OAK GROVE — Insider versus outsider, man of government versus man against government: The Nov. 21 runoff for Ascension Parish president is setting up to be a contrast of styles and backgrounds as five-term Gonzales City Councilman Kenny Matassa battles Gonzales surveyor Clint Cointment to lead the fast-growing parish.
Both men suggested in the late night hours Saturday, with a runoff spot in hand, that their messages had resonated with voters and they are ready for the final contest: Cointment, the businessman and political outsider promising to return the government to the people, and Matassa, the city councilman and parish employee touting his record of getting things accomplished for the people.
“This race is going to come down to experience and who is going to move this parish forward,” Matassa said.
“I think people are ready for a change,” Cointment said, “and they are done with the status quo, and I think they want the principles that I stand for. They want accountability. They want transparency and, in my opinion, they deserve it.”
Facing an electorate that has repeatedly rejected tax increases for roads and parish services, the Republicans also claimed to be conservatives who can squeeze tax dollars and upgrade Ascension’s roads and other infrastructure without raising taxes.
They survived a five-person field Saturday in a low-turnout contest — hampered by steady afternoon rain — that, at 38.3 percent, fell below projections in the days before election day.
Matassa led with 9,291 votes, or 34 percent of the vote, and held a 1,213-vote margin over Cointment. Cointment garnered 8,078 votes, or 29 percent.
Besides considering their next moves as far as message and fundraising, Cointment and Matassa will be looking to retain their primary votes and win over voters who backed the three opponents now out of the race.
In all, 10,275 votes were cast for the three other candidates, including two-term Ascension Parish Councilman Chris Loar, who finished third with 6,147 votes.
Loar, a Republican from Prairieville, sent an email to Matassa and Cointment Monday telling them not to look to him for a nod.
“I wanted to write you both to let you know that I will not be endorsing anyone, nor do I intend to get involved in any way,” Loar wrote. “That’s one less variable for y’all to have to consider over the next few weeks. Best of luck to you both.”
Ricky Diggs, a Democrat from Gonzales who garnered 8 percent, or 2,237 votes, despite being a late entrant, said he is endorsing Cointment but would not campaign for him.
“He has the same philosophy I have as far as not having any good old boys, getting rid of big government and more money, not increasing the taxes, and he’s not a politician,” Diggs said.
Though not publicized in the days leading up the election, Democrat Clarence Henry Jr., 72, of Donaldsonville, suffered a heart attack and stroke about a week before the election. Still, he garnered 1,891 votes, or 7 percent.
On Monday, James Henry said his brother remained in the hospital and is recovering.
Half of Ascension’s 63 precincts failed to break even 30 percent turnout in the parish president election. Precinct 60, which is in a sparsely populated patch of Geismar, had no one vote, though it only contains four voters.
All precincts with turnout below 30 percent, except Precinct 60, went either for Cointment or Matassa, suggesting each man has votes to get if he can drive up turnout in the runoff. All the precincts Loar won, 11 in all, had turnout between 30 percent and 35 percent. Cointment and Matassa also won some precincts with turnout above 30 percent.
Anticipating at least 50 percent turnout with a long ballot that included the wide-open parish president and gubernatorial races and other statewide and legislative elections, newly elected Clerk of Court Bridget Hanna said her office deployed the largest number of voting machines ever used in Ascension, 192. Usually between 160 and 175 voting machines are put at the polls, she said.
“We sent nearly every machine in the warehouse just so the people wouldn’t have to wait,” she said.
Like others, Hanna was at a loss to explain why turnout was so low. “I really can’t answer that,” she said.
Interviews with voters leaving the polls in Oak Grove and Gonzales suggested most were unimpressed with the ballot, state and local, and were voting out of a sense of civic responsibility, not for any particular race.
“It was kind of a dull race,” Homer Martin Sr., 82, of Prairieville, said as he left the polls in Oak Grove late Saturday afternoon.
Matassa won the most precincts Saturday at 28 and ran well inside the city limits of Gonzales, Sorrento and Donaldsonville, where he grew up, as well as some parts of Gonzales’ outskirts. He also won in Geismar, Astroland and unincorporated parts of western Ascension.
Cointment followed close behind Matassa by winning 23 precincts, primarily in St. Amant, Duplessis, parts of Dutchtown and in much of Gonzales’ unincorporated outskirts.
Cointment narrowly edged out Matassa in the Pelican Point area in Burnside by 11 votes, 275 to 264, foreshadowing a possible runoff battleground.
Both men were also able to cut into Loar’s base in Prairieville and Dutchtown. While Loar won his Prairieville-area Council District 7 — a Republican-heavy district where he faced no opposition in 2011 for a second term — he only won 45 percent of the vote.
Cointment, who positioned himself to Loar’s right and attacked his conservative credentials, won nearly 28 percent of the vote. Matassa also made inroads with nearly 20 percent.
Loar, who was the best-funded candidate and quit his job six months ago to campaign full-time, said he is still trying to figure out what happened. He said he worked hard and ran the campaign he wanted.
“It’s certainly not what we expected,” he said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.