If you ask Louis Congemi and Jimmy Lawson, the two former Jefferson Parish Council members who are seeking to unseat at-large Councilman Chris Roberts, the incumbent is a divisive figure.
But talk to Roberts, who’s been in public office for almost 17 consecutive years, and he’ll say that many groups of people find him easy to work with, which explains why he’s secured endorsements from teachers, laborers and firefighters unions; law enforcement leaders throughout the area; and the parish Republican Party.
The candidates for the council’s Division A at-large seat haven’t spent as much time on the campaign trail as they’d like. Congemi and Roberts, in particular, have had to spend days in courtrooms dealing with lawsuits pertaining to the race but having little to do with issues affecting constituents.
Nonetheless, the challengers have preached that entrusting one of them with Roberts’ office would bring a spirit of cooperation that hasn’t been seen on the council in years.
Roberts counters that his track record demonstrates he’s both willing and able to work with various parish stakeholders.
Congemi and Roberts are Republicans; Lawson is a Democrat.
The primary is Oct. 24. A runoff, if necessary, would be Nov. 21.
Before serving on the Parish Council from 2004 to 2012, Congemi was Kenner’s mayor from 1996 to 2003. It was as mayor that he learned how to represent the interests of an entire community and not just a section of it, he said.
He prioritized expansions in the Laketown section of northern Kenner and the Rivertown district in the south, he said, while a beautification project planted thousands of trees across the city.
“I had that same vision for Jefferson Parish,” said Congemi, 66, who represented a part of the East Bank as a councilman and pushed for a dog park, splash park and other improvements at Lafreniere Park after it was closed and used as a site for storm debris for several months after Hurricane Katrina.
But the demands of the recovery effort put some of his ideas for the parish on hold, he said. He said he is now hoping for the chance to pursue everything from funding for drainage and flood protection improvements throughout Jefferson to the installation of crime cameras in high-risk areas.
He said the West Bank-based Roberts is focused mainly on that side of the river.
Congemi said the litigiousness of the campaign has been distracting. He successfully defended himself against one lawsuit that said he filed campaign finance reports late and should be disqualified. Then, he dealt with a suit filed by Roberts over commercials that Congemi’s campaign ran alleging Roberts didn’t pay his taxes. Roberts denied that, and a state Department of Revenue official testified that her agency received the returns.
On Monday, Congemi and Roberts agreed to pull certain negative ads targeting each other. The incumbent said he would not pursue a defamation claim against Congemi, who agreed he was shown evidence that “payments were made.”
Lawson, who was a councilman for two decades after his first election in 1975, criticizes Roberts for supporting the recent lease of West Jefferson Medical Center to LCMC Health for at least 45 years in exchange for almost $600 million in rental fees, capital improvements and other payments.
Lawson, 68, says a rejected bid from Hospital Corporation of America was once valued at about $430 million more than the LCMC offer, and he argued its rejection showed that Roberts doesn’t act in the best interests of the entire parish. The leadership of the West Bank hospital favored the LCMC offer.
As a councilman, Lawson says, he provided immense support for Jean Lafitte National Park, which welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors to the West Bank annually; pushed for the parish to purchase the so-called LaSalle Tract in Metairie, now home to Zephyr Field as well as the headquarters for both the Saints and the Pelicans; and supported the construction of the golf course that now hosts the Zurich Classic.
“With those things that I have done, I (helped) create thousands of jobs for Jefferson Parish,” Lawson said. “It wasn’t just for one area. It was for the parish as a whole.”
More than a decade after he was voted off the council, Lawson became an executive assistant to then-Parish President Aaron Broussard. Lawson’s position was eliminated after Broussard resigned from office in 2010, a couple of years before pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.
Lawson said he advised Broussard to cut ties with people linked to the scandal that resulted in his conviction, but the parish president “simply didn’t listen.”
Whenever he is criticized about supporting LCMC over HCA for the West Jefferson Medical Center lease, Roberts, 38, notes that the latter firm entered talks to lease the parish-owned East Jefferson General Hospital but couldn’t close them out. HCA needed approval from its affiliated Tulane University Medical Center to consummate such a deal, but Tulane refused permission, and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t have done the same with West Jefferson, Roberts says.
He says Congemi and Lawson should be more worried about their own fitness for office than about attacking him.
He notes that he has endorsements from Kenner officials such as City Councilman Keith Reynaud, whereas “you don’t see anyone from my backyard (the West Bank) endorsing Congemi,” the former Kenner mayor.
As for Lawson, Roberts cites an episode in which the former councilman had to reimburse the parish for $154.63 in cellphone charges he incurred after being voted out of office. A former aide of Lawson’s reimbursed the parish another $121.21 for charges the aide racked up.
“This is ... a total abuse of his office,” Roberts said of Lawson.
Roberts, who has been on the council for 11 years, spent the first several days after qualifying last month securing the dismissal of lawsuits that sought to knock him out of the race. The suits accused him of signing up to run under an incorrect home address, of not having filed necessary state income tax returns and of turning in campaign finance reports too late.
But he said none of that detracts from his priorities, which include everything from boosting public safety through aggressive property code enforcement to responding to parish crises, as he’s done with various hurricanes and the 2010 oil spill that affected Jefferson’s coastal communities.
“I think I’ve done a pretty good job of trying to pull together people from both sides” of the river, Roberts said.