Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Conservative business community may have found a candidate for Louisiana governor

by BIZ Magazine

By Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator

The head of Louisiana’s largest business lobby confirmed Tuesday morning that he’s thinking about running for governor, potentially shaking up a field of Republican candidates who have disappointed some major Republican political donors so far.

“My wife and I are taking a look at it – and praying, reflecting and talking to friends,” said Stephen Waguespack, a Republican who runs the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). “This is one of the most important elections in generations here.”

“We’re going to take our time and think through it, but we don’t have a decision yet,” he said. 

Others said Waguespack had already made up his mind and started telling members of LABI’s executive committee this week that he will enter the race. He’s expected to announce his campaign Thursday, just seven months shy of Louisiana’s gubernatorial primary.

Before overseeing LABI, Waguespack worked for Gov. Bobby Jindal as his executive counsel and chief of staff. Jindal also appointed him to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Waguespack’s potential run is the latest sign that many in the conservative business community aren’t happy with its current options for governor. 

There are already four GOP candidates in the race: Sen. Sharon Hewitt, Attorney General Jeff Landry, Treasurer John Schroder and Rep. Richard Nelson. Former Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson, a Democrat, and wealthy attorney Hunter Lundy, a political independent, have also launched campaigns. 

None of them have been able to unite the corporate business community. A few wealthy Republicans in the donor class are particularly concerned about Landry, who has far more campaign cash on hand than other candidates and acts as the presumptive frontrunner in the race. 

Business leaders and state lawmakers privately complain about Landry’s temperament – the attorney general has a reputation for bullying people who disagree with him and starting feuds with other elected officials.

They also say he’s too focused on divisive social issues – such as what books are available in libraries – to the detriment of tackling the state’s more significant challenges, like low literacy rates and economic development. 

Most high-profile Republicans concerned about Landry will only air their feelings behind closed doors, saying they fear retribution if he ends up winning the election. Only a small group of Republicans have been willing to speak openly about their worries.

Rolfe McCollister, the former publisher of the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, publicly complained last month about “the various warnings and threats [Landry’s] sending to potential opposing candidates and their supporters.”

“[Landry’s] also tossing out threats such as ‘you won’t work in this state,’” if you don’t get behind Landry’s campaign, wrote McCollister, a former member of the LSU Board of Supervisors and Jindal booster, in a column. “Is this what one should expect from someone who claims he can lead our state to a better future?” 

Waguespack may not have been the first choice of candidates for these “Anybody but Jeff” Republicans, however. A number of GOP officials – including U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and U.S. Rep. Garret Graves – were pushed to run as an alternative to Landry over the past year. In the end, none of them got into the race.

Graves is the most recent of those candidates to announce he won’t be running for governor,  but the congressman hinted in a lengthy statement Tuesday morning that he expected another Republican to join the field. He’s likely talking about Waguespack, who is his friend.

“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 said.

A Waguespack campaign could capitalize on the underwhelming performances of the other Republican candidates at a forum held during LABI’s annual meeting last week.

In his capacity as LABI’s president, Waguespack conducted one-on-one interviews with each of the four Republicans already in the race in front of hundreds of attendees. With the exception of Nelson – who is struggling to raise money – the GOP candidates didn’t offer much in the way of specific policy platforms, and some politically-active business folks came away disheartened by the performances.

But Waguespack could face challenges as a late-comer to the race. While he’s well-known among political insiders, it’s not clear that rank-and-file voters are familiar with him.

His association with Jindal could also be a problem. Democrats and Republicans alike are still upset with Jindal for leaving the state government in financial shambles eight years ago. GOP lawmakers are among those most peeved because it fell to them to raise state taxes in 2016 and 2018 to keep state services intact.

The other candidates, especially the attorney general, also have a significant head start when it comes to raising money. Landry’s early endorsement from the Louisiana Republican Party allows the state GOP to help his election efforts financially – an advantage other candidates won’t have.

Some of the state’s most prolific conservative campaign donors have also publicly backed Landry in the governor’s race. Lane Grigsby, founder of Cajun Industries, and Eddie Rispone, a Baton Rouge businessman and the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2019, have both given money to the attorney general.

Earlier this year, Rispone “maxed out” the amount of money he can contribute to Cajun PAC II, which is supporting Landry’s election. He donated $100,000 to the political action committee in January — the largest amount allowed from one person in an election cycle.

That contribution comes on top of the $22,5000 Rispone and his wife have contributed directly to Landry’s campaign since 2020, according to campaign finance documents.

But Rispone’s support of Landry won’t necessarily stop him from also supporting Waguespack, who is a personal friend. 

“I’ve given money to two candidates in a race before,” Rispone said in an interview Tuesday. “We would be much better off with either of those individuals.”

Grigsby did not respond to voicemails and text messages left on his cell phone.

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