East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilman John Delgado has only held public office for three years — but his name and face are among the most recognizable in local government, on par with the parish’s mayor-president of 11 years Kip Holden.
Some would say that’s not by accident.
By engaging in several high-profile public battles, he’s positioned himself so that if he runs for mayor-president next year, as he is widely expected to do, voters will already know who he is.
Ten months out, only a couple of candidates have announced their intentions to run — State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, a Democrat, being the most formidable. Several other black Democrats have noncommitally expressed interest in running, including State Rep. Ted James and former Public Works Director David Guillory. The only other Republican besides Delgado who has publicly expressed intentions to run is former Metro Councilman Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois, who lost his council seat to Delgado in 2012.
Delgado has become one of the most recognizable figures in local government by virtue of his combative nature. Simply put, he doesn’t shy away from a fight. Sometimes, he instigates them.
When he takes a strong stance on an issue — which is often — he positions himself as the leading opponent or proponent for the cause, and isn’t afraid to call out those who disagree with him.
Take, for example, the intense battle over the proposed city of St. George, in which he infamously referred to its supporters as “the Taliban.” This past year, as gay rights battles erupted at the state and local level, he frequently called opponents, ranging from private citizens to state elected officials, “bigots” for resisting anti-discrimination measures.
And just this month he engaged in an argument with his north Baton Rouge council colleagues, calling them “childish” for opposing his economic development plan in their district and publicly accusing elected officials in north Baton Rouge of failing their constituents.
While Delgado’s fearless political style has endeared him to some, those on the receiving end of his sharp criticisms say he’s too polarizing to capture the majority of the electorate.
The 41-year-old, a Republican, has proven to be more socially liberal than even many Democrats on the council, leaving political observers to wonder where his base of support will come from.
For his part, Delgado said he hasn’t totally made up his mind about running for mayor-president but will have an answer after the holiday season.
“It’s not something you go into lightly, but I’ll know after the first of the year,” he said.
Delgado has openly entertained the idea of running in the November 2016 election. Holden, the incumbent, is finishing his third term and can’t run again because of term limits.
Delgado has already held fundraisers over the past year, and he has a campaign staffer who is hired to send regular news releases to the media, stating Delgado’s positions on local and state issues. He also has a Delgado 2016 website up and running.
Delgado coyly suggests that his comprehensive campaign infrastructure could serve him if he chooses to run for re-election to his current seat, though council elections rarely call for such grand campaign efforts.
While a crowded Democratic field could benefit Delgado, a white Republican, pundits and opponents say his definition of conservatism doesn’t align with the that of most parish Republicans.
Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat said a Republican candidate would need to galvanize conservative voters in Zachary, Central and the suburban southern part of the parish, outside of the city limits of Baton Rouge, which is majority black and Democrat. Much of the target area comprises what would have been the proposed city of St. George. The effort to corm a new city died earlier this year when the petition to call a vote fell short of the required number of signatures.
Delgado was among the most outspoken opponents of the proposal to incorporate, citing concerns that it would devastate the financial base of Baton Rouge, once declaring he would keep the parish together “with his bare hands” if he had to.
“I would say based on positions he’s taken, he’d be lucky if he gets 10 votes out of Village St. George, and he’s not going to do well across Airline Highway,” Pinsonat said. “He’d need Shenandoah, Central and Zachary, and you’re wasting your time if you can’t roll up 70 to 80 percent of those people (as a Republican).
Dwight Hudson, leader of the conservative group TaxBusters and a St. George advocate, said Delgado will not appeal to most Republicans.
“As conservative Republican candidates go, he’d be the least desirable choice I can imagine,” Hudson said. “His positions on things, namely St. George, and the Fairness Ordinance (for LGBT residents) have hurt him.”
He said Delgado’s rhetoric toward those who oppose him have hurt him more than his positions.
“With John it’s not so much his positions but when he opposes you, he opposes you with malice,” Hudson said.
Delgado, a lawyer and bar owner, defended his record as what he described as a “reasonable Republican.” He said while he takes traditionally liberal positions on social issues, he’s a fiscal conservative. He noted that he opposed an increased for the mayor-president’s pay, fought to reduce the library system’s property tax and never voted to support a tax increase while on the council.
Elizabeth Dent, a longtime parish conservative activist and a founding member of TaxBusters, said she thinks Delgado would be an excellent mayor and is hopeful he’ll enter the race.
“He’s made investments in our community, he’s active in the community; I think he could make a difference,” Dent said, adding that she’d like to see a younger, more energized leader for Baton Rouge. “I think it’s time for politicians who have been in office for 20-plus years to admit it’s time to give others an opportunity to lead.”
Mary Olive Pierson, a well-known Baton Rouge lawyer who represented the city-parish against the efforts to create a new St. George, also said she thinks Delgado could be a strong contender.
She thinks his reputation for speaking honestly about his beliefs is what makes him an authentic politician who will appeal to voters.
“What people want is a candidate who is outspoken and firm in his beliefs, not someone who is wishy-washy, which is a plus for him,” said Pierson, a Democrat. “You can never please 100 percent of people all the time, so you have to decide what is best for this city in your own mind.”
Since Delgado joined the council in 2013 he’s been reliably outspoken on nearly every major issue facing the parish, with St. George being his most prominent role. When the Capital Area Transit System was the subject of a variety of financial scandals, Delgado was among council members calling for the resignations of the agency chief executive and board members. He openly supported the Fairness Ordinance at the council level, a measure which failed, but would have banned discrimination against LGBT people in areas of employment, housing and public accommodations.
Delgado was also quick to sponsor legislation that made it impossible for a controversial industrial barge cleaning facility to locate on River Road, near a residential neighborhoods and LSU.
At a public meeting, he vowed to stop the company leaders from locating in Baton Rouge. “If you think I’m going to let you spew poison near my daughter, you have another thing coming,” he said at a meeting.
Recently, he caught heat from some of the council members because he quickly proposed legislation to create an economic development district in north Baton Rouge without consulting the councilwomen who represent the area. Some councilwomen have accused him of capitalizing on a topical political issue to try to engender black support for his mayoral bid. Delgado responded that their inaction over the years has allowed the dearth of economic activity in north Baton Rouge to persist.
“I’m honest and I’m passionate, and if that makes me a bad politician, then so be it,” Delgado said. “I can’t agree with the notion that we want politicians who will tell us only what we want to hear. I speak my mind, and I speak from the heart. Sometimes that makes me polarizing but at the same time you know where I stand on the issue.”