Mark Garber and Chad Leger will go head-to-head in a runoff election to become Lafayette Parish sheriff after each pulled more than 22,000 votes in the primary election Saturday.
Garber led with Leger falling in close behind. Rick Chargois and John Rogers lagged far behind in an election that saw only about a quarter of the parish’s residents show up at the polls.
Saturday’s primary marked the first hurdle after nine months of campaigning that began when Leger announced his candidacy in January, two weeks after incumbent Sheriff Mike Neustrom announced he would not seek re-election. Rogers and Garber announced their candidacies in March, with Chargois joining the race in April.
The election is a noteworthy event for an agency that’s only seen three leaders since 1968, with Neustrom and prior Sheriffs Don Breaux and Carlo Listi each serving four terms.
Parish residents can expect another heated month of campaigning in the race, as Garber and Leger have already proven to be fierce opponents. Both flexed their financial muscle as the top two money-raisers to lodge attack ads against the other in the final weeks before the primary election.
Leger began criticizing Garber’s profession as a workers compensation attorney when Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope — who’s openly supported Leger throughout the campaign — held a news conference about a 2013 news clip of Garber speaking to a Honduran news station about workers rights. Pope further suggested Garber encouraged illegal immigrants to come to Louisiana.
Leger then built on that news conference — in which he denies involvement — to criticize Neustrom’s administration for refusing to honor detainment requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement without probable cause documentation signed by a judge.
Garber responded by criticizing Leger as a “bully” in Internet and broadcast advertisements. One of the ads alluded to an audio recording of Leger telling a female officer to “nut up or shut up,” also telling the officer that women are “an emotional heel” in law enforcement.
Both Chargois and Rogers kept a low profile throughout the back-and-forth between Garber and Leger, although Rogers stood by the agency’s refusal to honor the detainer forms. Chargois said he would honor them.
Rogers escaped the campaign virtually unscathed by attacks, but questions arose about Chargois’ personal financial history — one blighted by his wife’s two-year imprisonment and the subsequent restitution costs for embezzling money from the Acadia Parish casino where she worked.
Chargois and his wife have since filed for bankruptcy. They were subject to about $130,000 in tax liens, some associated with Chargois’ ventures in the private security sector, according to public records.
Each candidate in this race has been measured against Neustrom, an academic who took office in 2000 with a doctorate-level education and who led the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Police Department and the school’s criminal justice program. He spent his tenure in the Sheriff’s Office implementing new approaches to corrections that focused on diversion, alternative sentencing and rehabilitation.
Leger, who began his fourth term as Scott police chief this year and worked at the Sheriff’s Office before that, said he supported the efforts but claimed Neustrom steered the agency too far from its core duties by focusing manpower away from enforcement and the jail and toward mental and behavioral health programming for offenders. He said he supported those programs, but emphasized returning the department to law enforcement “fundamentals,” suggesting a bottom-up approach in putting more officers on the streets in enforcement and undercover capacities.
Garber campaigned on his diverse law enforcement experience, which began at the local level in Louisiana and later in Texas before he graduated law school. He also worked as a civilian investigator with the U.S. Air Force and served a brief stint with the U.S. Secret Service. He later returned to Louisiana and prosecuted cases with the 15th Judicial District Court and now runs a private workers compensation practice in Lafayette.
Neustrom endorsed Garber, who championed the current administration’s alternative corrections efforts throughout his campaign. But Garber also suggested he would shift some focus back toward enforcement and use analytics software to displace crime in particular areas.
Chargois, a retired State Police lieutenant, said he wanted more cooperation with federal law enforcement agencies to target drug trafficking throughout Lafayette, and he spoke of enhancing the agency’s cyber crime units with a focus on child predators. He also wanted to increase traffic patrols, including efforts that could bring in money through traffic enforcement.
Chargois previously won 34 percent of the vote against Neustrom in the 2011 election.
Rogers, who works as a litigation specialist for Neustrom’s administration — through which he earned bachelor’s and law degrees from Neustrom’s tuition reimbursement incentives while working as a deputy — campaigned as a grass-roots candidate aiming to improve law enforcement’s relationship with the community and to make the agency more efficient in its operations. As a current Sheriff’s Office employee, he also wanted to eliminate its salary caps.
All candidates spoke of financially evaluating the agency’s $60 million budget to make room for higher employee pay and to make sure Neustrom’s programs were fiscally efficient.
The runoff election is set for Nov. 21. Early voting is Nov. 7-14.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.