A church-full of Together Baton Rouge voters secured a number of campaign promises from Democratic mayoral candidate Sharon Weston Broome on Thursday night — including a pledge to find a million and a half dollars to attract grocery stores to under-served neighborhoods and support for a cap on industrial tax exemptions.
Republican Bodi White did not attend and was roundly criticized by event organizers, who kept an empty chair with his name on it on stage throughout the evening.
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The program also included a number of Metro Council runoff candidates in the Dec. 10 election but was self-consciously not styled as a debate. Rather, religious leaders and other speakers laid out their positions on issues from law enforcement to healthcare access and gave each candidate 60 seconds, about enough time to find out whether they agreed.
Some of the questions were vague and elicited universal support. All the candidates in attendance, for example, agreed the government should help all residents recover from the flood, including the poor and otherwise vulnerable.
Other demands were more specific. Together Baton Rouge asked candidates to weigh in on current efforts to reform the state's industrial tax exemptions, wherein companies can hold onto money they would normally pay in taxes to sheriffs, school boards and other local agencies. Supporters of the program say it encourages businesses to set up shop in Louisiana, but detractors argue the incentives are starving public agencies.
"Apparently we are in a race to become the most generous state," Together Baton Rouge speaker Fred Skelton said sarcastically.
The group, which describes itself on its web site as a broad-based coalition of congregations and community-based organizations, has called for a 50 percent cap on industrial tax exemptions and asked the candidates for their support.
Broome and the rest of the Democratic cadre backed the suggestion. District 12 candidate and current school board president Barbara Freiberg — the only Republican on the dais — was more reserved, saying the issue is complex, and a hard and fast 50 percent limit may not always be the best procedure.
Together Baton Rouge also asked whether the local government would be willing to put its money where its mouth is in backing efforts to address parts of town without access to healthy groceries, areas commonly known as food deserts. Organizers wondered if local government officials would be willing to put up as much as $1.5 million to help finance grocers and draw them to under-served neighborhoods.
Broome agreed, saying "the grocery gap has gone on too long in our community." Other Democrats followed suit. Freiberg again was the holdout, saying she would support any such initiative if the money were used to leverage federal investment or private funds.
Perhaps the issue which drew the most distinctions, however, was on law enforcement. Tara Wicker, the District 10 incumbent, said Together Baton Rouge is off base with its demand that Baton Rouge Police make more minority hires. Wicker, whose husband had served as a state trooper, said the bigger issue is making sure minority officers complete their training and stay on the force for the long haul. She also suggested that an independent advisory committee which Together Baton Rouge envisions as a way to investigate complaints could also have a role in selecting the police chief.
District 10 challenger and former office-holder Lorri Burgess brought attention to the police officers' union, whose contract with the city is about to expire. Leaders may be able to enact some reforms by changing the terms of that agreement, she suggested.
As with the other issues, Broome gave blanket support to Together Baton Rouge's suggestions. On law enforcement, that included hiring an independent monitor for the Police Department, reforming use-of-force policies, higher pay, better training and "addressing the history of discriminatory arrest patterns in Baton Rouge, especially for non-violent drug offenses."