attention to the race — but it will convince the donor class and other surrogates to come aboard, and it will serve as a signal to consultants that this is the Democratic candidate…”

The Greater Baton Rouge Business Report said as the major Democrat, Wilson would start out as a heavy favorite to make the runoff. However, it added, “He’s going to face a daunting challenge in the runoff.”

Wilson would need to attract 30% of the white vote in the runoff to have any chance of winning, the Business Report said.

Getting back to Waguespack, Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, who lost the 2019 runoff to Edwards, was asked about Waguespack entering the race. Rispone gave $100,000 to the state Republican Party to support Landry.

Rispone said, “I’d say we have two good candidates. They both have their strong suits. Wags really understands what needs to be done. He’s been in the position before. He understands the job really well. He knows the agencies and policies.”

Waguespack, 49, is from Gonzales and served as former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s policy director, his executive counsel, deputy chief of staff, and  chief of staff before resigning in 2012 to work for a law firm in Baton Rouge.

The ties to Jindal are expected to be ammunition for Waguespack’s opponents because of the $2 billion deficit the former governor left Edwards. Waguespack will need to quickly raise campaign funds in order to get the name recognition he will need.

“To be sure, I know this campaign will be challenging,” Waguespack said. “I am not a professional politician, I am human and I will make mistakes along the way. The entrenched status quo may try to smear me and distract voters from the true issues that face our families… Make no mistake, my resolve is strong, my conscience is clear and my heart is proud to be in this race.”

Waguespack is definitely a better Republican choice than Landry, who is  a staunch supporter of Donald Trump. Outside of attacking cultural issues, Landry hasn’t given voters much solid information on what he would do to make life better for the people of Louisiana.