GONZALES — Gonzales City Councilman Kenny Matassa and Gonzales businessman Clint Cointment led a five-man field Saturday night to be Ascension’s next parish president and will now head to a Nov. 21 runoff.
The winner will inherent a fast-growing parish that, while it has seen investment in roads and drainage and gathering political momentum for a new regional sewer system, faces costly infrastructure backlogs with little public appetite for new taxes.
According to complete but unofficial election returns, Matassa led all vote-getters with 34 percent of the vote with Cointment close behind with 29 percent in what many observers predicted would be a tight race among the three frontrunners: Ascension Parish Councilman Chris Loar, Matassa and Cointment. Loar took in 22 percent of the vote.
Cointment, who has run as political outsider for more than two years on a relatively low-budget campaign, held his own against Loar and Matassa. The two more-experienced candidates were both better funded, though Matassa got the latest start among those three, announcing he would run in the early part of the year.
Cointment, Loar and Matassa, all Republicans, also vied with Democrats Ricky Diggs, an industrial safety administrator from Gonzales, and retired nightclub owner Clarence Henry Jr., of Donaldsonville, to replace four-term Parish President Tommy Martinez.
Elected as Ascension’s first parish president ever in 1993 and a persistent figure in parish politics since then, Martinez, an independent, announced in early 2012 after his election to a fourth term that he would not again stand for election to lead a parish trending more Republican each year.
Martinez’s last term saw a major push for new road dollars in 2012 and new dedicated property taxes for firefighters and recreation in 2013 and 2014. Each time, however, voters resoundingly answered “no” to increased taxes.
That string of failures has framed this race as one in which the new president and other elected officials would have to work on infrastructure with the same tax structure.
After mostly door-to-door campaigning and other retail politics through the summer and early fall, the final four weeks have seen the leading three candidates unload their reserves on a major advertising push, including, with Loar and Matassa in particular, on television commercials.
Loar, who has been raising money since 2013, pulled in $250,730 with a late fundraising push in mid-October, well ahead of his opponents’ overall fundraising. But the last batch of $9,900 collected by Loar only drew him slightly ahead of Matassa’s $92,163 on hand through mid-October for the campaign’s final days, campaign reports show.
Cointment round into the final days with about $40,000 in the bank, some of which he spent on mailers. One charged that Loar and Matassa — their faces super-imposed on green peas — were “two peas in a pod” as parish leaders who have not accomplished much.
Diggs and Henry did little to no fundraising, though Diggs’ campaign reported Oct. 4 to have negative balance of $6,423.
Amid the anti-tax environment, Loar, Matassa, Cointment and Diggs have battled to be seen as fiscal conservatives who would make parish government more efficient, restore voters’ trust and catch up on infrastructure without new taxes. Henry, who has pushed to do more for a west bank he says is neglected, has also opposed tax increases but wants help from industry.
While Henry said he would need to the study the matter, Matassa, Cointment, Diggs and Loar have also expressed some interest in impact fees on new development, which would primarily pay for roads. Loar, who is from Prairieville, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the concept, promising it to tackle it first if elected.
But impact fees and tax rededications have proven controversial in the past and are likely to draw strong opposition.
The candidates are also banking on an additional $1.5 million per year that will be available in Ascension’s only dedicated road tax in 2016 after old debts are retired.
Matassa, a five-term councilman in Gonzales and a longtime parish administrator who has served under three parish presidents, has pointed to his years of experience as a go-to guy in parish government. Matassa, who has garnered support from parish employees and has Parish President Martinez’s vote, boasts the on-the-ground contacts developed by helping the public through years in local government.
But Matassa has had to run amid a family tragedy. One of his sons was badly burned in a plant explosion in early September and remains hospitalized.
Loar has also fought questions about his Republican credentials from his right flank by Cointment and the Ascension Republican Party Executive Committee, some of whose members are key donors to Cointment. They have questioned what they said was his support of the failed tax initiatives.
Loar has responded that he only supported voters’ right to consider the taxes, though he strongly advocated for the measures. He has countered with mail-outs with endorsements from current and former business leaders and a TV commercial touting his money-saving efforts in government.
Cointment took the harshest line on government spending and promised to take another look at how the parish hands out lucrative engineering and consulting contracts, while questioning his opponents’ willingness to take donations from companies that do parish work.
Cointment has also claimed the parish is sitting on multi-million dollar surpluses that could be spent on infrastructure, though tapping that money could also mean undoing council-designated infrastructure priorities.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.