The three candidates facing off in a bid for the open House District 69 seat say that fixing transportation problems and reducing traffic congestion in Baton Rouge is a top priority.
Republicans Ryan Heck and Paula Davis are running against Democrat Mark Holden for the seat, which opened up when former state Rep. Erich Ponti resigned his seat a few months ago.
Both Heck and Davis have government experience under their belts, while Holden has done some public service work in the past.
Heck, the owner of Cajun Ready Mix Concrete, has been one of the Metro Council’s conservative voices since running unopposed in 2013. Davis, a government relations specialist, was the state’s deputy insurance commissioner of the office of property and casualty during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Holden, an attorney, considers himself a conservative Democrat. He has worked with legal services programs and helped set up a program for poor people to pay reduced fees to private attorneys.
Heck has the fundraising lead in the race, as he has collected around $111,000 in contributions and supplemented it with an additional $105,000 in personal funds, according to reports from July 20 through Sept. 14. Davis raised more than $93,000 during the same time period, and added $5,000 in personal funds to her campaign. Holden’s campaign finance report showed he hadn’t raised any money.
Davis, 41, said she believes that her background working for state government makes her best-suited for the legislative seat.
“I know the process, and I have the relationships,” said the Breaux Bridge native.
She said working with homeowners to sort out insurance claims post-Hurricanes Katrina and Rita taught her invaluable skills for a public officer holder.
“That’s when I really learned what being a leader meant,” she said. “Leadership is about listening.”
Davis also is especially interested in fixing the city’s traffic problems.
She said she has kept a close eye on the DOTD meetings about ways to improve Interstate 10, particularly in the I-10/I-12 corridor. She said she wants more conversation about building another bridge south of the Mississippi River Bridge, and that she’s open to a variety of funding options, ranging from toll roads to public/private partnerships to redirecting sales tax money.
But her stance on raising taxes is firm, for now.
“I don’t support new taxes until we have a long-term restructuring of the tax system,” she said.
Davis said two other of her main concerns are higher education and health care, both of which have been on the Legislature’s chopping block for the past several years. She said she wants to give universities more autonomy over their tuition and fees.
Heck, 37, is a Baton Rouge native who recalls a childhood growing up in the same neighborhood where he is now running for office. He said he wants to ensure that Baton Rouge is well represented within state government.
As a Metro Councilman, Heck has become known for his blunt and irreverent demeanor around City Hall and in his dealings with constituents. He said the council work that he’s most proud of is helping to bring the ride share program Uber to the capital city, as well as helping to lower speed limits in neighborhoods.
Heck said that as a legislator, he would try to expand the road transfer program to switch many state roads to be taken over locally. He also wants to reform the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, which he says spends too much money on operations and not enough money on projects.
Heck also said he wants to finish the road improvements included in the city-parish’s Green Light Plan.
His ideas could come at a steep cost. When asked about how he proposes funding the infrastructure changes, Heck said “everything’s on the table.”
When asked directly whether that included raising taxes, Heck paused before saying, “You said that, not me.”
Heck also said higher education institutions need to be free to operate as businesses, without the Legislature interfering.
“Higher education is a victim of the Legislature,” he said.
Earlier in the campaign, Heck made a disclosure on his Facebook page that he had once accessed the Ashley Madison cheating website after a list of people who’d been on the site was released by hackers. But Heck said on Facebook that he didn’t create a profile or provide a credit card number, noting he didn’t appear on lists of leaked users who had spent money on the website.
Heck’s Facebook post said he went on the website “as a joke” and he never returned.
Asked if Ashley Madison has come up with constituents when he’s gone door to door to campaign, Heck said, “I don’t think people are distracted by issues that are not important to them.”
Holden, 64, is a Democrat running in a conservative district, but he says many of his ideas do not fall along partisan lines. He’s hoping voters will flock toward his solutions instead of his party affiliation.
He has a long list of fixes for infrastructure and traffic. One of his grandest proposals is embracing the idea of building a loop to alleviate Baton Rouge traffic. He has suggested doing so at the I-12 O’Neal Lane exit going north to the Central Throughway, but he also is open to using other locations.
Holden wants to open road shoulders as traffic lanes near the worst bottlenecks on the I-10 bridge, and to install traffic cameras to have tow trucks quickly ready to move wrecks off the road.
He suggests paying for the road improvements with a special taxing district for a nickel gasoline tax. He said he favors dedicated taxes if they are approved by the public.
“We don’t need new taxes, but we need to collect the taxes that are on the book,” Holden added.
Holden believes the state should accept federal health care money for Medicaid, which he said will improve the hospital and mental health system.
He also advocates advertising TOPS more heavily to high school students planning to attend two-year and trade schools.