Reform has been a familiar campaign theme this year in St. Tammany Parish, where voters saw their longtime coroner packed off to federal prison and are now weighing which candidate should succeed 30-year incumbent Walter Reed, who chose not to seek another term amid revelations that a federal grand jury and the legislative auditor were scrutinizing the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
But street crime, not political corruption, has dominated the discussion in recent weeks as Brian Trainor, a former assistant district attorney and more recently a high-ranking member of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, and Warren Montgomery, a former federal prosecutor whose practice includes criminal defense work, meet in what has a become a rancorous runoff for the DA’s seat.
The 22nd Judicial District comprises St. Tammany and Washington parishes.
If Reed was the central figure in the primary, the longest shadow in the runoff is being cast by another political heavyweight, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain, who has been a vocal supporter of Trainor.
Strain has appeared in a television commercial for his second in command, and he sent out a letter to his employees before the Nov. 4 primary urging each of them to contact 15 friends who otherwise might not vote for Trainor.
Montgomery is striving to portray his opponent as too cozy with the sheriff — something he and his supporters argue is unhealthy for the criminal justice system and the district attorney’s independence. That’s a charge that others in the field made about Trainor before the primary, when, as the perceived front-runner, he was the target of most of the negative jabs.
Strain said this week that his support for Trainor stemmed from the conviction that they are of “like mind” when it comes to combating crime. He brushed off questions about whether Trainor — on unpaid leave during the campaign from his job as Strain’s chief deputy — could be independent enough to do the job.
For his part, Trainor is painting Montgomery as too cozy with criminals, a refrain he has sounded relentlessly, beginning with a speech on election night that launched the attack on his runoff opponent even as he laid claim to being the candidate who had run a positive campaign.
“Our opponent, he’s going to keep up his negative attack ads, and do you know why he’s going to do it? Because his record is about attacking the police, attacking victims and attacking witnesses, and, my friends, that is not what a district attorney does,’’ Trainor told a crowd of cheering supporters. “We need a district attorney who puts the families’ safety first, not the rights of criminals who break our laws.’’
Specter of crime
That night, Trainor announced he also had the support of Washington Parish Sheriff Randy Seal, and the campaign has been collecting endorsements from other law enforcement and political officials, including Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith and Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan, the city’s former police chief.
Trainor already had raised the specter of crime from the south shore spreading to the north shore and touted himself as Mr. Law Enforcement, the man who could stop it. In the runoff, he’s contrasted that background with that of Montgomery, issuing a mailer that shows his opponent’s picture next to the mug shots of two Hispanic defendants with the words “illegal’’ stamped across their faces in red.
“Illegals who broke our laws. Sex crimes against kids. Kilos of drugs. Warren Montgomery defended them all,’’ the flier said.
“You can’t trust him to keep us safe,” the website blares in black letters.
Montgomery, who had ratcheted up political attacks against Trainor in the primary, was gaining momentum as the Nov. 4 election approached, and he finished in second place, knocking out Alan Black and Roy Burns, who like Montgomery had run an aggressive campaign as the political outsider.
The day after the primary, Montgomery picked up the endorsement of last-place finisher Burns.
Black’s later decision to back Trainor probably lost some of its wallop when Montgomery unveiled a rambling phone message he had received before the primary from the third-place finisher, assuring him of Black’s support if Montgomery made the runoff and asking for his backing if Black was in the runoff. In the message, Black talked about the machine he said they were up against and stressed the importance of beating “the Trainor kid.’’
Montgomery’s slogan, “qualifications not connections,” further hammered the idea that Trainor is the establishment heir to Reed and overly beholden to the sheriff.
But Montgomery, who likes to tout his toughness as a federal prosecutor, has found himself on the defensive, fending off attacks on his private practice.
In addition, after some in the law enforcement community, including Strain, expressed outrage about a parody video created by Montgomery supporters that featured Montgomery as a crusading force for justice and Trainor as the “dark knight’’ and minion of the “Sheriff of Rottingham,” Montgomery pulled the video from YouTube. Strain sent out a heated letter to the troops, accusing Montgomery of showing contempt for law enforcement — giving the Trainor camp more ammunition for its claim that Montgomery is not the right man for DA.
That pattern has continued in the runoff.
A few days after the “InvestigateWarren” website was launched, Montgomery responded in kind with takedownthemachine.com, rebutting the criticisms leveled by Trainor and accusing him of “trashy’’ politics.
“Trainor’s decision to attack an attorney who is defending the constitutional rights of defendants in criminal matters is clear evidence that he will ignore the constitutional right of anyone charged with a crime should he be elected district attorney,’’ the website said. It quoted Montgomery as saying, “I will work with the sheriff, but I won’t work for the sheriff.’’
Trainor’s attacks on Montgomery also have raised the hackles of other defense attorneys, notably touching off a war on the Facebook page of attorney Buddy Spell.
“One campaign is based on fear,’’ Spell said last week. “The Sheriff’s Office and its campaign seem to show a substantial disdain for constitutional rights and a misreading of the 6th Amendment and due process.’’
Spell said Trainor’s campaign fliers have been sent to every potential juror in the parish, delivering the message that “defense attorneys are bad guys and anyone charged with a crime is guilty. I’m very disturbed by that. … My daughter, now 16 years old, has to look at this stuff.’’
But he plans to save them and use them in court, whether Trainor is district attorney or chief deputy, Spell said.
“They’ve done themselves a disservice,’’ he said. “They’re not looking past the election. It’s win at all costs, and they don’t mind damaging the system to get there.”
Getting the vote out
With turnout expected to be lower in the runoff than in the primary, political observers say the election will hinge on who can get his voters out. For Trainor, that means a replay of Nov. 4, when his considerable “ground game” operation helped make him the front-runner.
Montgomery, on the other hand, is fond of pointing out that 62 percent of primary voters didn’t vote for Trainor, indicating — in his view — that they were looking for a fresh face, not the political establishment’s chosen candidate.
In any event, Trainor is taking nothing for granted, running a far more bare-knuckled fight this round and continuing an aggressive and well-mobilized ground game.
He doesn’t rest on what happened on Nov. 4, he says, but assumes both candidates are back to zero for the runoff, and he has been working to introduce himself to voters, with door-to-door canvassing and candidate meet-and-greets on a nightly basis.?And he’s sticking with the Mr. Law Enforcement strategy. The district attorney’s job, he said, “is to seek justice, hold the guilty accountable and be a voice for victims. You cannot do that without a partnership with law enforcement.’’
Montgomery, for his part, is doing all he can to reinforce the image of Trainor as the establishment candidate too closely connected to the political system in St. Tammany. He has vowed to continue working hard to get his name before the voters through direct mail, media and door-to-door canvassing.
“We have to free ourselves from the corrupt politics of the machine,” he said.
Early voting in the race will continue through Saturday, though it is closed Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving.