With qualifying for the Oct. 24 primary a week away, Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni and Jefferson Parish Councilman Elton Lagasse — the two men competing to become Jefferson’s next parish president — debated Tuesday evening on who is better equipped to tackle public safety issues in the parish.
Also showing up at the Metairie forum hosted by the Crimefighters of Louisiana victims advocacy group were two candidates for state attorney general: former U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry and Marty Maley, who used to be a prosecutor in the Baton Rouge area. Incumbent Buddy Caldwell was absent due to a scheduling conflict, said Irvin Magri Jr., president of Crimefighters.
In the first public debate of the parish president’s race, Lagasse touted his decision to put law enforcement officers on campuses when he was superintendent of the parish’s public schools. He said he also implemented drug testing for athletes and participants in other extracurricular activities in the school district.
As a councilman, he said, he supported installing license-plate recognition cameras throughout the parish that can identify cars that were either stolen or involved in crimes.
Yenni said Kenner was recently recognized for having one of the lowest violent crime rates in Louisiana, which he said was exceptional given that the city is much larger than the rest of the municipalities on the list.
Yenni credited the two Kenner police chiefs he’s worked with as mayor, Steve Caraway and Michael Glaser. But he said Kenner also is safe because he has ordered code enforcement officials to reduce blight across town as much as possible and has prioritized adequately funding the city’s police force.
During a question-and-answer session with an audience of about 50 people, Lagasse fielded multiple questions about the Parish Council’s decision to lease its two publicly owned hospitals to private operators. The leasing process has been drawn out and plagued by bickering among elected officials, hospital executives and consultants.
An agreement to lease West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero to LCMC Health is pending approval, but the parish will receive about $25 million less than initially expected. An agreement to lease East Jefferson General Hospital to the firm HCA fell apart earlier this year.
Lagasse, 75, is hoping his long experience in public office will attract voters his way.
The Republican spent 13 years on the Jefferson Parish School Board and was superintendent of the school system for nine years. He represented a Parish Council district that includes parts of Metairie, River Ridge and the West Bank for two four-year terms beginning in 2004 and has been an at-large councilman since 2012.
Meanwhile, the 39-year-old Yenni is no newcomer to the political scene, either. He was Kenner’s chief administrative officer for four years before becoming the city’s mayor in 2010. Both his grandfather — former Kenner Mayor Joseph S. Yenni — and uncle, also named Mike Yenni, were past Jefferson Parish presidents.
Yet among the things Yenni, also a Republican, will be counting on to capture votes are his youthful energy and assurances that he has fresh ideas to move the parish forward.
Qualifying for the Oct. 24 primary will be Sept. 8-10. Yenni and Lagasse are vying to succeed Parish President John Young, who is running for lieutenant governor on Oct. 24.
In the attorney general’s debate, Maley attacked Landry’s lack of experience with criminal prosecutions, of which he said there are 2,300 ongoing at Caldwell’s office. Landry countered that he would simply hire good prosecutors, and he criticized district attorneys who recuse themselves from handling cases that are politically sensitive.
Landry and Maley did agree on one thing — that it is time to oust Caldwell, whom they portrayed as a career politician who has worn out his usefulness in office.
Maley, Landry and Caldwell are all Republicans.
Caldwell received Crimefighters of Louisiana’s endorsement during the last AG’s race four years ago. But only candidates who were present Tuesday night are eligible to be endorsed, meaning Caldwell was eliminated from consideration, Magri said.
He said the group will announce any endorsements it gives by Sept. 8.
UPDATE, Sept. 8, 2015: After filing his paperwork to qualify for the AG’s race, Maley announced that he had won Crimefighters’ endorsement. He said in a written statement, “Mr. Magri and the Executive Board of Crime Fighters are well respected throughout the criminal justice system and provide a great service to the State of Louisiana through their unwavering protection of crime victims. ... As Attorney General, I will continue to be hard on hardened criminals and fight for victims’ rights by being committed to helping every victim find hope, healing and justice.”