Exclusive: John Bel Edwards Responds To David Vitter’s Incendiary New Ad

Earlier today, David Vitter’s campaign kicked off the runoff election for Louisiana governor with a television commercial many are already comparing to Lee Atwater and George H.W. Bush’s infamous “Willie Horton” ad. Vitter’s ad, which has not yet been uploaded onto his campaign website or YouTube account, can be viewed via Politico. During his victory speech last Saturday, Edwards, to his credit, anticipated and warned the public that Vitter’s runoff campaign strategy would rely heavily on appeals to bigotry. Sen. Vitter wasted no time proving him right.

The 30-second spot begins with a menacing, black and white photograph of President Obama, which is probably par for the course for most Republicans and not, in and itself, racially coded. But the Vitter campaign’s intentions quickly become much more obvious. Obama, the narrator claims, wants to release 6,000 people from prison, and just like the President, John Bel Edwards believes in setting free 5,500 inmates in Louisiana. Here’s the transcript (bold mine):

Voting for Edwards is like voting to make Obama the next governor of Louisiana.

Want proof?

Obama dangerously calls for the release of 6,000 criminals from jail. Edwards joined Obama, promising at Southern University he’ll reduce 5,500 in Louisiana alone. 5,500 dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our neighborhood. Edwards even voted to allow felons to receive taxpayer funded pensions.

Obama and Edwards, wrong for Louisiana.

I spoke with Rep. Edwards today in a wide-ranging interview that will soon be published in The Independent of Lafayette. One of my first questions was about the Vitter campaign’s commercial, and I thought his response was relevant, timely, and important enough to merit its own attention.

The United States has 5% of the world’s population, yet it houses 25% of its prisoners. And Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. “Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s,” The Times-Picayune reported in a blockbuster series titled “Louisiana INCarcerated.” The enormous number of inmates in Louisiana, the majority of whom are African-Americans convicted of non-violent crimes, has undermined the state’s workforce, destroyed families, robbed children of their mothers and fathers, and perpetuated institutional poverty more than anything else.

Sen. Vitter’s refusal to recognize this issue is a dereliction of duty, and his cynical attempt to scare voters over Rep. Edwards’s sensible proposals is shameful. It’s also a dog whistle to racists, the folks in Louisiana who loathe Obama- not necessarily for anything he has done- but for who he is. The same people who believe the president is a secret Muslim who lied about the identity of his own mother, when he was a child, in order to one day run for the Oval Office are those who, upon hearing that a candidate allegedly spoke in front of an audience at “Southern University” about releasing a bunch of “thugs” from prison, are too ignorant, too easily manipulated, and too blinded by their own bigotry to ever care to know the facts. Again, this is about scaring people and appealing to our worst demons and not our greatest angels.

This is the transcript of what John Bel Edwards told me today about Vitter’s ad (I’m not block quoting this because that’d be a little unwieldy):

“They’ve (the Vitter campaign) had a tracker follow me around, and I’ve given the same speech to all sorts of audiences- white, black, conservative, liberal.

“And of course they seized upon the fact that I talked about the same matter at Southern, in an effort to inflame folks. They take it out of context. If you looked at the entire video (of my speech) and saw what I said before and what I said after that statement, you would know that I am not talking about releasing any inmates.

“I’m talking about adopting new strategies that have been successfully adopted in other conservative states like Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia to reduce the number of inmates they’re having to keep in their prisons. And to save money. You can do it without threatening public safety. But you do it with working with the sheriffs, with the DAs, with the secretary of the Department of Corrections.

“You focus on non-violent offenders. You make sure there’s more pretrial diversion available, which the DAs are in complete control of, and then you also make sure you have more specialty courts like drugs courts, sobriety courts, mental health courts, veterans courts, where judges and DAs together exercise discretion as to who makes it into those programs and who doesn’t.

“And you produce a bunch of savings because, over time, your recidivism rates go down; the amount of people that you’re putting in prison goes down. You take a good chunk of that money. You then invest it in additional reentry programs and efforts so that you further reduce recidivism. And you also make sure that you’re doing substance abuse treatment and counseling, as well as mental illness treatment.

“This is what other states have done. We should not aspire to be number one in the nation in incarceration rates. I’ve talked to the Secretary of the Department of Corrections. (He says) that would require us to reduce our inmate population by 5,500, and then we’d be number two to Mississippi.

“And I have said that as governor, I’d have it as my goal that we would not be number one in the nation. So I do have it, as my goal, as governor, without threatening public safety and focusing on my non-violent offenders and those with substance abuse crimes, that we would change the criminal justice system.

“But never have I said that we would release prisoners currently in jail, and I’ve given that talk so many times, including, by the way, to very conservative groups. You now have the Pelican Institute out of New Orleans who supports these efforts, the Committee of 100, the business group from all over the state that’s interested in this this. You have the Pew charitable trust folks. And so you have a lot of conservative groups now that are understanding that we cannot afford to continue to house this many inmates.

“Further, not only can you not afford it, but it’s just not the right thing to do because it’s not enhancing public safety.

“They took one statement that I made at Southern, tweaked it out of context, isolated it from what was said before and what was said after, and now, they’re making this claim.

“But it’s the typical sort of thing that David Vitter does. And the more desperate he is, the more egregious these types of things are going to become.

“I am the brother of a sheriff, the son of sheriff, and the grandson of a sheriff. The notion that I would release prisoners is just so ridiculous that it shows how desperate he (Vitter) is.”