GONZALES — Ascension Parish assessor candidates Renee Mire Michel and M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr. both sought to win over black voters with strong pitches at an NAACP forum.
Michel, the incumbent, said during the Thursday night event that “very hurtful stories” arising about her are lies and Smiley, who is Michel’s opponent, told the audience, “my signs are popping up in the black community.”
Before an audience of about 60 people at the National Association for the Advance of Colored People political forum, Michel, who is seeking re-election in the Oct. 22 primary, departed from a typical stump speech to dispute rumors of uncertain origin attacking her.
“During this election, stories have been told about me, very hurtful stories,” Michel said. “These stories have been circulating throughout the African-American community. I am here to tell you that these stories are simply not true.”
The forum at East Ascension High School drew 23 candidates in various races. Speeches were limited to five minutes with no rebuttal.
Smiley said that, if elected, he would treat all people “with respect and dignity … and equality.” He added his employees would be “representative of the community that we live in” and “be treated equally and fairly, no matter what the color of their skin.
“There is a wind blowing right now, a wind blowing in this parish,” Smiley went on. “My signs are popping up in the black community like corn in an Iowa corn field, and it’s for a reason. They trust me. They like me, and they know that I am going to treat them fairly.”
Smiley, a Republican from St. Amant, did not seek re-election to the state House of Representatives in order to run for assessor.
Michel, a Democrat, needs strong black support to win. Black voters are strongly Democratic in Ascension, Sept. 1 registration figures show.
During her speech, Michel did not say what the rumors attacking her are or what their source was, but in her defense, recounted a story from her family’s past.
At one point during the era of school desegregation, Michel said, her father, then-Assessor Pegram Mire Sr., made her younger siblings cross picket lines to go to school with black children.
Michel said the “very hostile” atmosphere had led other white parents to keep children home.
“My dad knew he had to do his part to fight injustices, and when he took that stand, it would be noticed because he was a public figure,” said Michel, who is white.
She said someone tried to burn a cross in their yard during those years.
“He made a choice to stand with your community, and he taught all of us that … that was the right thing to do,” she said.
“I am telling you tonight, I am my daddy’s daughter. I cannot let the Mire legacy be stomped on any longer.”
In a post-forum interview, Michel said the rumors involved allegations that she was discriminating against black residents, though she gave no specifics.
Michel said she did not know the source of the rumors but said African-American friends told her to address the rumors at the forum because such talk had not subsided.