Incumbent St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom is fiercely defending her record and highlighting both her relative youth and her administrative experience as she fights to fend off wealthy trial lawyer Danny Becnel Jr. and hold onto her job in Saturday’s runoff.
Becnel, 71, and Robottom, 55, both Democrats from LaPlace, were separated by 140 votes in the six-person Oct. 24 primary.
The two other top vote-getters, Charles Julian and Ken St. Amant, who together received 4,760 votes, have endorsed Becnel in the runoff, in part saying he has the influence needed to improve the parish’s economy.
Robottom frames the race as “good against evil, right against wrong and moving forward against going backwards.” She points to Becnel’s age and claims he represents “those who historically have been in power.”
Becnel “has an older way of thinking and is not progressive,” she said. “He has threatened and sued and bullied his way around this parish.”
Robottom claims Becnel’s career as a class-action attorney shows “he is someone who has taken all his life, while I am someone who always has given to my community.”
Robottom was the first woman and first African-American to be elected St. John president when she won a special election in 2010 to replace Bill Hubbard. Hubbard had resigned in 2009, less than two years after taking office, after pleading guilty to accepting bribes from parish contractors. That made Robottom the parish’s third president in four years.
Becnel says his legal career has “taught me to fight for the people of this parish.”
He claims Robottom has given undeserving people jobs, and he has questioned her campaign fundraising and spending. He says, “The reason I ran is because of the disaster the parish is in.”
Becnel says his own personal wealth — “I won the first million-dollar verdict in the United States the first year out of law school” — provides him with more independence. He has not taken any campaign donations and says he would donate his parish president’s salary to nonprofit agencies.
Like many of the five other challengers who signed up for the Oct. 24 primary, Becnel criticizes Robottom for not calling a mandatory evacuation before Hurricane Isaac in 2012. He also blames her administration for water-quality issues that have dogged the parish during her presidency.
Robottom said that state water quality standards have increased during her tenure and that the parish’s water system is in much better shape now than ever before. As for Isaac, she says weather forecasts had predicted it would be less severe than it turned out, but when flooding did ensue, “our team rescued 6,000 people, and I question whether anyone could have done better.”
Becnel says he would not run for a second term in office if elected, because “if I cannot clean the parish up by then, God help me.” He says he can improve the parish’s drainage system and make larger strides in completing federal levee protection.
Robottom, meanwhile, says she wants one more term to finish the work she has begun.
“No, we are not where we need to be, but there is a lot we have done, and more to do,” she said. “For many, many years, things went unaddressed, but now we are using parish dollars to leverage federal grants, and we have accomplished so much without any increases in taxes, without going to the people for a penny.”