Challengers try to shake incumbent in Secretary of State race
By Abbie Shull and Madeline Reineke / LSU Manship School News Service
Five of the six candidates for Louisiana Secretary of State found common ground in a forum Monday evening as they each tried to shake interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s perceived confidence in his incumbency.
There was little hostility between panelists since they were not allowed to address each other directly. But, a few managed to sneak in some indirect jabs with just over a week to go until the Nov. 6 election.
Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, said he was displeased with Ardoin’s leadership as it relates to local election officials, like the registrars of voters and the clerks of court.
“I’ve met with many of them across the state, and I was surprised to ask them some very simple questions about the administration,” Edmonds said. “For example: ‘When was the last time the Secretary of State was in your office?’ And the answer I received numerous times was ‘never.’ ”
Renée Fontenot Free of Baton Rouge, who was a top aide to two secretaries of state, said she saw a big problem with the office's business portal, which Ardoin said he helped set up when he was first Assistant Secretary of State under Schedler.
“In my travels across the state, I have heard several complaints,” Free said. “Because not everyone is an attorney, not everyone is a learned businessman and we need to cater to all of the people, not just the ones who have experience.”
Ardoin took over the office when Tom Schedler abruptly resigned in May after being sued by a former employee for sexual harassment. He denied any wrongdoing, and the case was settled for $167,000, with most of the sum being paid by the state.
Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, repeatedly said that managing elections should not be a partisan process and that she would bring her experience as a certified public accountant to bear in figuring out how to improve various aspects of the agency’s work.
“This office is not about whether you’re a Certified Public Accountant, or voting against doubling taxes,” Ardoin countered. “This office is about protecting elections.”
Six of the nine candidates in the race attended the forum at LSU’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs. It was part of LSU’s Behind the Ballot symposium, a two-day event featuring a variety of panels on voting and the 2018 midterm elections.
The other candidates on the panel were former State Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Pearl River, and Gwen Collins-Greenup, a Democratic lawyer.
As has been the case throughout the race, the panel mainly focused on the secretary of state’s role in overseeing Louisiana elections and protecting their integrity.
Most of the candidates agreed that the key to increasing voter turnout is to increase civic engagement.
“People don’t want to waste their time if they think their vote doesn’t matter,” Edmonds said.
Free seemed to agree, saying that if young people could be helped to understand the impact of their votes, then “you’ll have a generation that votes for the rest of their lives.”
Crowe expressed concerns the race is overlooking most of the office’s other duties, which include archiving state records and handling registration filings for companies.
“There are seven to eight divisions of this office, and before elections were put in, the No. 1 job of the Secretary of State was archives and records and protecting your information,” Crowe said. “The Secretary of State’s responsibility, still to this day, the single most important responsibility is to protect your privacy.”
Local journalists and LSU students questioned the panelists. The panel was moderated by former Miss Louisiana Laryssa Bonacquisti, a senior broadcast major at LSU.
(Photo: Four of the six Secretary of State candidates who spoke at Monday’s forum were (l-r) former State Sen. A.G. Crowe; State Rep. Rick Edmonds; Renée Fontenot Free, who served as a top aide to two former secretaries of state; and Rep. Julie Stokes. Photo by Abbie Shull / LSU Manship School News Service)