LAFAYETTE —State Sen. Elbert Guillory and Opelousas Mayor Don Cravins squared off in a contentious debate Monday, trading barbs as the two men enter the final campaign stretch for the Nov. 19 run-off for state Senate District 24.
The upcoming election finds Guillory, a lawyer, defending his Senate seat from a man who held it for 15 years before his election as mayor of Opelousas.
Their debate on Monday at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette was marked as much by acrimony as by the issues.
Guillory repeatedly referenced a recent state audit of Opelousas that found questionable contracting practices, poor accounting of cash payments and possible double dipping by an employee.
“They have found a pattern of mismanagement,” Guillory said of the state auditors.
Cravins in turn characterized of Guillory as an ineffective legislator who is out of touch with his constituents.
“He is notorious for not returning phone calls,” Cravins said.
When asked during the debate whether the two candidates could envision working together after the election, Cravins responded that he would consider it but that he works only with ”honest” people.
Guillory said he might work with Cravins if the mayor is not in prison as a result of an FBI investigation related to the recent city audit.
There is no known federal investigation targeting Cravins, who said he would “withstand” any scrutiny of his actions as mayor.
Between barbs, the candidates did hone in on some major issues facing the state and the region.
Answering a question about how to better fund higher education, Guillory said the state must close at least some regional universities and focus on larger schools.
“The state cannot afford that many institutions of higher learning,” Guillory said.
Cravins said he believes the state should try to reduce the number of duplicate degree programs and let each university find its speciality, but he said proposals to close regional universities are politically unfeasible.
“I dare say nobody will give their university up,” Cravins said.
On the issue of economic development, Guillory stressed the need to lower taxes on businesses while Cravins emphasized the importance of vocation training to build a job-ready work force.
Both candidates agreed on the need to improve K-12 education and on the need for prison reform.
When asked about accomplishments, Cravins cited his work in the Legislature to reform the juvenile justice system and the prison system, and to push through improvements for K-12 education, including after-school tutoring programs.
State funding for those programs has since been cut and Cravins laid partial blame for the loss of funding on Guillory.
Guillory said the tutorial programs were cut only after the state hit a “financial wall.”
Guillory touted his work in the Legislature to protect retirement benefits for state workers and in pushing legislation that calls for more job training and counseling to prepare inmates for life after prison.
Guillory said he also worked with state and local officials to free up more than $1 million in slot machine money from the Evangeline Downs Racino that was supposed to go to St. Landry Parish School Board but for years had been kept off limits in an escrow account.
Cravins said the money had been kept out of reach from school officials because of questions of whether it would be used for salaries instead of classroom supplies and equipment.
District 24 takes in St. Landry Parish, northern Lafayette Parish and small portion of St. Martin Parish.
Guillory and Cravins emerged from a three-man primary race for the seat on Oct. 22, with Guillory taking 46 percent of the vote and Cravins taking 41 percent.
A third candidate, Kelly Scott, received 13 percent.
Cravins and Guillory are both Democrats.
The debate on Monday was sponsored by the ULL chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the ULL Political Science Club.