The five candidates vying to become the next Jefferson Parish president all have ideas on how to brighten the parish’s future.
But veteran elected officeholders Elton Lagasse, a Parish Council member since 2004, and Mike Yenni, Kenner’s mayor since 2010, say only they have the seasoning and skills necessary to carry out their ideas, unlike candidates Robin Daldegan Christiana, Vincent De Salvo and Al Morella, who have never held elected office.
Christiana, De Salvo and Morella counter that Lagasse and Yenni owe too much to too many supporters after ascending the political ranks to effectively represent normal constituents’ interests.
All those hoping to succeed Parish President John Young, a candidate for lieutenant governor, have spent as much time making those arguments as they have outlining their electoral platforms while campaigning at public forums and in the media.
A recent, independently commissioned poll found Yenni led the rest of the field by double digits among likely voters, with Lagasse second and the other three far back.
The only candidate who is not a Republican is Morella, who does not list himself as belonging to a major party.
The primary is Oct. 24. A runoff, if necessary, will take place Nov. 21.
Having worked for Lagasse in various capacities from 2006 until February, Christiana said, she developed an intimate understanding of how the parish works on both sides of the Mississippi River. The Gretna resident said that understanding allowed her to tackle some of the same issues her former boss did but without striking some of the compromises that council members find themselves having to make.
“I owe no one,” said Christiana, 49, who resigned as Lagasse’s administrative aide in February. “If I am elected, every job, every decision will be given a fair answer, and I cannot say that happens right now.”
One thing Christiana said she would prioritize is working with legislators at all levels so that parish residents and businesses will reap the maximum benefits of their proximity to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, especially if the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba is lifted.
De Salvo, a businessman whose family owned Vince’s Seafood in Gretna for six decades, said he hasn’t needed to hold a political office to learn fiscal responsibility. He said he became well-versed with the concept while serving as the chairman of a Harvey Canal Industrial Association committee that monitored School Board construction projects financed with bond issues.
While he has never held political office despite previously running for what is now Gretna’s City Council, the 63-year-old De Salvo said he’s lived in the parish long enough to be on a first-name basis with everyone he’d need to work with to make his priorities a reality.
Topping that priority list: supporting efforts to restore coastal communities such as Grand Isle and Lafitte, which were deeply affected by the 2010 BP oil spill, a disaster that caused Vince’s Seafood to close.
According to Lagasse, the parish presidency is an administrative job, and the only way not to be overwhelmed by it is to have adequate experience. He said he accumulated that when he served as superintendent of Jefferson’s public schools for nine years before becoming a Parish Council member.
Lagasse, 76, said the millions of dollars, thousands of employees and tens of thousands of students for which he was responsible as superintendent rivaled the amount of money and number of personnel the parish president must oversee.
Throughout his campaign, Lagasse has touted his membership on the committee that helped the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission devise a plan to attract so-called growth industries offering higher-paying jobs to the parish while preparing residents to get those jobs.
“That should be your guide to economically make this parish grow,” said Lagasse, who also served on the Jefferson Parish School Board before becoming the school system’s superintendent. “I know what it’s going to take to execute it.”
An outspoken critic of many Parish Council and Kenner City Council actions, Morella wholly disagrees that political experience automatically means effective leadership. A slew of elected officials oversaw the construction of the $54.5 million parish Performing Arts Center in Metairie, which opened in June six years late and at twice its originally estimated cost, he said.
Morella, 69, proudly notes that he hasn’t accepted a single dollar for his campaign.
“I believe ... you are beholden to those donors, man,” said Morella, who lost an attempt to unseat Yenni as Kenner mayor last year. “When they ask for something, you have to deliver, whether it’s in the best interests of the people you were elected to serve or not.”
Although he often boasts that he doesn’t own a cellphone, Morella said his administration would court high-tech, online retailers and manufacturers. He believes that could boost the sales tax revenue that the parish’s brick-and-mortar retailers have struggled to generate in the age of online shopping.
Yenni touts an administrative résumé that he says is as robust as anyone’s.
Before becoming Kenner’s mayor, Yenni, 39, ran the Jefferson Parish department that received constituents’ complaints, and he was former Kenner Mayor Ed Muniz’s chief administrative officer.
Yet Yenni also emphasizes that he and his wife are raising a 2-year-old daughter, so he says nobody knows better than he what young families — who are vital to communities — need to remain in or move to Jefferson.
Yenni said Kenner has been recognized for two things that are attractive to both young families and businesses: having one of the lowest violent crime rates among cities in Louisiana and being the most ethnically and racially diverse municipality in the state.
One way his administration contributed to those two achievements was through aggressive property code enforcement, he said. “Kenner,” he said, “is a smaller version of what Jefferson needs to be.”