Richard Nelson seeks the middle of the road to become Louisiana governor

By: - January 19, 2023 5:00 am
Richard Nelson

Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, listens to testimony during an April 7, 2022, meeting of the special House committee investigating the death of Ronald Greene in state police custody. (Greg LaRose | Louisiana Illuminator)

It was during a two-month stint in Afghanistan with the U.S. State Department in 2012 that Richard Nelson said he first pondered a run for political office. His inspiration? George Washington’s Farewell Address at the end of his presidency, which he read during his spare time.

In the letter Washington addressed to citizens of the fledgling nation, he emphasized the need for unity, despite regional differences. He also sought to bolster confidence in the new Constitution and specifically warned against political party allegiances taking priority over the common good.

For Nelson, it was a calling.     

“That was when I told my wife,” Nelson said in an interview with the Illuminator. “I was like, ‘Look, if I ever get back – I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get back to Louisiana – but if I knew, like, I’ve got to run for something.’”   

Nelson, who’s represented Mandeville in the Louisiana House since 2019, became the fourth Republican candidate – so far – to commit to the governor’s race, declaring his intentions Wednesday. Without a prominent Democrat in the field, the 36-year-old is positioning himself as an alternative to the far-right entrants and anyone who might represent the left.

“I don’t want to cater to anybody,” Nelson said in an interview with the Illuminator. “I’m not catering to the left or the right. I’m catering to the middle, which hopefully is good enough for at least second place.”

Another potential Republican candidate for governor, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves has yet to decide whether he will join the field. Nelson said he hopes Graves decides against it, explaining that Graves could better serve Louisiana in Congress. Nelson also acknowledged Graves’ appeal to voters who oppose far-right Attorney Jeff Landry, although Graves did vote to reject results from the 2020 election that Joe Biden won.

“If he doesn’t get in, then I think that there is a big portion of people that will support somebody who’s in the middle, who is advocating for the kind of ideas that they think are going to change the state,” Nelson said. “And then also, they just are turned off by kind of severe partisan politics.”

In addition to Landry and Nelson, state Treasurer John Schroder has told supporters he intends to run for governor but has not made a public statement about the election. State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, announced Friday she would be a candidate.

Democrats considering a run are East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore and state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson. One independent candidate, Lake Charles attorney Hunter Lundy, has said he intends to enter the race.

Far from right wing

During his four years in the House, Nelson has backed bills that arguably separate him from more conservative Republicans in the state legislature. He authored a proposal in 2021 to legalize and tax recreational marijuana, a step already taken by 21 states and Washington, D.C. 

Because it was a tax bill, Nelson needed 70 votes for the measure to advance from the House. It received 47 but still offered a glimmer of hope for recreational marijuana advocates, especially with lawmakers approving lesser penalties for minor pot possession that same year. Louisiana has also broadened its medical marijuana laws since first approving them in 2015, ahead of most every other state in the South.

Nelson hasn’t ruled out revisiting legalizing recreational marijuana but did not do so last year. If it becomes a prominent part of his governor’s platform, it’s likely to face resistance from sheriffs and other influential law enforcement groups. 

His latest efforts have been to rid Louisiana of its state income tax and eliminate various tax exemptions and credits on business. The resulting increase in tax collections at the local level would allow the state to shift more of its spending to parish and city governments, Nelson said. 

Similar proposals have been floated in recent years and haven’t fared well in the legislature. Nelson’s income tax elimination would result in a $4.3 billion loss of state revenue, according to the Louisiana Budget Project. Plus, the business lobby would likely oppose any attempt to do away with tax breaks. 

While he acknowledged his marijuana and tax proposals have gained him recognition among progressives, Nelson said he knows he will have to appeal to more moderate voters to emerge from October’s primary election. 

“I’m not going to try and craft some personality that everyone’s going to agree with me on everything,” he said. “But I think that at the end of the day, I’m going to be based on solutions… Tax reform is going to be a huge thing because that’s really what you need to fix (problems), to change the state.” 

Education will be one of the topics where Nelson said he will strive to appeal to a broad audience during his campaign. He authored legislation that sought to improve literacy rates for elementary students last year, but it faltered in the state Senate at the tail end of the session.

“Those kinds of things are really not divisive issues,” Nelson said. “I think if you stay out of the culture wars that really don’t teach any kids to read that really don’t give anybody jobs, you really focus on the things that really impact people. I think that that’s the way to go.”

Richard Nelson, Jason Hughes
Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, left, speaks with Rep. Jason Hughes, R-New Orleans, during an April 7, 2002, meeting of the special House committee investigating the death of Ronald Greene in state police custody. (Greg LaRose | Louisiana Illuminator)

Nelson’s background

Nelson’s parents, Michael and Deborah, moved him and his three siblings to Mandeville from Georgia when Richard was in second grade. He would go on to graduate as valedictorian from Mandeville High School and earn a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering from LSU in three years.

Because he “really wasn’t ready to grow up yet,” Nelson said he accepted a full scholarship to law school at LSU. Upon earning his law degree, he accepted a job with the State Department’s Foreign Service. His assignments sent him to U.S. outposts in Germany, Iraq, Libya and the former Soviet satellite Georgia. 

Nelson took the job before he could sit for the bar exam, but he said he brought study materials abroad and returned to pass it.   

After seven years in the Foreign Service, Nelson moved back to Mandeville with his wife, Ashley, and their three young sons. His father and mother still live there.

Asked whether his parents encouraged or discouraged him to run for governor, Nelson said they long ago realized they weren’t going to talk him out of something he’s serious about pursuing. 

One point, Nelson said, his father made it clear to him that Louisiana faces “intractable problems.”                 

“My 6-year-old was there,” Nelson said, “and he’s like, ‘Well, that’s what my dad does. He solves problems.”

Michael Nelson is an IRS agent, which Richard joked might explain his fascination with income taxes. Deborah Nelson ran a church preschool, and Richard describes both of his parents as apolitical and overall supportive of his decision to run for governor.

“My dad would call it a ham and egg situation,” he said. “The chicken’s involved and the hog’s committed… That’s just how I feel about it.” 

Youth factor

When he qualifies for the governor’s race, Nelson will be 37. He would be the youngest viable candidate for the seat since Bobby Jindal made his first bid for governor in 2003 at age 32, when he lost to Kathleen Babineaux Blanco in a runoff.

Nelson recently spoke to a group of Eagle Scouts – a distinction he earned – in Mandeville. In a group photo, he is only distinguishable from some of the teen scouts thanks to the sportcoat and white dress shirt he’s wearing. 

His age was made a factor by his opponent when Nelson ran for the legislature, he said. 

“That’s all he ever talked about. Like, “Oh, he’s just a young guy,” Nelson said. “But I think that now, the sentiment has shifted on that. One of my biggest assets in this race is that there’s just kind of a generational difference between me and everybody else.”

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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

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