Leanne Truehart and Charles Preston spent much of the run-up to the April 5 primary for St. Tammany Parish coroner sounding similar themes of transparency and accountability.
Since finishing first and second in the four-candidate field, they have been busy telling voters how they are different while also sharpening their attacks on each other.
The parishwide runoff is Saturday.
The two are running to replace Peter Galvan, the former coroner who in October pleaded guilty in federal court to a single count of conspiring to steal public money by taking sick and vacation pay to which he was not entitled and making personal purchases with Coroner’s Office funds.
In the year before his plea, Galvan had been the subject of a torrent of media reports and investigations that precipitated his eventual resignation.
Partly as a result, the race to succeed him has gained a higher profile than coroner’s elections normally attain.
In the primary, Truehart, long viewed as the front-runner, won 30 percent of the nearly 22,000 votes cast. Preston took 27 percent, just 2 percent more than Adrian Talbot. Robert Muller placed fourth.
Both runoff candidates point to their experience as a reason they should be elected, but it is experience of different kinds that they tout.
Truehart, 45, who has worked as mental health director for the Coroner’s Office for two years — as an independent contractor, not a regular employee — said her time in the office and her familiarity with the criminal justice system is key.
As mental health director, she said, she has worked directly with law enforcement agencies and the courts. “I have been involved with their problem-solving court, sobriety court, drug court, family court,” she said. She also cites her role on the boards of the North Shore Court Foundation and National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Truehart has taken some shots at Preston, who has cited his experience owning an urgent care clinic in Slidell as a major qualification. Her experience “is far superior to someone who was just working to make themselves wealthy,” she said.
Preston, 57, also has said that because he is retired, he can devote full time to the coroner’s job — a comment on which Truehart has pounced.
“To be an effective physician, you need to hone your craft; you need to stay on the cutting edge,” she said. “Do you really want somebody to lead who is not practicing medicine?”
Preston in turn has fired some shots at Truehart, saying she is a good psychiatrist but lacks the administrative experience to run a major public office.
He also claims that in her two years as mental health director, the metrics for mental health in St. Tammany Parish have not improved. While Truehart has been “reactive,” he has said, his approach to addressing mental illness in St. Tammany would be more educational and proactive if he is elected.
“Virtually all of her experience comes back to mental health,” Preston said. “It’s a significant part, but it’s not the only” thing the Coroner’s Office does.
While the office is tasked with deciding whether people should be involuntarily committed to mental institutions, Preston has said, the coroner’s main role is investigating and classifying deaths — something he says Truehart has had little experience with.
Besides stressing different parts of the job and their differing experiences, the two runoff candidates have employed contrasting campaign strategies.
Truehart announced early as a candidate and has raised far more money than Preston, some of it coming from other parish political heavyweights, such as President Pat Brister.
Preston jumped into the race late. Even though he has raised far less than Truehart — a fundraiser Wednesday netted about $4,000, with more expected to come in, he said — he has vowed his campaign will not lose the money race. To that end, he has loaned the campaign more than $100,000, he said.
“I have had one very generous donor: me,” Preston said with a laugh.
How the two have used their money also has differed.
Truehart has focused on building an army of volunteers, who are going door-to-door, writing postcards and working the phones, she said. She has had little presence on TV or radio.
Preston, who doesn’t have a large volunteer base like Truehart’s, released a handful of TV advertisements for the primary and has produced four more for the runoff. They are running on both cable and broadcast channels, attempting to counteract Truehart’s “ground game.”
Truehart has garnered endorsements from the parish’s Republican Executive Committee, the Alliance for Good Government and one of her primary opponents, Talbot. Preston has gotten the endorsements of Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith and nola.com/The Times-Picayune.
Both candidates have stressed the importance of get-out-the-vote efforts because turnout Saturday could be low. Besides the coroner’s race, the only other items on the ballot in St. Tammany are one Slidell City Council runoff and a handful of fire district and recreation district millage elections.
As expected, Truehart did well on April 5 in Mandeville, Covington and Madisonville — her western St. Tammany base — according to an analysis by UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak. Preston ran strongest in Slidell, where he lives and has his clinic.
The candidates will get a final chance to face off in person when the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany Parish organization hosts a forum Monday night at the John Davis Center in Lacombe.