OPELOUSAS — A few days after Reggie Tatum handily defeated two-term Mayor Don Cravins, a former state senator and longtime St. Landry Parish political figure, a woman dropped by Tatum’s East Landry Street headquarters to wish him well.
“People are so glad; Opelousas is blessed; prayers are answered,” the woman told Tatum, holding both his hands, looking into his eyes.
After she left, the 54-year-old mayor-elect said he took comfort and strength from supporters during an election campaign that often got personal.
“Cravins called me a momma’s boy,” Tatum said. “Yeah, I’m a momma’s boy. … Most good men are momma’s boys. If you care and respect your mother, it’s an indication of what you’ll do for the next person.”
Cravins, 66 and a career insurance salesman, said last week he wished Tatum luck.
“What he lacks in ability at least he’ll have the courage to … try and follow up on some of the things that we started,” said Cravins, who was elected state senator in 1991 and served five terms.
The elections Dec. 6 brought more than just a change in the mayor’s office.
Police Chief-elect Donald Thompson defeated two-term Police Chief Perry Gallow, and Board of Aldermen fixtures Joe Charles and Louis Butler Jr. were defeated by political newbies. Voter turnout in the city with a population of 16,500 was just more than 47 percent.
“Apparently, people felt it was time for a change,” said retired state district Judge Robert Brinkman, long a St. Landry Parish political observer in a parish that’s deeply political.
Voters overwhelmingly went for change.
In the Dec. 6 runoff, Tatum defeated Cravins by pulling 55.6 percent of the vote, and Thompson beat Gallow with 56.6 percent. Aldermen runoff numbers show J. “Tyrone” Glover beat Butler by capturing 57 percent of the vote, while Marvin Tyrone Richard edged out Charles with 51 percent.
“There are going to be some fundamental changes in the way the city is doing business,” said state Sen. Elbert Guillory, a black Republican from Opelousas who for decades has feuded with Cravins and beat him in the 2011 race for state senator.
Guillory, a 2015 candidate for Louisiana lieutenant governor, campaigned hard for Tatum. He chalked up the sweeping changes to the candidates’ political associations.
“They were particularly close to the mayor, and a lot of people just repudiated the policies of that administration,” Guillory said.
Guillory last week also claimed some credit for Cravins’ defeat. He said a video he released before the Nov. 4 primary election through the Black Conservatives Fund alleging that Cravins was encouraging voter fraud had an effect on voters. Cravins, after the video was released, said his quip telling voters to vote twice was obviously a joke.
Gallow, who started as a city police patrol officer in 1980 before being elected chief in 2006, chalked up the defeat to a few factors, from the number of homicides in Opelousas this year to his association with Cravins — both were elected to their current offices eight years ago.
“I certainly think (the homicides) had an impact,” Gallow said.
The number of killings from 2011 through 2013 was three to four a year, Gallow said. That jumped this year. By July 4, Opelousas counted six homicides in a city with a population of fewer than 17,000, a rate that rivals Detroit and New Orleans. Although the number of 2014 killings has stayed at six, the die was cast.
Thompson, who also grew a career from within the Opelousas Police Department, including years as a detective, said his approach to policing will be inclusive and conciliatory.
“Some people are born criminals. You deal with them accordingly,” Thompson said. But, he added, most people who get in trouble need encouragement and biblical support.
Thompson, like others interviewed for this story, said Opelousas’ many problems, including widespread poverty, stem from a lack of job opportunities.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42 percent of Opelousas’ residents live below the poverty line, twice as many as the rest of Louisiana. And the median household income of just over $20,000 is less than half of other households in the state.
“The city’s troubled, not just crime-wise but economically,” Thompson said.
He said a police chief can help bring jobs to a city by intervening early in the lives of troubled youths and giving employers a pool of educated workers.
Tatum, too, sounded the economic development theme in his campaign, and also promised voters that money to finance programs for the poor and other uses is available through federal grants. The mayor-elect said he would employ a grant writer to chase millions of dollars in federal money.
Cravins said last week that he doubted there was a whole lot of money to be had from the federal government, and that Tatum would be better off backing special taxing districts that businesses and economic developers have sought, such as the equestrian-themed development in the southern part of the city near Harry Guilbeau Road.
Brinkman, the retired judge, said Tatum was a “good man” who could succeed if “he surrounds himself with the right people.” But Brinkman said Tatum shouldn’t try to build a budget on the promise of federal dollars coming through a grant pipeline.
“Rather than look for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it probably will be much wiser to deal with the income that he’s got coming in right now,” Brinkman said.