Third-place finisher backs incumbent Jack Strain in St. Tammany sheriff’s runoff _lowres

Photo provided -- Scott Illing

Scott Illing ended one law enforcement career this week as he launched an effort to begin another: He announced his candidacy for St. Tammany Parish sheriff Friday, the same day as his retirement party from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in New Orleans.

The 54-year-old Republican said friends approached him several months ago to urge him to run — as they’ve done in previous sheriff’s elections. But while he said no before, this time he agreed because he wasn’t enthusiastic about anyone in the race.

Illing said he wants to take the politics out of the office and that Sheriff Jack Strain, who is seeking his fifth term, has been in office too long. Voters want change, he said. “I hear all the time, ‘Thank God somebody else is running,’ ” he said.

Illing had to leave his federal job in order to run for elected office, and he moved his retirement up by several months in order to be a candidate in what is now a four-person race.

Strain ran unopposed in 2011 but has faced opposition in some previous races. This fall, following a series of shake-ups in other parishwide offices, the sheriff’s race is shaping up to be the hottest race on the local ballot.

Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith, who was re-elected to his position without an opponent in 2014, announced his intention to run in January. He is also a Republican.

Jennifer Werther, a retired Navy chief petty officer and secretary of Louisiana’s Libertarian Party, began her campaign on social media months before Smith’s announcement.

Illing is a latecomer to the race, but he said he is not troubled by that, pointing to Warren Montgomery, who was the last of four candidates to announce for 22nd Judicial District Attorney last fall and ended up winning. Like Montgomery, Illing has media adviser Bernie Cyrus working on his campaign.

But time isn’t the only factor in the contest — money matters, too. Strain is the only candidate who filed a campaign finance report 90 days before the primary. The sheriff had nearly $350,000 in his account for the period that ended July 16. That included more than $224,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. He spent nearly $87,000 during the same period.

Neither Smith nor Werther filed reports.

James Hartman, Smith’s spokesman, said state law requires 90-day reports only in races where the constituency is greater than 250,000 people.

“We will release Chief’s Smith’s fundraising successes at the appropriate time and in accordance with ethics laws,” Hartman said, adding that Smith’s fundraising has been going “very, very well.”

Illing said he is not a politician and that if he were able to raise half a million dollars, he would not spend it on the race because “that’s buying the office.” He said he is confident he can raise enough money “to get our word out.”

A lifelong resident of St. Tammany Parish, Illing graduated from St. Paul’s in Covington and then attended LSU, interrupting his college career to attend the State Police Academy. He ultimately graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University with a degree in criminology.

He and his wife, Susan, have three grown children.

This story was altered on Aug. 1 to correct the requirements for filing 90-day campaign finance reports from a dollar figure to a population figure.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.