A jubilant Tony LeMon grabbed a reporter in the middle of a crush of bodies at the Clarion Hotel in Covington on Saturday night. LeMon, one of the key players behind Warren Montgomery’s successful run for district attorney of Washington and St. Tammany parishes, had to shout to make himself heard over the din.
“We are going to change this whole corrupt system!” he yelled. “We are going to change everything!”
LeMon was just one of dozens of Montgomery supporters whose reaction to Saturday’s result was equal parts joy and shock. LeMon looked a bit like a wide receiver who catches a tipped Hail Mary pass on the last play to win a game and still can’t quite believe what happened.
But it did, of course. The question now is what the surprising result proves about politics in St. Tammany Parish, and what it means for the future.
For some, it was further evidence of a growing anti-establishment sentiment in a parish where political careers have often been measured in decades — but where some of those careers have crashed and burned of late, most recently that of District Attorney Walter Reed, who chose not to stand for re-election amid a federal grand jury probe. For others, it was simply one candidate beating the other in a straight-up, old-fashioned dogfight.
First, a few facts. Brian Trainor, a former assistant district attorney under Reed and current chief deputy to Sheriff Jack Strain, seemed a clear favorite. He got 38 percent of the primary vote. He racked up an impressive list of endorsements, including the sheriffs of both parishes, plus St. Tammany Coroner Charles Preston, Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan, Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith and a bevy of others. And though Reed didn’t offer a formal endorsement, he described Trainor as a friend during a closed-door meeting for employees.
Trainor also was able to build a far larger war chest than any of his opponents, including Montgomery, who had to pay for a significant portion of his campaign.
Nonetheless, Montgomery, the last entrant into the four-person field, seemed to gather steam heading into the Nov. 4 primary. He won 25 percent of the vote, enough to make the runoff, but leaving him with a lot of ground to make up. Montgomery had several members of the local defense bar on his side and messages of support from several former colleagues at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he worked in the 1980s. But he didn’t have anything like the establishment backing that Trainor had.
On paper, a moneyed law-and-order candidate in a parish sometimes known as “St. Slammany” looked like a slam dunk.
So what happened?
The simple explanation
The simple narrative is that Trainor was too close to Reed, for whom Trainor worked from 2002 until 2010. Trainor himself seemed to acknowledge this factor in his concession speech.
“I didn’t succeed in showing them I am not Walter Reed,” Trainor said after the results came in, according to a tweet from nola.com reporter Kim Chatelain. In the campaign’s waning days, Trainor had actually sought to portray Montgomery as close to Reed, sending a mailer that juxtaposed photos of the two.
“Warren Montgomery is no corruption fighter,” the mailer blared. “In fact, Warren Montgomery has made multiple contributions to Walter Reed’s campaign over the years.”
But it didn’t work. And perhaps it shouldn’t have. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Trainor appeared tied to the current DA’s regime. While Reed did not make a formal endorsement, he suggested to subordinates that Trainor would be an acceptable replacement. And several office employees were present at Trainor’s campaign party Saturday night.
At least one experienced politico — St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister, who made no endorsement in the race — said Trainor’s association with Reed was likely too big of a millstone.
“I think the past year and the issues that have been so public with the current DA played a role,” she said Monday. Though the result surprised Brister, she said she was “not shocked by it.”
While Reed cast a long shadow over the race, it would be oversimplifying things to say the election was a referendum on him.
Montgomery’s victory was the second in St. Tammany this year by a candidate for parishwide office who was perceived as an outsider. In April, Charles Preston defeated Leanne Truehart in a special election for coroner. The two were vying to replace Peter Galvan, who resigned in October 2013 and pleaded guilty to stealing public funds.
Apart from the federal probes, the two races had some parallels: Truehart had a strong fundraising operation, she was already a deputy coroner and she had support from some other public officials. But it wasn’t enough, just as it wasn’t enough for Trainor. Preston — who, like Montgomery, self-financed much of his campaign — cruised to a solid victory. (An interesting side note: Preston endorsed Trainor.)
Weary of scandal
Without a doubt, the Galvan and Reed soap operas have made Tammany voters weary of scandal. But Saturday’s election also was a rebuke to Strain, the long-tenured sheriff, who offered strong support for his top aide, filming a commercial on his behalf and urging deputies to vote for him. That’s why some see the result as part of a larger pattern, a message to the parish establishment that change is in the air.
“I think people are tired of the whole power structure in St. Tammany Parish,” said Terry King, a prominent member of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, an activist group. “There is a general sense of being upset with the entire group of governing officials.”
