GONZALES — In the election runoff for Ascension Parish president, the virtues of experience are being pitted against a pitch for change after nearly eight years under outgoing President Tommy Martinez.
This battle between the two runoff candidates has also looped in Martinez, ever-watchful about the portrayal of his legacy as his potential successors try to establish their own identities.
Kenny Matassa, a five-term Gonzales City Council member and 22-year parish government employee, has been touting experience — the “assistant coach” to three parish presidents, as he says — in getting things done.
“You know I put together road projects. I’ve worked on the new sewer plant for the city and a lot of infrastructure,” Matassa said, attempting to draw a contrast with his rival. “Right now, the No. 1 problem in the parish is roads, but I have done it, not say I’m going to do it.”
Meanwhile, surveyor Clint Cointment, in his first bid for elective office but no stranger to parish politics, claims he is a nonpolitician leader who will make parish government efficient and accomplish long-needed infrastructure goals without new taxes. Cointment is trying to tap into voter frustration with road and other infrastructure troubles and claims Matassa has been part of the parish’s old political way of doing things that has not gotten results.
“He has been, quote, the assistant coach, so the question is how much responsibility for what has taken place falls on the assistant coach,” Cointment said.
Cointment and Matassa, both Republicans, have sharpened these respective messages and rolled out endorsements in the three weeks since the five-man primary Oct. 24. Matassa led with 34 percent of the vote in the primary. Cointment was second with 29 percent. They have less than one week of campaigning left, with the runoff on Nov. 21.
In the primary, Matassa, who grew up in Donaldsonville and still has family there, ran strongest in Gonzales, Donaldsonville and Sorrento. He counts backing from each community’s mayor.
Matassa, a longtime former Democrat who switched parties twice in 2014, initially to “no party” and most recently on Dec. 8 to Republican, also counts backing from some Parish Council members who represent Ascension’s more conservative areas in Prairieville and St. Amant.
Cointment, who has the support of the Ascension Republican Party Executive Committee, ran well in Ascension’s more rural areas and captured 27 percent of the votes in third-place finisher Councilman Chris Loar’s District 7 base in Prairieville.
Loar, a Republican who garnered 6,148 votes Oct. 24, has endorsed neither candidate.
Cointment has picked up endorsements from two Democratic primary challengers with west bank roots: Ricky Diggs, who grew up in Modeste but lives in Geismar, and Clarence Henry Jr., of Donaldsonville.
Martinez, a long-standing parish political figure who polarizes Ascension’s hard right, has remained largely in the background. Though he helped Loar with fundraising a few years ago when he was starting his campaign for parish president — before the men had a falling out — Martinez contends he had not been involved in this campaign until recently.
Martinez has said he told Cointment, Matassa and Loar that he would not get involved in the election under one condition: that they not beat up his administration on the election trail. If they did, he warned he would get involved with his own campaign funds.
Matassa, and also Loar in the primary, has followed a fine line, simultaneously touting his experience in government while promising to fix Ascension’s infrastructure woes without hitting current parish government too hard.
But Cointment has been more critical about parish government’s track record, pointing to what he called wasteful spending on studies of studies, for instance, saying the money should have been used on actual road and drainage work.
In response, Martinez recently spent $900 on local ads in which he endorsed “the truth” and challenged what he says are falsehoods spread about his administration.
Without naming Cointment, Martinez’s advertisement takes direct aim at Cointment’s “Flex Plan,” which outlines his agenda, as inaccurate or promising to do things Martinez’s administration has already done. The plan is featured in his campaign website and TV commercials.
Martinez gave Matassa a $300 contribution before the primary and says he is voting for Matassa but not campaigning for him.
But Martinez said last week he ran the ad because he felt Cointment’s statements about his administration’s accomplishments were false.
“Change is OK,” Martinez said. “You can do change, but don’t say lies, just bald-face lies.”
Cointment countered that Martinez misrepresented his plan and said that Martinez broke his word when he ran the ad.
“He took a shot at me, absolutely,” said Cointment, whose campaign charged in a Facebook post Nov. 6 that the ad was in fact an endorsement of Matassa.
Cointment responded to Martinez’s ad with a letter of his own, thanking him for his work but also promising to do more.
Cointment also questioned why Martinez has not used his campaign funds to go after Matassa, who has also promised to improve roads and other infrastructure in Ascension.
“Either Kenny’s doing two things, either he’s saying he can do better, which is a criticism of what’s going on today, or he’s saying he’s going to do exactly the same,” Cointment said.
Martinez, who claims the ad endorsed no candidate, responded that Matassa’s message is not false.
For Matassa’s part, when pressed last week if he sees himself as a change candidate or continuation of the Martinez era, Matassa said he has learned from every parish president. He said he is going to take a close look at each program in parish government and try new things but also continue the good things Martinez has started, such as a planned road between Lamar-Dixon Expo Center and the Edenborne development at La. 44.
“Before he (Cointment) wrote the Flex Plan, those things were in action. Things don’t happen overnight,” Matassa said. “You got to know what to do and who to call, and I know those people.”
Cointment said he also has been behind the Lamar-Dixon road project and has already pledged to see it through if elected. Martinez has said the road could be permitted and ready for construction next year.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.