Forums expose duality

The run-up to Saturday’s primary election revealed two Baton Rouges.

If the scorched-earth rhetoric in the handful of candidate forums is any indicator, the gulf is wide between competing Baton Rouges — urban and suburban, the wealthy and the workers, black and white — with Government Street serving as kind of general Checkpoint Charlie.

For instance, in a clubhouse meeting room at Lake Sherwood, a crowd made up mostly of white voters cheered at every vow to cut state spending, and at every promise to keep awarding the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students — TOPS — to high school graduates of modest academic distinction. They loudly endorsed every insult hurled at President Barack Obama.

Obama was warmly praised at forums for candidates whose urban Baton Rouge districts lie primarily north of Government Street. Applause followed promises to adjust the state’s tax system so that richer people feel an impact similar to what workers experience from the tax burden on lower incomes, and to raise revenues by increasing taxes on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages.

Adell Brown is the president of 100 Black Men of Metro Baton Rouge. He moderated a candidate forum at the Delta Sigma Theta house on Southern University’s campus and asked questions at another forum held at Baton Rouge Community College.

Brown said more people living in north Baton Rouge have incomes low enough to need to turn to services state government provides. But differences in cultures and points of view also play a role in the underlying positions that government, as an entity, is a problem or a solution, he said.

“When you’re down south, they see the private sector as the major driver of the economy,” for which government gets in the way, said Brown, who, as vice chancellor, handles finances for the Southern University Ag Center.

Government also was the catalyst for changes that ensured access to education, jobs, even voting booths that had been denied to many, Brown said. “As you move north, you see the opposite. It was government that took the intervention steps that brought change. It was government that opened the doors when the private sector would not.”

The different perspectives often mean the communities talk past each other, Brown said. Take the debate over the need to improve public schools, he said.

One side wants to expand vouchers — diverting public tax dollars to pay private school tuition — and charters — using public money to pay private managers to run a public school. The other side worries the ideas would divert money needed for the public schools.

Democratic state Rep. Michael Jackson said both Baton Rouge communities see improving education from different perspectives. But both share the goal of ensuring their children receive an education that best prepares them for the future, he said.

“We, as leaders, need to focus on where we can find agreement,” said Jackson, after a forum in which he spoke as a candidate for the Baton Rouge-based Senate District 14 seat.

Republican state Rep. Hunter Greene agrees.

Greene, who chairs the tax oversight House Ways and Means committee, was re-elected when nobody signed up to challenge his representation of south Baton Rouge House District 66, which includes subdivisions with streets named after Confederate heroes and Civil War battles. He says 26 members of the Capital Region’s legislative delegation come from divergent backgrounds, but the only avenue to statewide power is finding common ground, not on every issue, but on some.

Expanding roads and bridges in the Baton Rouge metropolitan area could be one of those issues, Greene said.

“Everybody gets stuck in traffic,” he said.

Most of the candidates for urban Baton Rouge House districts publicly supported establishing toll roads to help raise money for transportation infrastructure. A number of legislators sitting in the southern part of the parish also have been talking tolls as a possibility, Greene said.

“There’s a difference between no new taxes and toll roads,” Greene said. “It’s a start.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.