Longtime St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain is headed for a runoff with Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith, the first time the five-term incumbent has faced a runoff since he first won the office in 1996.
Strain was elected without opposition four years ago. But he drew three challengers as he sought his sixth term in office during a time that has seen St. Tammany voters get increasingly restive. Scott Illing, a retired U.S. Customs agent, got into the race late and finished third. Jennifer Werther, a retired Navy captain who launched her campaign on social media in 2014, brought up the rear.
All three of Strain’s challengers stressed the need for change. Smith said voters were hungry for new leadership. Illing and Werther, both first-time candidates, also touted their outsider status.
Change has become a frequent theme in St. Tammany Parish, which has seen turnover in a number of parishwide offices that had seen no new faces for years. Longtime Assessor Patricia Schwarz Core was pushed into a runoff in a crowded field four years ago, and then lost to Louis Fitzmorris. Last fall, 22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed chose not to run for a sixth term under the pall of a federal investigation that resulted in an indictment in April. Peter Galvan resigned after a long run as coroner in 2013 before pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.
And this fall, Clerk of Court Malise Prieto announced she would not seek a sixth term because of what she termed “ugly politics,” and more incumbents drew challengers in this election cycle than four years ago.
Strain, who far outstripped his competitors in donations and cash on hand, narrowly missed winning the contest outright. He stressed the parish’s low crime rate and decreases in crime during his tenure. At forums, he began and ended his remarks by asking the audience if they felt safe in their homes and ran a campaign that mostly focused on his accomplishments.
The other candidates argued that St. Tammany’s low crime rate is more a function of its population than its policing, and they criticized the sheriff for spending too much money on equipment and not enough on deputy pay.
Smith and Illing both took shots at Strain’s oversight of the parish jail, which drew federal scrutiny, and the controversial, privately-managed work-release program that Strain closed down in 2014 after a rash of escapes.
But in the days leading up to the primary, the two front-runners sharpened their attacks, providing a preview of what’s likely to be a more contentious runoff.
Smith sent out a flier with the heading “The embarrassment has to stop” over pictures of elected officials who have been indicted or convicted for corruption. Strain is shown in two of the pictures, standing next to Galvan in one shot and sitting by Reed in another.
“With so much corruption in our recent past, it makes you wonder who’s next, doesn’t it?” the flier asks. A smiling Smith is shown on the reverse with a promise to establish a public-corruption unit to root out crooked politicians and shady deals.
Strain’s campaign sent out a flier that attacked Smith’s record as police chief, saying that Slidell has the highest crime rates in the parish. Compared to the rest of the parish, Slidell’s murder rate was three times higher, rape was six times higher and robbery was seven times higher.
In the unincorporated parts of the parish where his deputies patrol, Strain touted a 94 percent solve rate for violent crime, and rates of burglary and homicide cut in half amid decreases in every category of crime.
Going into the runoff, Strain continues to hold a commanding lead when it comes to money. As of Oct. 17, he reported having just over $200,000, compared with Smith, who had just under $19,000.
In the final weeks leading up to the primary, Smith spend nearly $74,000 and Strain spent slightly more than $137,000.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.