With about half as many people casting early votes for the Dec. 6 runoff elections as for the primary last month, candidates for two open seats in the 21st Judicial District Court said the key to success will be ensuring their supporters turn out to vote.
In the Division A race, Mike Betts and Jeff Johnson both are focused on shoring up their bases. Betts said with a projected turnout of 25 percent or less, the result will depend almost exclusively on which voters show up at the polls. Johnson had a commanding lead in the Nov. 4 primary, falling only 510 votes, or 0.72 percent, shy of winning the race outright, but he said he, too, is treating the final push toward Dec. 6 as a tied ballgame.
In the Division J family court race, Jeff Cashe and Glenn Westmoreland look to grab as many of Jenel Guidry Secrease’s primary voters as possible. Fewer than 9,000 votes — of 73,110 cast — separated the three candidates last month.
The 21st Judicial District encompasses Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Helena parishes.
Betts said he’s hearing that voters want a compassionate judge in Division A, which oversees both civil and criminal cases.
“That’s one of the big differences between me and the other candidate, who’s been swinging the hammer, putting people in prison,” Betts said of Johnson, who served as a prosecutor with the District Attorney’s Office for 20 years.
“Louisiana puts more people in prison than any other state in the union,” Betts said. “That means we either have more bad people in Louisiana or we’re not doing it right.”
Betts, whose law practice has included both civil and criminal cases, said most crimes are drug-related and the district should make more use of its drug court.
Johnson said the biggest concern he hears from voters is about the number of defendants who receive probation rather than jail time.
“There is some education that needs to take place there as to what a probated sentence is,” Johnson said. “It’s not the end of the story, and those people will either become productive citizens or their probations will be revoked and they’ll go to prison.”
Johnson said people also are concerned about the time it takes to resolve a case and about ensuring transparency in the judicial system.
Johnson said meeting people on the campaign trail has restored his faith in the community.
“As a prosecutor, I usually see people who are in a bad place in life,” he said.
Cashe said he has been pleased to see how much attention the race for the Division J judgeship has received because the decisions made in family court “really hit closest to home.”
Cashe said no child wants to see his parents split, but he appreciates the way his parents kept him out of their divorce during his 10th-grade year.
“We never heard cross words between them, and I really can appreciate that now,” he said. “I’ve seen some terrible things practicing family law, and nothing gives me more satisfaction than when I can get a family to work together.”
Cashe said that is one reason he supports the district’s use of hearing officers in family law cases.
“Sometimes parents need to air their dirty laundry but not in a public setting,” he said. The hearing officers can spend more time with people and give detailed recommendations without lengthening the court process, he said.
“The longer you drag out these difficult times, the harder it is on the family, so the focus is on getting as quick of results as you possibly can,” he said.
Westmoreland said voters are looking for a family court judge with experience in the courtroom and life in general.
“It gives a better perspective on the people coming before you to understand and empathize with them,” Westmoreland said, citing his personal experiences with adoption, divorce and being a single parent.
Westmoreland said his goal in any case is to serve the child’s best interest.
“Too many times the children are caught in the middle,” he said. “We all have a selfish facet and are not necessarily thinking about them. But studies confirm, with children, it’s not necessarily how often they see the parent but how much quality time they can enjoy with them.”
Westmoreland said the biggest battle leading up to Dec. 6 will be voter apathy.
“We’re out there trying to solicit people who were behind Mrs. Secrease and also go back to our regular supporters to make sure they vote again,” he said. “That’s the key: getting yours and hers to vote.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.