When five candidates qualified last week to replace Walter Reed as district attorney of St. Tammany and Washington parishes, what looked to be an intriguing race turned into a potentially wild one.
Two of those candidates didn’t make their intentions known until the last minute, and that fact — on top of the fact that there hasn’t been a competitive race for the job since the mid-1980s — turned what seemed to be a straightforward, if intense, race into one clouded with uncertainty.
The picture could start to clear a little this week with two candidate forums, the first hosted by the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany and the second by the St. Tammany West Chamber. The former is open to the public; attendance at the latter requires purchase of a ticket.
As of Monday afternoon, four of the five candidates — Alan Black, Roy Burns, Warren Montgomery and Brian Trainor — had agreed to participate in both. The fifth — Robert Rees — had not confirmed his attendance at either, though he has been invited to both, organizers said.
The Concerned Citizens forum, set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the John Davis Center in Lacombe, could be a large affair. A similar forum, held earlier this year for candidates for coroner, drew several hundred interested residents. Tuesday’s forum could be even bigger, organizer Rick Franzo said.
“It’s been so long that we have had one district attorney in this parish,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Franzo cited issues of transparency and accountability — elements widely perceived as lacking during Reed’s tenure — as key themes he expects to emerge in the forum.
“There has to be a change in the mentality in that position,” he said.
Despite not running, Reed, who was first elected in 1984, is likely to be the biggest issue in the race. He has come under fire from a recent storm of media coverage of his campaign spending, his business dealings, federal investigations and how he has overseen the District Attorney’s Office.
Those reports, and Reed’s sometimes defiant responses to them, eventually led to his announcement in July that he would not seek a sixth term. That announcement paved the way for the large field.
So far, Burns and Montgomery have tried to grab the mantle of an outsider, and Black on Monday also tried to distance himself from Reed.
“I am not connected to anyone. I am not tied to anyone,” Black said. He acknowledged that he emceed a Reed fundraiser “years ago” but said that was before he knew how Reed was running the office.
“I just supported the district attorney that we thought was doing an outstanding job for all those years until now,” he said.
Trainor — who worked in Reed’s office for nearly eight years and is the chief deputy to St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain — did not return a message.
The format of Tuesday’s forum could lead to some moments of confrontation. After an opening question-and-answer session, with questions prepared by Concerned Citizens, the candidates will be allowed to submit questions that will be asked of another candidate. After that, the last 30 minutes of the planned two-hour event are reserved for questions from the audience, Franzo said.
The late entry of two candidates — Montgomery announced just last week and Rees qualified minutes before the deadline — could impact what until last week looked like a solid three-person race.
However, Black and Burns downplayed the late entrants, saying their campaigns would not be affected at all.
Rees did not return two messages left at his office, but Montgomery said Monday he is “all in, pedal to the metal, full speed ahead” and already has had signs printed and is putting them up. Whether he is able to make up ground on the three frontrunners remains to be seen.
Montgomery may have to use some of his own funds to jump-start his campaign. In forms filed earlier this month, Trainor said he had raised more than $100,000, and Burns said he had given his campaign $200,000. Montgomery has said he expects the race could cost $500,000.
In a 2008 run for district judge — one he lost to Richard Swartz — Montgomery loaned his campaign more than $100,000.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.