The race for Slidell’s City Council District E seat pits incumbent Sam Caruso against political newcomer Pete O’Connell, but when it comes to winning the May 3 runoff, both the seasoned candidate and the neophyte are saying the same thing: It will come down to voter turnout.
The District E race is the only council runoff on the ballot. Voters returned the Slidell mayor, police chief and two district council members to office without opposition and decided six other council seats in the April 5 primary.
Caruso, a former Slidell mayor who is seeking his second term as a councilman, captured 48 percent of the vote in the primary. Four years ago, Caruso was elected without opposition after an eight-year hiatus from political office.
O’Connell, a retired small-business owner who campaigned on themes of tighter term limits and the need to replace officials who have “been there way too long,’’ got 32 percent of the vote. Optometrist Keith Sehon came in third with 21 percent.
Turnout in the District E primary was 27.9 percent. That was higher than in the city as a whole, where the at-large council race drew 26 percent, and higher than the parishwide turnout for the St. Tammany Parish coroner’s race, which drew 13.8 percent. The coroner’s runoff also is on the May 3 ballot. However, two of District E’s seven precincts saw no votes cast in the primary. Of the remaining five, Caruso won three and O’Connell two.
Caruso has been endorsed by the Alliance for Good Government, the St. Tammany Republican Executive Committee and The Times-Picayune/nola.com.
O’Connell does not have any endorsements. His campaign consultant, James Hartman, described him as a “true independent.’’
Both candidates are working to get their supporters out for the runoff. O’Connell, who won in his home base, Breckenridge subdivision, said he’s been working on getting supporters to urge their friends to go to the polls. Caruso’s campaign will send out some new mailers aimed at getting people to the polls, he said.
Both candidates are relying heavily on door-to-door campaigning.
O’Connell has touted his experience working for the U.S. Maritime Administration. But that résumé point is a source of baggage for the candidate, who pleaded guilty in December 2000 to receiving unauthorized compensation on a government contract.
According to the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, O’Connell accepted $3,250 in consulting fees from BGI Enterprises Inc. on a Coast Guard contract to remove abandoned barges from intracoastal waterways. He was given one year of probation in U.S. District Court in Beaumont, Texas, and required to pay a $2,500 fine, the IG’s Office said.
O’Connell confirmed the guilty plea but said he was not fired and was not required to pay restitution. He worked for the agency for another six years, he said.
Caruso said the guilty plea was not discovered by anyone in his campaign but was brought to his attention by others.
“This is anything but irrelevant. It goes to the heart of what public trust is all about,’’ Caruso said. “Someone asks you to let him be your councilman, and he’s got this in his background.’’
The candidates have spent the weeks between the primary and the runoff laying out their platforms.
If elected, O’Connell says, he will work to diversify the city’s economy by enticing small manufacturers and light industry to the city or to Slidell’s outskirts. While Slidell has made some strides toward being business-friendly, he says, more needs to be done. He’s also emphasizing the need to improve drainage, and he pledges to work with St. Tammany Parish on the W-14 and W-15 canals and the infrastructure that leads to them. He wants to restore funding to the Slidell Police Department.
Caruso says his prime objectives are to continue efforts to keep the city fiscally intact and to improve pay for city employees who have been affected by tight budgets. The plight of city workers, who have gone years without a raise and who are now paying the full cost of their retirement, weighs most heavily on city officials, Caruso says, but it also affects residents when city departments see increased absenteeism. Caruso says he’ll also work on quality-of-life projects to enhance the city.
Editor’s note: This story was altered on April 29 to reflect that candidate Pete O’Connell worked for the Maritime Administration for six years after he pleaded guilty to receiving unauthorized compensation on a government contract, not nine years as he initially told The New Orleans Advocate.