As the two candidates for St. Tammany Parish sheriff head into the final week of campaigning for Saturday’s runoff, they paint vastly different pictures of the electorate’s mood. Challenger Randy Smith said he sees voters as thirsting for new leadership; incumbent Jack Strain said constituents frequently tell him, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’’
Which sentiment will prevail may hinge on turnout.
In the Oct. 24 primary, Smith, who is serving his second term as Slidell police chief, was strong in eastern St. Tammany Parish, where there’s one Parish Council runoff on the ballot. Strain captured 45 percent of the vote to Smith’s 37 percent and has since picked up the support of third-place finisher Scott Illing. Like Strain, Illing is from western St. Tammany, and he drew 13 percent in the primary.
The sheriff’s race has been the marquee election in St. Tammany this fall in part because Strain, who had not faced a challenger in a dozen years, drew three opponents in his quest for a sixth term.
The longtime sheriff, who began the race with vastly more money in his campaign coffers than his opponents, has mainly hewed to a careful script that stresses St. Tammany’s low crime rate and the agency’s track record under his leadership. He touts, among other achievements, a 94 percent “solve” rate for violent crimes, decreases in crime statistics and clean audits for his office.
Smith, who is term-limited as Slidell’s top cop, has been trying to tap into voter disaffection with public corruption and long-term incumbency.
Strain points to his record and his 19 years of experience as reasons voters should give him another term.
“With crime skyrocketing on the south shore, we cannot risk changing who is in charge of our Sheriff’s Office,’’ a Strain mailer says. “The threat of crime is real, and no one has more experience keeping us safe than Sheriff Jack Strain.’’
But Strain also has taken some shots at his opponent. A mailer that Strain called a “contrast piece’’ compared Slidell’s crime rate unfavorably against that of unincorporated St. Tammany Parish, saying Slidell’s crime rate is the highest in the parish, despite having a higher per capita budget for its police agency.
“The record screams loudly which is the more successful agency, and I think that is a contrast that our residents have to look at,’’ Strain said in an interview Thursday.
Another Strain mailer ties Smith to imprisoned former Coroner Peter Galvan, who had a contract to provide medical services to Slidell jail inmates. “Chief of Police Randy Smith paid ex-Coroner Peter Galvan for three years of medical services Galvan never provided ... and Smith knew it all along,’’ the flier says.
Smith disputes those claims, saying Slidell’s crime rate is at a 10-year low and boasting that in 2013, when there were five homicides in the city, all were solved within 48 hours.
The contract with Galvan — which figured in the federal case that landed the coroner in prison — was negotiated by former Mayor Ben Morris, not him, Smith said. Smith said he was the one who raised questions about whether the Police Department was getting what it paid for.
Smith has adopted a more aggressive tone in the runoff, with a commercial that features a single speaker looking into the camera speaking directly to Strain. The commercial chides Strain for claiming the parish is safe while “politicians like you keep getting arrested for stealing money from taxpayers.’’
“If you can’t trust the guys at the top, it’s not really safe,’’ the speaker says.
Another spot brings up the work-release program run by Strain’s campaign treasurer — a program Strain closed down in 2014 after a rash of escapes. “People died, Jack, people died,’’ the ad says, referring to inmates who died of drug overdoses.
Strain said St. Tammany voters are concerned about cases where elected officials have committed crimes and the bad image they give the parish.
“It’s certainly being driven home by our opponent,’’ he said. But those actions aren’t connected to how long someone has served in office, he said, and any agency with the authority to look at the Sheriff’s Office has done so without finding any problems. He said even his opponents have acknowledged the success of his office.
With a 19-year track record, Strain said, his office has arrested a lot of people and terminated numerous deputies, all of which creates loud negative voices.
“We have done everything our residents ask us to do: first and foremost, keeping the parish safe and running a transparent and good office,” he said.
Smith said his platform hasn’t changed from the primary to the runoff: He’s running on the need for new leadership and a new direction.
He said he has reached out to Strain’s deputies to assure them he is not planning massive layoffs if elected.
If elected, Smith said, he plans to create a public corruption unit that would work with state and federal agencies to root out wrongdoing. He would also create a unit to deal with suicide and other mental health crises.
His first action upon taking office, he said, would be to ask the state legislative auditor to conduct a forensic audit of the Sheriff’s Office to account for all tax dollars and ensure that any wasteful spending is brought to light.
The effect Illing’s endorsement of Strain will have on the race is unclear. Smith’s campaign said some Illing supporters have held a fundraiser for him. Strain said he is proud to have Illing’s support and praised some of his ideas for reforms, particularly concerning how officers interact with the public. That’s an issue law enforcement agencies face nationally, but it might be time to retool training and education for officers and the public, Strain said.
Going into the runoff, Strain has heavily outspent Smith. Strain began the Oct. 5 through Nov. 1 reporting period with about $204,000 on hand and spent about as much while raising just over $38,000.
Smith spent about $31,000 during the same period, but he raised nearly $81,000 and finished the reporting period with more in his coffers, $62,000, compared with Strain’s $34,000.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.