A Brusly lawyer and an East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member from north Baton Rouge are getting another shot this Saturday to represent House District 29 in the Louisiana Legislature.
Ronnie Edwards died Feb. 24 from pancreatic cancer, just weeks after taking office. Attorney Edmond Jordan and veteran educator Vereta Lee, who both lost to Edwards in the fall, are now vying to fill her vacant seat.
Saturday’s winner will serve out the rest of Edward’s unexpired term, which ends in January 2020. District 29, overwhelmingly African-American and Democratic, stretches through north Baton Rouge and crosses the Mississippi River to include Port Allen and Brusly.
Jordan, 44, has spent 18 years as an attorney and has worked at several government agencies. Now in private practice, he focuses on personal injury, civil rights, consumer protection and corporate law.
Jordan is also the co-owner of an insurance company and serves on several boards, including ones for a health care company and a financial institution.
Jordan describes himself as a “multi-issue” candidate with a diverse background.
“I have a wide array of experiences. I’ve had experience in vision and strategic planning,” Jordan said.
Lee, 58, has worked as a public school teacher and administrator for 36 years and works as student support services supervisor for the Baker school system. She trumpets her experience and steadfast support for public education, but said her advocacy extends to health care, criminal justice, economic development and other voter concerns.
“If I’m elected I will be a voice for the people,” she said. “I will speak up and fight for what’s right and fair for the people.”
In 2006, she was elected to the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. Her election was unusual because in 2002 she’d been suspended from the school system for five years after she was accused of helping a young boy cheat on a standardized test.
She proclaimed her innocence and filed suit, which she was still pursuing when she won her election. A month after taking office, a state district judge upheld the suspension. The case has been dormant ever since.
Lee continues to deny any wrongdoing and says the way she was treated at the time prompted her run for School Board, to prevent that from happening to others.
“I was never found guilty of what they charged me with, but I was punished for it and that was unfair,” she said.
Lee has often provoked controversy during her nine years on the board. She’s frequently led the board in the amount she spends traveling at public expense but makes no apologies for it. She says board members have to go to as much training as they can to do their jobs well.
She spent about $32,000 on board travel between 2007 and 2010, according to The Advocate’s examination published in November 2010. In 2011, the board restricted maximum travel spending for its members to $5,000, later reducing it $4,250.
Through the years, Lee has battled with business and other leaders trying to influence school policy in Baton Rouge, particularly in the predominantly black and often academically struggling schools she represents. She criticizes those who want to redirect taxpayer money to charter and private schools, saying they are often seeking to profiteer at public expense.
Jordan, in contrast, describes himself as an advocate for school choice. He serves as vice president of South Louisiana Charter Foundation Inc., a nonprofit board that has contracted with for-profit Charter Schools USA to run three charter schools in the Baton Rouge area.
The Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based company has contributed $500 to his campaign. Jordan said he’s a supporter of private school vouchers, but he also favors closing under-performing charter schools.
Under-performing arguably describes the three charter schools the South Louisiana Charter Foundation oversees. Two have F grades. The newest one, South Baton Rouge Charter Academy, is too new to have earned a grade, but it posted low test scores during its first year in operation.
Jordan said he doesn’t shy from the consequences of school accountability, even though he thinks Louisiana’s letter grade system should be adjusted to better reflect academic growth.
“Charter schools have three-year contracts, and if they are not performing, they should be closed,” Jordan said.
Jordan made it to Saturday’s runoff by leading a field of five candidates in an April 9 special election, all of them African-American, all Democrats. He captured 31 percent of the vote while Lee got 24 percent.
Jordan’s challenge is to collect enough votes in East Baton Rouge to augment his West Baton Rouge base. Fully 69 percent of District 29’s registered voters live in East Baton Rouge. Jordan said each race is allowing him to expand that base.
“It’s given voters an opportunity to find out more about me and what I stand for,” he said.
Like Jordan, Lee is looking to expand her support on both sides of the river as Saturday’s election nears.
“I’m doing more mailings, more than I did last time,” she said. “I’m meeting more people than I had an opportunity to meet last time.”
Attracting voters who pulled the lever for Edwards could be decisive. Besides getting help from fourth-place finisher, Tyra Banks Sterling, Edwards’ aide when she served on the Metro Council, Lee said she has support from Edwards family members, including a letter of support from Edwards’ mother, Gladys Davis Hammond, that is being sent to voters.
Although they differ, particularly on education policy, Jordan and Lee have similar stances on many issues.
Both favor Louisiana accepting federal money to expand Medicaid and question sending nonviolent offenders to jail. They also want to boost sluggish business development in north Baton Rouge, restore emergency room service in that part of town and lessen traffic congestion for those who cross the Mississippi River.
So far, Lee has reported raising more money than Jordan, $31,800 to Jordan’s $23,100. Sen. Barrow, who held the District 29 seat for three terms, has given money to both candidates, $450 to Lee and $100 to Jordan.
Jordan has business backing, getting money from political action committees connected with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, as well as from Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby.
Lee, by contrast, is getting strong support from labor unions, particularly teacher unions, as well as trial attorneys, all traditional sources of money for Democratic Party candidates.