St. George campaign, letters to residents stir emotions _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Lara Gautreau speaks in front of Baton Rouge Magnet High School during a Better Together Baton Rouge press conference in May 2014 to highlight students who they say would be displaced from their current schools, roughly 7,000, if the city of St. George came into being and was subsequently able to breakaway from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Mission accomplished? Only to a point, and if the Better Together advocates deserve a celebration of their efforts, it should be as a forerunner to a more positive conversation about the distance between the two cities of south Baton Rouge.

The two “cities” are incorporated and unincorporated, not by legal boundaries but by internal divisions that run deeper and hit harder, in arguments over public schools or Metro Council issues, and in kitchen table debates over what bills to pay this month. The middle-class is squeezed in neighborhoods on both sides of those boundaries.

The volunteers who opposed the petition were unquestionably critical to the failure of the petition drive for a breakaway city of St. George. Hundreds of residents changed their minds and withdrew their names from the petition because of the advocacy of Better Together. It was short 71 votes of the 17,859 valid signatures needed to call an election for the breakaway.

Many of the signatures that were ruled invalid by the Registrar of Voters Office’s staff would have been invalid no matter what. People who were not registered voters could not sign but did. Some people died in the long time frame in which the St. George advocates were pushing petitions at supermarkets and other places. A few signatures were obviously forged and might not have been caught but for Better Together’s scouring of the lists.

A petition drive is one of the hardest tasks in politics. The advocates, for and against, benefited from some paid help, either in the form of donations from Baton Rouge’s business community who paid for mailers against the breakaway, or paid petition collectors for St. George. But both sides were predominantly volunteers who deserve praise for their commitment to the process, difficult as it is.

That St. George folks did so well is remarkable, although there is justice in attorney Mary Olive Pierson’s remark that the vast majority of residents did not sign, and that is as democratic a result as a formal election.

Leaders of the Better Together contingent — Dianne Hanley, M.E. Cormier and Wilmer Barrett — said the result is “a big victory for the philosophy that the best way to address our problems is by bringing our community together, with benefit to all and harm to none.”

If there is a solution to the problems of poorly performing schools and alienation of a hard-pressed middle class in south Baton Rouge that results in harm to none, Better Together should bottle it and retire. But if the problems remain, the vehicle that helped Better Together succeed continues to be a major player in Baton Rouge’s civic life: Together Baton Rouge.

Many of the advocates in Better Together overlapped in Together Baton Rouge. The latter’s scope is larger, as it is a coalition of congregations and civic groups across the city. Its leadership, particularly lead organizer Broderick Bagert, have the political savvy and shrewdness that helped the petition opponents succeed. As the Better Together leaders said, “Not many would have bet that horse 18 months ago.”

Together Baton Rouge remains the single most broad-based community organization with a commitment to social justice. It can and should be a significant voice as the city’s 2016 elections approach, in which Mayor-President Kip Holden is ineligible to run for a fourth term.

There’s an election then, and voters in both the incorporated and unincorporated areas participate. What is the agenda that will bring them across the boundaries of race and class that Together Baton Rouge’s idealism seeks to erase?

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer at The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.