Right about now, a year out from the thick of the 2016 election season, there are as many as a dozen East Baton Rouge Parish politicos quietly whispering in backrooms about their intentions to run for mayor-president.
But not Sharon Weston Broome.
While other likely candidates are still giving it prayerful consideration, talking with their families and otherwise waiting in the wings, Broome, whose career in the Louisiana Legislature ends this year, has made her intentions known.
The term-limited senator is running for East Baton Rouge Parish mayor-president in 2016. The only candidate officially in the race, she’s already held her first fundraiser.
The 58-year-old Democrat is a Baton Rouge political mainstay, spending almost 24 years in the Louisiana Legislature and rising to leadership roles in both the state House and Senate.
She was the first black woman to represent her Senate district and the first woman elected speaker pro tempore for the House of Representatives. If she wins the 2016 race, she’ll break another barrier to become the first female mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish.
“Even as I mildly entertained other options, the pull to public service kept tugging on my heart,” Broome said of her decision to run. “The opportunity to use my experiences and love for people as the mayor and ambassador for the city have really solidified.”
The names of other contenders are also out there. Baton Rogue Metro Councilman John Delgado, a socially liberal Republican, is widely expected to throw his hat in the ring. State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, also said he is considering a run but would first focus on re-election.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker also has long expressed interest in running, as has former Metro Councilman Byron Sharper.
Other wild cards include Walter Monsour, who served under multiple mayors before leaving his position last year as executive director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority.
Lt. Gov Jay Dardenne, a veteran Baton Rouge politician, has his eyes on the Governor’s Mansion and has publicly stated he’s not interested in the Mayor-President’s Office. But some political watchers speculate he could pivot to a mayoral run if he loses his gubernatorial bid this fall.
A veteran legislator
Broome has spent the last 21/2 decades as one voice out of 144 lawmakers, crafting policy and fighting for state appropriations. As mayor-president of the parish, her duties and responsibilities would be drastically different. Leaders look to a mayor-president to set the parish and city’s agenda and tone.
Mayor-President Kip Holden dubbed his vision “America’s next great city,” advocating for a bustling downtown, along with growth in film and digital sectors to help attract young professionals to Baton Rouge.
But Broome’s attention probably would be more on other areas of the parish.
“Mayor Holden has done a good job with building downtown Baton Rouge, and I certainly support what’s going on, but we have some areas that would love to see what’s happening downtown happen in their neighborhoods in north Baton Rouge or in south Baton Rouge, for that matter,” she said. “We have the capacity as a city and as a parish to spread that type of growth and impact around.”
Lamenting downtown’s success at the expense of the rest of the parish is a familiar platform for past mayoral candidates. In 2012, Holden’s top opponent, Mike Walker, regularly said downtown had received more of its fair share of support and that it was time to turn the city-parish’s attention elsewhere.
But Broome is careful to make her points without disparaging the downtown improvements. She says downtown’s success can be a catalyst for the rest of the parish and that she believes more can be done with the Mississippi Riverfront.
In a conversation this week about her mayoral ambitions, Broome repeatedly circles back to a concern for the oft-forgotten northern part of the parish, which she has represented for decades.
She referenced a recent public meeting she held with other local leaders about the future of the old Earl K. Long hospital site. It drew more than 100 people from the surrounding neighborhoods.
“I heard what the people want to see in that community, and they want the same things people in south Baton Rouge want,” she said. “They want pockets of entertainment for their families.”
Broome’s career trajectory has mirrored Holden’s closely. They both started their careers at local television station WBRZ as reporters. They both served as Metro Council members before running for state representative. Broome won the state Senate seat that Holden vacated when he was elected mayor-president in 2005.
But Broome said she does not necessarily expect to pick up exactly where Holden left off. Rather, she said, she wants to be a clean slate although she isn’t yet talking in specifics. Asked about her priorities, Broome said she plans to start a listening tour over the next several months where she will meet with constituents all over the parish to hear their concerns.
Generally speaking, however, Broome said she recognizes that crime and Baton Rouge’s ever-present traffic congestion continue to be major issues requiring attention. She also says she wants to see Baton Rouge positioned as a regional hub for economic growth.
Broome said she considers unifying East Baton Rouge Parish — historically divided by north and south — a top priority. She opposes the possible formation of the new city of St. George in the southern part of the parish.
“I certainly do not support the pullout or incorporation of St. George,” she said. “I recognize, however, that the citizens of St. George are residents of our community as well, and I would like to have conversations with those individuals in that community to see where we can close the gap and find common ground.”
Broome has mostly stayed out of the public fight over St. George or a parallel effort to create an independent school district for the area. This has distinguished her from other Baton Rouge legislators like state Sen. Bodi White, who has fought for them, or state Rep. Ted James, who has fought against them.
Broome is known in the Legislature for being warm and personable. She calls herself a consensus-builder who pulls from both sides of the aisle. She isn’t a lightning rod making sensational statements about the opposition. And the bills she’s authored throughout the years are rarely controversial.
A mother of three, Broome said her motivation for public service is to help those less fortunate than herself.
“A quote Sharon always says is, ‘Your care for others is the true measure of your greatness,’ ” said State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge. Barrow worked as a legislative aide for Broome before winning her seat in the House. “I truly believe that’s how she lives.”
Broome said some of her most significant wins in the Legislature have been on behalf of more vulnerable constituents. She authored bills that created the Children’s Trust Fund, which partners with organizations to prevent child abuse and neglect, and another bill establishing protocols for victims of human trafficking.
Locally, she helped secure funding to open the urgent care clinic in north Baton Rouge after the Earl K. Long hospital closed.
Though she is a Democrat, one distinguishing feature of Broome’s voting record is that she is a social conservative.
She consistently receives positive marks from the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative Christian organization, for her votes favoring restrictions on abortion and against measures backed by gay and lesbian advocates.
For example, in 2006, Broome voted against a proposed law to provide job protection to gay and bisexual workers in state government. In Baton Rouge, LGBT advocates have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to push the Metro Council to pass ordinances extending protections to gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Broome said she wouldn’t comment specifically about any policy decisions she may or may not take as mayor-president. But she said she is guided by her Christian faith.
“I’m not going to say I’m going to do this policy or not, but I will say I’m open to having conversations with individuals,” she said. “My faith first and foremost tells me to love God and to love my neighbors, and the citizens of this community are my neighbors.”
Name recognition, connections
Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge pollster and political analyst, called Broome a “formidable frontrunner,” regardless of who else may enter the race.
He said she has the name recognition, the connections and the experience to keep less-serious candidates out of the race, and the decision to declare early helps her shore up support before the race gets crowded.
The mayor-president election is scheduled for fall 2016. But Holden is running for lieutenant governor this fall. If he wins, the mayoral election would be pushed up to earlier in the year.
Another strong black candidate diluting Broome’s base could help a Republican hopeful, Pinsonat said. But he said it would really take someone with Dardenne’s level of name recognition to rival Broome.
“Someone as strong as she is, as popular as she is, it determines the field,” Pinsonat said.
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/