Fracking the lead issue in St. Tammany Parish president race _lowres

Margie Vicknair-Pray

It’s quiet right now at the site where Helis Oil & Gas Co. plans to drill a 13,000-foot-deep fracking oil well in St. Tammany Parish. A judge’s ruling and an order from the parish have stilled the machinery and forced the workers to leave while an appeal winds its way through the courts.

But the well is still generating plenty of heat — not just in courtrooms in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but also in St. Tammany’s looming political races. And in no other race is that as evident as in the race for parish president, where two of incumbent Pat Brister’s three challengers are in the race almost entirely due to their opposition to the proposed well.

But it’s far from clear that the fracking controversy will have an impact on the race’s outcome. In fact, while all three of Brister’s opponents are fueled by strong conviction, it’s unclear if that will be enough to propel them into a runoff or just leave them inhaling exhaust after the Oct. 24 primary.

The stiff challenge they face is evident from the campaign finance reports filed this week. Brister reported spending some $85,486 while raising $32,298. But since she began with $246,123 in her war chest, she still has $192,934 heading into the final month of the campaign.

Her opponents’ reports have far fewer zeroes. One candidate — Kevin Coleman — hadn’t filed a report as of Friday. Reports were due to be filed electronically by Thursday.

“I don’t have anything to report,” Coleman said.

His fellow challengers are in similar boats. Margie Vicknair-Pray reported no contributions or expenditures. Only Karen Champagne, who ran against Brister in 2011, has any money in the bank: $600, the amount that was left after her campaign paid her $450 qualifying fee. The records show that she loaned her campaign $570 and has received one $500 contribution.

If the money all seems to be landing in Brister’s war chest, not everything is stacked against the challengers: In the roiled waters of St. Tammany’s political scene, a strong anti-incumbent sentiment is bubbling. Since the start of 2014, voters have twice rejected candidates who were, rightly or wrongly, associated with establishment politics: Leanne Truehart, a high-ranking member of the Coroner’s Office who ran for the top job, and Brian Trainor, who was second-in-command to Sheriff Jack Strain and who ran for district attorney. Both of those races were won by people who had not won political office before and who trumpeted their outsider status.

In both cases, however, those winners were able to raise sums of money comparable to their establishment opponents, unlike the case in this race.

Channeling the fervor

Challengers to Brister don’t have to rely on “throw the bums out” sentiment alone. In St. Tammany, much of that fervor has coalesced in the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which has made its voice heard on a number of issues including fracking — which it stridently opposes — and term limits, which it vociferously supports.

The group has long been critical of Brister, and though CCST doesn’t officially endorse candidates, it could still deliver a boost to Vicknair-Pray and Coleman, who have both been involved in CCST’s anti-fracking efforts.

Interestingly, the group also is, at least in name, an ally of Brister in court, where the parish and CCST have joined in a lawsuit arguing that the parish’s zoning laws should trump state permitting procedures in oil and gas drilling.

Brister points to the lawsuit as evidence that she does oppose the Helis project and calls her position against the project “clear.” She said this week that if it is left up to her, she will pursue the parish’s appeal of a district court ruling that allowed Helis to temporarily proceed with well construction.

The question the suit asks — whether local zoning laws can be used to restrict oil and gas drilling — is an important one that needs to be settled, she said. Instead of focusing on the court battle, however, Brister said, her administration is focused on getting ready in case the courts rule against the parish.

“What we continue to do is to make sure that we are prepared with every tool we have to protect our environment,” she said. Her staff is preparing ordinances dealing with roads, noise and hours of operation that will be presented to the Parish Council if the courts side with the state and Helis, she said.

Those efforts have not mollified her critics. They point to her initial response in 2014, when she said that state law limited the parish’s options. It didn’t help when the parish’s director of economic development, Don Shea, later referred to some anti-fracking opponents as “loonies” in an email CCST received as part of a public-records request. Brister fired Shea, but the damage was done.

“Fracking is the No. 1 issue that made me run,” Vicknair-Pray said. “No one has been able to get (Brister) to address issues like fracking.”

Coleman had similar thoughts.

“The industry puts out a huge degree of propaganda,” he said. “The impression I got was that Pat Brister bought all of the propaganda.”

Not all of Brister’s challengers fault her for her stance. In fact, Karen Champagne said she thinks Brister is right.

“Fracking laws are pretty clear,” she said. “I think it needs to be addressed at the state level.”

Lost in the shuffle

With fracking occupying so much of the political bandwidth, other issues tend to get lost in the shuffle, something that frustrates Brister, who would rather talk about improving infrastructure or the old Southeast Louisiana Hospital, which the parish bought and hopes to turn into a mental and behavioral health campus.

But some of her challengers’ issues get lost in the shuffle, too, like Champagne’s central focus: economic development.

A self-described “small government” advocate, Champagne objects to the parish’s use of public money to lure businesses.

“A lot of citizens were upset when the federal government did the bailout,” she said. Using local tax dollars to persuade businesses to relocate into St. Tammany amounts to the same thing, she said.

“I disagree with the premise altogether,” Champagne said. She also said the government needs to be reminded of the U.S. Constitution and to respect individual rights.

Vicknair-Pray said her platform has other planks as well, including addressing drainage problems and ending spot zoning.

Coleman is stumping for parishwide term limits and an independent inspector general with a broad investigatory reach. He also said he would push for civil service protections for “rank and file” parish employees.

All of Brister’s challengers described their campaigns as “grass-roots” and said they would use social media and word of mouth to get their message to voters. And each pointed to the parish’s undercurrent of anti-incumbent fervor as a positive sign.

“Everyone says they don’t like career politicians, but you either have to vote for the regular guy or you are going to have the career politicians,” Champagne said.

Brister knows she’s in the driver’s seat, much as she was in 2011, when she took 73 percent of the vote in the primary, sending four challengers packing.

Asked if she expects to be campaigning on Oct. 25, the day after the primary, her reply was succinct.

“No, I don’t. I am going to work as hard as I can to keep that from happening,” Brister said.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.