ST. GABRIEL — The St. Gabriel Community Center was packed with several hundred residents as Lionel Johnson Jr., was sworn in as mayor during an elaborate ceremony Wednesday evening.
The event was historic. It was the first time in 17 years someone other than now-disgraced former Mayor George Grace, indicted for taking bribes last year, took the oath of office. Johnson beat Grace by 97 votes, 742 to 645, in the city’s April 2 mayoral election.
“My pledge to you is that every decision I make will be in the best interest of the city of St. Gabriel,” Johnson promised after taking the oath of office from Judge Alvin Batiste Jr. of 18th Judicial District Court.
Johnson placed his right hand on a family Bible held by his wife of eight years, Tiffany. The well-dressed crowd stood and applauded the act.
“When someone first told me on April 2, 2011, that I would be the next mayor, my immediate thought was — no lie — ‘my thoughts are ordered by the Lord,’” Johnson said. Throughout his acceptance speech he repeated several times a theme of his new responsibility — “it’s not about me.”
The two-hour ceremony more often resembled a church service rather than a political event with several sacred songs sung and speakers invoking the name of God and Jesus often.
The Rev. Randy Smith asked God to grace Johnson and the council with wisdom and declared Johnson’s inauguration “the dawning of a new day.”
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, the featured speaker and longtime Johnson friend, quoted several scriptures and declared that “we must remain persuaded, like the Apostle Paul, that nothing will separate us from the love of Jesus.”
Holden also declared “today there is a positive belief that a growing dawn approaches,” to a standing ovation.
Prior to swearing in Johnson, Batiste gave an oath of office to City Council members Deborah Alexander, Flora Danielfield, Freddie Frazier, Melvin Hasten Sr., and Ralph Johnson Sr., and then called the entire membership of the Police Department to the stage and swore them all in also.
Johnson, in his speech, promised to work with the council and declared, “I think it’s time St. Gabriel has its own grocery store,” to hearty applause. He said he also wanted other businesses, like a car wash, “so people don’t have to drive in to Baton Rouge,” to more applause.
When he declared “after 17 years, I think it’s time we build a city hall,” the applause wasn’t quite so hearty.
The Rev. Alfred Thomas blessed the mayor, the council and the meeting and prayed, “that in the spirit of togetherness we can all work together in one accord.”
After the ceremony, residents Donald and Monica Goree both said they were pleased with Johnson’s inauguration. “I think this is a new day,” Donald Goree said with a big smile. “I think things are going to happen.”
“I think there will be great change for the community,” added Monica Goree, “and he will do an awesome job.”