Concerned Citizens board member Gary Leonard agreed.
“Citizens of St. Tammany Parish are looking for new leadership in all phases of government,” he said, pointing to the coroner’s election as another example.
CCST has pushed for change across parish leadership. Though the group doesn’t make endorsements, its president, Rick Franzo, was one of the first to hug Montgomery after his acceptance speech Saturday night, and several other members were sprinkled throughout the audience.
King said the result of the DA’s race was evidence of the group’s strength.
“We are able to communicate a message,” he said. “Social media is hugely powerful.”
Political consultant James Hartman, who worked on the campaign of fourth-place finisher Roy Burns in the primary, said that sentiment is statewide. Hartman did an analysis for Montgomery shortly after the Nov. 4 primary but did not work for either candidate in the runoff.
“I think the political climate in St. Tammany is where voters are looking for new faces,” he said. “But it’s not unique to St. Tammany, by any means.”
Hartman pointed to the rise of the tea party movement and other groups founded on the same sort of anti-establishment sentiment.
“There is a growing distrust of politicians, particularly career or long-term politicians,” he said.
In Hartman’s analysis, Trainor, despite a large lead in the primary, had nearly maxed out his vote. In the primary, Trainor led the field with more than 36,000 of the 94,000 votes cast. On Dec. 6, he got only about 5,000 more votes.
Contrast that with Montgomery, who nearly doubled his vote total, jumping from about 24,000 to about 45,000 in the runoff.
That should concern longtime office holders, Hartman said.
“Those that have been in office a long time or are part of a political dynasty should be very concerned right now,” he said.
In the campaign’s final days, Montgomery sought to pound that message home: “Qualifications not connections,” his signs said.
A negative campaign
Another theme in the campaign was its relentless negativity, though it’s hard to say how it influenced the race, given that it came from both camps.
Trainor launched a website, since taken down, called InvestigateWarren.com, in which he accused Montgomery of being a friend to illegal immigrants who commit crimes, sex offenders and New Orleans gang-bangers. Montgomery responded with a website of his own, Takedownthemachine.com, accusing Trainor of lying to voters and using scare tactics.
Even before Nov. 4, Montgomery also got into some hot water with a tongue-in-cheek animation produced by a supporter that ridiculed Strain as the “Sheriff of Rottingham” and the other candidates in the race. Strain issued an outraged letter, and Montgomery eventually had the video taken down.
On Monday, Montgomery didn’t hesitate to express his disgust over what he saw as below-the-belt shots from the Trainor camp.
Many of Trainor’s attack ads featured “photos of Hispanics and blacks, never any photos of Caucasians accused of crimes,” Montgomery said. “Basically, they were playing the race card, and I think many voters were offended by that line of attack.”
Indeed, one of Trainor’s main tactics was to pepper voters with images of defendants Montgomery had represented, reminding them that he, Trainor, had spent his career trying to put criminals behind bars. In what many saw as coded racism, Trainor’s campaign ads promised to keep New Orleans crime on the south shore.
Whether or not it won over any voters, it angered many members of St. Tammany Parish’s legal community, one of whom said he was saving every flier in case Trainor won, so he could use it to move to have the DA’s office recused in trials with minority defendants.
Trainor did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.
What happens now?
With what has been the north shore’s most-watched race in several years now over, attention will turn to what will happen in the DA’s Office, which will have a new top prosecutor for the first time since the Reagan administration.
Montgomery said Monday that he had spoken to Reed and is forming a transition team. He refused to say who is on it or what its focus might be, but said all operations would be up for review.
On election night, Montgomery said he wouldn’t clean house, but he was more circumspect on Monday.
“Suffice it to say we have had the same administration for 30 years, and I think it’s safe to assume that there will be changes,” he said.
Montgomery is likely to face more scrutiny from St. Tammany Parish government than Reed was accustomed to. The parish provides a portion of the DA’s funding, and earlier this year, Brister requested a state audit of the office’s finances after Reed sent a request for more money.
“I offered our time and expertise at the parish to go over where we are, what we do, what our statutory requirements are, and we will work out a process,” Brister said of her talk with Montgomery.
Another challenge will be maintaining good relations with the sheriffs in the two parishes Montgomery oversees. Both sheriffs backed Trainor, and if Trainor returns to his post as Strain’s chief deputy, he likely will have to work closely with Montgomery’s office on a wide range of issues. That relationship will be “professional,” Montgomery said, adding that he spoke to Trainor on election night and hopes to keep the relationship cordial.
“There was tremendous pent-up demand for this change,” Montgomery said. “But there’s a lot of work to do.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.