GONZALES — Mr. Inside versus Mrs. Outside, the race for Ascension Parish president, has pitted the parish’s first elected top executive against a longtime citizen activist who is making her first foray into elective politics.
Kathryn Goppelt, 60, of Gonzales, is challenging incumbent Parish President Tommy Martinez, 61, of St. Amant, in the Oct. 22 primary election. A third candidate, Daniel Melancon, 72, a retired parish employee, dropped out of the race last month but his name will remain on the ballot.
Up for grabs is the power to steer Louisiana’s fastest- growing parish — expanding at a rate of nearly 40 percent in the prior decade — for the next four years. Early voting ends Saturday.
Martinez, who was the first parish president when elected in 1992 to a two-year term, is seeking his second four-year term since 2008. He said it would be his last.
Martinez, running as an independent, has touted infrastructure work carried out during his current term, including improvement of 250 parish roads, the start of long-stalled major drainage projects and the purchase of Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.
But he said he wants to finish plans to improve additional infrastructure, including a proposed half-cent sales tax-supported Ascension Parish “Green Light Plan.”
The concept would pool parish and state and federal highway funding to amass a sum of roughly $320 million for road improvements. For every $1 the parish would raise, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development would provide $3, Martinez explained.
“That is kind of why I want to run this last four years. I want to kind of put every-thing in place. Hopefully, whoever succeeds me can follow through with what we’ll have in place for them,” Martinez said.
Goppelt has been a familiar face at Parish Council and other government meetings for 15 years and helped spur creation of a 2002 parish ordinance that requires licensing of strip clubs and other sexually oriented business.
Goppelt, a Republican and trained educator who home-schooled her children, said she is running to preserve what is left of the parish’s rural character and get a handle on growth.
She said she would bring a non-politician’s touch to what she says is old-style politics in Gonzales that ignores the public.
“I am not going to be on the ‘inside.’ I will be (in office) but I am not going to become part of the clique. This is why I am not part of the political machine,” she said.
Martinez, who also has praised his administration’s handling of public finances in tight economic times, attacked Goppelt’s political background.
“She has zero experience. You can’t just come off the street with no experience and run a $130 million corporation, and no other business would allow that,” he said.
Goppelt said she wants infrastructure-guided growth that would consider available lots and available infrastructure to decide whether to allow or halt development in a given area.
She would like to see developers pay for infrastructure so new growth could proceed when infrastructure is ready.
Goppelt, who opposes impact fees on development, asserted there is U.S. Supreme Court precedent in her favor to halt development where infrastructure is lacking.
“Nobody is standing up. Nobody has had the backbone to say, ‘Look, we’re saturated,’ ” she said.
Goppelt said the parish does not need another roads plan but needs to follow an earlier 2005 plan, adding turn lanes and improving intersections. Goppelt also said she would not oppose a new half-cent sales tax for roads, if the Parish Council would agree.
The election campaign has served to continue recent debates over development and planning.
Goppelt and others, including allies and similarly long-term activists Al and Theresa Robert, have criticized Martinez’s administration for promoting “high density” growth that would change the parish’s character and overwork its infrastructure.
Martinez and other parish officials have disputed the claim that they say was an attempt to tie growth planning falsely to the attraction of federally subsidized housing.
Goppelt has not raised Lamar-Dixon as an issue — though she did say it needs a financial plan — but the purchase is a parish milestone.
Martinez and the Parish Council finalized an agreement to buy it in August 2009 after voters rejected a 3-mill tax in November 2008 to support buying and maintaining the center.
Martinez defended the decision to buy the parish “flagship” because Lamar-Dixon was paid for with $7.5 million in federal and state grants and appropriations. He said residents voted against the proposed tax, not Lamar-Dixon.
“The bottom line is we didn’t buy Lamar-Dixon,” Martinez said. “It was given to us.”