From humble beginnings to enormous wealth, Eddie Rispone may be facing his biggest test yet
Titans of industry are often portrayed as men — loud, brash, possibly bombastic. Someone who likes to hear himself talk.
Not Eddie Rispone.
The lifelong Baton Rouge resident has an almost gentle presence. He’s so soft-spoken, it can be hard to hear him in conversation.
“There are quiet leaders in this world and perhaps he is a quiet leader,” said Lane Grigsby, founder of Cajun Industries and Republican megadonor who is Rispone’s close friend.
Rispone, one of Louisiana’s wealthiest residents, is the wild card in the governor’s race. The first Republican to announce he was running against Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards, he’s put $10 million of his personal money into his campaign account already. Congressman Ralph Abraham, a Republican from Northeast Louisiana, is also running against Edwards, but Rispone has deeper pockets.
Critics question whether Rispone is really willing to spend all the money he claims he will on the governor’s election. He insisted to a reporter last month he was serious about making that investment, saying he’s not “playing around” when it comes to a statewide campaign.
“I’m the type of person that doesn’t take life for granted,” Rispone said in an interview with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. “I have always been grateful for what God has blessed me with.”
Rispone has been blessed with quite a bit. ISC Constructors, the business Rispone started 30 years ago with his brother Jerry, does about $350 million per year in business, according to numbers he provided in a 2017 radio interview. Headquartered in Baton Rouge, the company is one of the Gulf South’s largest in its industry with offices in Beaumont, Houston and Lake Charles.
Grigsby called Rispone “scary” in terms of self-discipline. Gary Rispone, one of Eddie’s older brothers, agrees. “Eddie was the type of child who got his chores done early,” Gary said.
Even today, Eddie Rispone wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to study the Bible and exercise before he goes to work. At 70 years old, Rispone is trim, strong and stands upright. He looks far younger than his age. He’s more likely to make himself a sandwich at home than dine out at a steakhouse, according to his campaign staff.
Gary Rispone said his brother has always taken care of himself. In high school, Eddie Rispone was named the “best looking” student. A family friend, Marie Andermann Kennedy, used to jokingly call him “Mr. Debonair.”
“He’s a perfectionist in terms of attire and his care,” Kennedy said.
Rispone has spread his wealth around. The Baton Rouge businessman has spent more than $1 million dollars to influence Louisiana politics over the past four years, according to state campaign finance records. He also gives to a laundry list of civic and religious charities.
The Eddie L. Rispone Foundation distributed almost $8 million from 2012 to 2017 and had a balance of $15.4 million at the end of 2017, according to tax records. Rispone and his late wife Phyllis set up the foundation such that 80% of its money goes to religious organizations, he said. There’s no staff; Rispone and his current wife, Linda, manage it themselves.
Money isn’t a high priority for Rispone, he said, because he didn’t have very much of it growing up.
“Material things are not that important to me,” he said. “I don’t want to wait until I’m dead and hope someone does something good with [my money].”
His voice cracking, Rispone said in an interview earlier this year he would have traded all of his wealth to save his wife of 35 years, Phyllis, who died in 2005 of cancer. He married his second wife, Linda, a widow, 12 years ago.
Generous political donor
When you don’t start out with much, you aren’t as afraid of taking risks, Rispone said. That’s why he decided to run for governor despite having no experience as an elected official.
“He had talked about running for public office several times but always decided against it,” said Jerry Rispone, Eddie’s brother and business partner at ISC Constructors. “I was not surprised [that he decided to run for office.] … Not having run for any office before and deciding to run for governor was the part that was surprising to me.”
Rispone said he entered the race after not being able to sleep at night. A devout Catholic, he believes God was waking up to tell him to run against Edwards. He and Grigsby had a tough time finding someone to take on Edwards. Grigsby said they had been approaching potential candidates for two years, and they couldn’t find someone they considered a worthy challenger. So Rispone decided to run himself.
Other candidates – those besides Abraham – would have kept Rispone out of the race. For example, he wouldn’t have gotten into the race if Rep. Steve Scalise had decided to throw his hat in the ring, Rispone said in an interview earlier this year. Rispone is a big political donor to Scalise and their political views align on many issues.
