FILE - Ralph Abraham, John Bel Edwards, Eddie Rispone

U.S. Rep Ralph Abraham, R-La. (from left), Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and businessman Eddie Rispone.

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The three leading candidates to be Louisiana’s next governor engaged in their final televised debate Wednesday night before Saturday’s election.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the deep South, is attempting to fend off challenges from Republican  Congressman Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone.

Louisiana does not hold party primaries, so all three will compete on the same ballot. Edwards hopes to garner more than half of the votes to win in the first round and avoid a runoff with either Abraham or Rispone, who are in a tight race for second place.

Asked Wednesday if they would support new sales tax exemptions, Abraham enthusiastically said he would, while Edwards and Rispone both said they would not but would like to lower the sales tax rate instead.

Edwards reiterated that he would be willing to support raising the state’s gas tax if the legislature had an appetite for it. Rispone said he would not. Abraham said he would consider it if the change was “tax neutral,” meaning that other taxes are lowered by the same amount.

Asked what they would do to diversify the state’s economy, Rispone said he would recruit companies in other states and tell them “we’re open for business again.” Abraham focused on strengthening the oil and gas industry, which he described as the state’s most important business sector. Edwards stressed continuing to “invest in education” while pointing to development of new high-tech industries such as cybersecurity already happening in the state.

As he often does, Edwards touted this year’s teacher pay raises and new money for education, from early childhood to higher education. Rispone and Abraham both painted Edwards as an enemy of school choice while stressing their own support for charter schools, vouchers and home schooling.

Edwards was asked why he hired a top aide who previously was accused of sexual harassment and then was accused of harassing a member of the governor’s staff. Edwards said the aide had been cleared of prior allegations and came highly recommended by people around the state.

“When the complaint came to light, he was discharged within hours,” Edwards said. “We told him either he would resign in that meeting or he would be fired at its conclusion.”

When given the opportunity to address the other candidates, Edwards hit Abraham for missing votes in Congress and Rispone for donating to former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was unpopular by the end of his time in office. Abraham said winning the race was important enough to miss votes, and Rispone said his company made only a small donation to Jindal without his knowledge.

When he got his turn to ask questions, Rispone went after Edwards for supporting Hillary Clinton for president, who lost Louisiana by 20 points. Edwards responded by emphasizing his ability to work with presidents and other officials in both parties, saying he was focused on Louisiana, not Washington, D.C.

Rispone accused Abraham of not donating his salary to charity as he promised. Abraham said he had done so and continued to do so, saying he and his wife give generously to charitable causes.

Abraham asked Rispone about his early support for Common Core education standards, which Rispone now says he opposes. Rispone said he was told it was a way to raise standards and blamed former President Barack Obama, “who took a hold of it, and shamefully tried to take it over and take over our schools.”

Abraham blamed Edwards for the fact that many victims of the 2016 floods still have not received federal aid the state is largely responsible for distributing. Edwards said the federal government actually had praised the state for moving quickly for a disaster of that scale.

“We submitted our plan faster than any other state ever did,” he said.

This article originally ran on thecentersquare.com.

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