After one candidate withdrew from the Baker mayoral race, four candidates remain, all vying to replace Harold Rideau after a March 5 election.
Joyce Burges, Leroy Davis, Carlon “Frank” Simpson and Darnell “DA-1” Waites, all Democrats, are campaigning to succeed Rideau, who has served as Baker mayor since 2004. Most of the candidates plan, if elected, to focus on cleaning up the city to attract new businesses, though they differ in strategy.
Several candidates noted friction between the current Mayor’s Office and the City Council but are looking forward to a relatively clean slate. If one of two women running are elected, she will be the first woman to head the Mayor’s Office.
A runoff, if needed, is scheduled for April 9.
Waites, 55, who works as administrative officer to Rideau, said his experience in the Mayor’s Office sets him apart from the other candidates.
“The difference between me and the other candidate is I’ve been here the last three years,” Waites said. “I’ve been here watching the city grow.”
Waites said he has worked to make small cuts across the board to help reduce the city’s spending. He said the budget has shrunk from $18.5 million to $15.9 million in the past three years by cutting expenses.
“It’s not as gloomy as people make it out to be,” Waites said. “We are going to be OK. We just need a little bit more time. I want to finish what I’ve started.”
Waites said he plans to increase economic development by cleaning up the city, especially Main Street, to market Baker and attract businesses to the area. He said he’s worked the past year and a half to combat blight in the community through a city program. Waites said he wants to expand on the Baker Workforce Development Center, which trains students in vocational skills such as welding to give young people opportunities in the community.
Although Waites said the city budget is tight, he does not plan to raise taxes or the cost of utilities at this point.
The school system’s grade rose from a D to a C between the 2013-14 school year and the 2014-15 school year, but two schools in the district remain classed as F.
Waites is a retired combat veteran originally from Jacksonville, Florida, and president of the Baker Area Chamber of Commerce.
Rideau said he endorses Waites as the next mayor. Waites said the Baton Rouge AFL-CIO also found him favorable, and the East Baton Rouge Democratic Party endorsed him.
Burges, 57, thinks the Mayor’s Office needs to see a change in leadership.
“Everything rises and falls on leadership,” Burges said. “We need strong, stable, vibrant leadership.”
Burges, who serves as the District 3 City Council member, said that if elected, she would be the first woman to be mayor of Baker.
“We’ll be making history here for the city,” Burges said. “That alone will get us on the map.”
Although Burges said she plans first to get Baker’s finances in order, she said she does not plan to raise taxes or the cost of utilities to do it, choosing instead to curb spending, though she did not specify where.
Burges said one of her main goals, beyond pushing health, economic development and financial accountability in Baker, is to bring the city into the digital age.
“I would like to see Baker become a computer-friendly town,” Burges said.
She also said she would like to clean up the city to make it more appealing for incoming businesses, noting her sponsorship with the City Council of a program to combat blight in Baker.
Asked about the local school system, Burges said parents should be more welcomed to get involved.
Burges was raised in Baton Rouge, graduated from Capitol High School and then Southern University, majoring in English.
The Baton Rouge AFL-CIO also found Burges a favorable candidate.
Simpson, 65, said the biggest issue she sees is “image — we’ve got to work on Baker’s image.”
Although Simpson thinks Baker is on track for the most part, she said negative features of Baker are what draw attention.
“There’s a lot of good things that are happening in Baker,” Simpson said. “It’s a great place to live.”
Simpson said the city is facing the same problems as other cities its size and that she could not promise to bring in big business with the current economic climate. She said she would leave it to the Baker Area Chamber of Commerce to bring in business for the most part, though she emphasized that the city needs to support existing businesses as it attempts to grow.
She said she could not talk about the budget because she has not seen it since she served on the City Council from 2000 to 2004 and 2008 to 2012.
Simpson, too, agreed that the school system is improving, though she said it is struggling in some areas.
“Baker should be where Zachary is, they should,” Simpson said of the school system. “I have no idea why they’re not there.”
Simpson said she would like to see the BREC parks in Baker provide more activities for the local youth.
“Unless (young people) are involved with their church, there’s really not a whole lot of activities,” Simpson said.
Simpson, whose husband’s cousin Bobby Simpson served three terms as Baker mayor and one as mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish, worked as a public servant and was a caregiver for her family.
Davis, 71, Baker mayor from 2001 to 2004, said his first goal is to balance the books, noting that the city’s latest audit has not been completed.
Rideau said a new auditor hired by the City Council has yet to complete the 2014-15 fiscal year report, which was due at the end of 2015.
“All we know is things are bad, but we don’t know how bad,” Davis said. “I’m going to hire a CPA to come in and train the financial workers.”
Davis added that the city’s reserve funds have been depleted since he was last in office, though Rideau said these funds were used for upgrades and repairs to Baker’s infrastructure.
Davis listed several businesses he said he helped bring to Baker while in office. He said he would bring more.
He also plans to organize a citizens council and a youth council to advise him on how to build up the city and what issues need to be addressed. None of his plans include raising taxes.
“I’m totally against raising taxes or fees,” Davis said. “You’re going to need to hold them where they are and find ways to scrub the budget,” starting with cuts at the Mayor’s Office.
Davis works as an adjunct professor of economics at Southern University’s business school and Upper Iowa University.
Davis, whose wife is president of the Baker School Board, also said the school system was on track and even more, that it serves as an example for the Mayor’s Office.
“If the city had made half the progress the school district has made, it’d be doing fine,” Davis said.
Davis said the Baton Rouge AFL-CIO and Young Democrats of Southern University favorably endorsed him.
The other candidate, Fred Russell, a retired city councilman, withdrew from the race in December, citing health issues.
Rideau, who turns 70 in September after he retires and moves to Lafayette, had parting advice for leaders in the Baker community.
“Regardless of who wins, we’ve got to come together,” Rideau said. “If we can’t do that, it’s going to be a problem.”
Follow Danielle Maddox Kinchen on Twitter, @Dani_Maddox4.