Before announcing his candidacy, Rispone had virtually no name recognition among rank-and-file voters. But he is well-known within the GOP and business donor set and has made a name for himself as an advocate for charter schools and publicly funded school vouchers.
Of the $1 million he’s spent on political causes since 2015, records show $600,000 has gone to political action committees backing candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, who support charters and the state school voucher program.
Rispone said he supports “school choice” because he thinks it will lead to a better-educated workforce, which would benefit Louisiana’s business climate. He grew up in a working-class household and attributes his success in part to attending Catholic schools, an opportunity he worries is out of reach for many families today.
A recent investigation by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune and WVUE Fox 8 concluded that students enrolled in private schools using the state voucher program, which Rispone has championed, often perform poorly on standardized tests. The private schools they attend are often considered “failing” by the state education department.
Rispone’s political giving extends to several conservative candidates. He donated $200,000 in 2015 to a political action committee supporting then-Sen. David Vitter’s bid for governor. Rispone and his wife also gave former Gov. Bobby Jindal and Vitter $15,000 each, the maximum allowed, in previous election cycles. Rispone’s company contributed separately to the same candidates.
State campaign finance records show Rispone gave $40,000 to the Louisiana Republican Party in 2018. This was on top of smaller donations he and his wife have made to candidates running for the Legislature and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) political action committees. He said he’s also a financial supporter of the Republican Governors Association.
Rispone first got involved in state politics 20 years ago serving on the LABI board and with the local chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. He was later national chairman of the ABC’s lobbying arm. These groups tend to support tax breaks that benefit established industry and manufacturers, including at least one program that Edwards has curtailed since becoming governor
The Industrial Tax Exemption Program gives businesses generous property tax breaks over several years if they build new facilities or improve old ones. ISC Constructors provides technology upgrades to these industrial sites, linking Rispone’s business to the state tax break.
The governor has put an executive order in place to make the tax exemption less generous and give local government bodies the ability to reject it entirely. In response, Rispone formed a nonprofit, Baton Rouge Families First, to push back against Edwards’ policies. The group was meant to counter the message of Together Baton Rouge, the faith-based organization that had pushed for the changes to the Industrial Tax Exemption Program Edwards eventually implemented.
Rispone also spent money on political action committees to promote the breakaway of part of a wealthier, whiter part of East Baton Rouge Parish into a community called St. George, according to state campaign finance records. He also formed Citizens for a Better Baton Rouge, funding it with $78,000, to support Republican state Sen. Bodi White in his race for Baton Rouge mayor. White, who supported the St. George breakaway, lost that race to Democrat Sharon Weston Broome in 2016.
Rispone grew up with six brothers and sisters in a one-story house with one bathroom and only an attic fan for air conditioning, he said. His father, Sam, was a compressor machinist. His mother Rosalie was a homemaker. Those humble beginnings are an integral part of his identity. He brings up his working-class background often in conversation and community speeches.
By his own account, Rispone started working for his brother, who did odds and ends electrical work, at age 13 and became interested in construction management after picking up jobs for a local contractor. He paid his own tuition during his senior year at Redemptorist High School and covered all four years at LSU.
Rispone was the first person in his family to graduate from college, attending classes while living at home. He has a picture of the 1972 graduating class from the construction management program, and he still wears his LSU class ring.
Beyond charitable and political giving, Rispone has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on what can only be described as passion projects.
He funded “The Experiment,” a documentary his wife Linda’s son produced that tracked children attending charter schools, traditional public schools and private schools using vouchers. The film featured interviews with several high-profile state officials, including former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former state schools chief Paul Pastorek.
Rispone also wrote and self-published a book, “Cucho: From Cuba to Freedom.” It’s about his daughter’s grandfather-in-law’s escape from Cuba and life as a refugee in New Orleans. The book is based entirely on Rispone’s interviews with Louis “Cucho” Belart, who passed away five years ago.
Rispone may be wealthy, but his brother Gary said that doesn’t mean he’s lost his blue-collar roots.
“I was a union rep. My brother’s definitely not union, but he respects working people,” Gary Rispone said.