Natalie Robottom, who faces a runoff election Saturday as she tries to hold onto her job as St. John the Baptist Parish president, accused her challenger of racism on Friday, citing a voice message that he left with one of her supporters.
In the recording, St. John trial lawyer Danny Becnel, who polled just ahead of Robottom in last month’s primary, says white turnout in the election appears to be stronger than expected. He adds, “And we’re taking our parish back.”
Becnel, who is white, did not dispute the recording’s authenticity, but he said Robottom was misconstruing what he said on the call. He said the reference to “taking back” the parish was aimed at New Orleans political players who have gotten involved in the race, not African-Americans.
Robottom, who is African-American, released a statement calling Becnel’s remarks baldly racist.
“Mr. Becnel has clearly stated how he truly feels about having an African-American as parish president or in any office in our parish,” said Robottom, who, like Becnel, is a Democrat. “It is disgraceful that he believes the color of a person’s skin makes a difference in their ability to lead our parish.”
On the eve of a close race in a majority-black parish, Becnel was at pains to illustrate his ties to African-American leaders, pointing out his support for Sheriff Mike Tregre as well as other St. John officials and mentioning that his son serves as an advance man for President Barack Obama’s administration.
An active political donor, he also provided birthday cards he received from Obama, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, insisting that none of those men would be communicating with a racist.
“What this is about,” Becnel said, “is I don’t want New Orleans politicians coming in and taking over our parish.”
Becnel said his voice message was left with Norma Jane Sabiston, the chief of staff for former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. He said he has known Sabiston for years — even letting her family vacation at his luxury condo in Orange Beach, Alabama — and was hurt when he saw that she made a $500 donation to Robottom’s campaign.
Becnel said he doesn’t remember exactly when he left the voice message for Sabiston, who didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But it apparently came shortly after Becnel hosted an event at Petra’s Restaurant in LaPlace on Nov. 12.
“Norma Jane, Danny — I just thought I’d give you some numbers,” Becnel says on the call. “Yesterday, 842 people voted absentee — 414 white, 421 black; 349 male, 493 female.”
Becnel then says that of the 140 women who attended his event, about 55 percent were white and 45 percent were black.
“And everybody is voting for me,” he continues. “Y’all are going to be in such shock when these election returns come in because white people are outvoting black people — unbelievable. And we’re taking our parish back. So keep giving money to Ms. Robottom — you and all the Landrieu crew — and don’t come back to St. John.”
Robottom said her campaign didn’t receive a recording of the voice message until late Thursday, hours after Becnel sent out a campaign mailer alleging that “New Orleans political operatives” had come to St. John with their “dirty old tricks.”
Pictured on the mailer was U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat who endorsed Robottom and whose district includes St. John. Others from the New Orleans political scene included Sabiston; state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson; criminal defense attorney Ike Spears; and Laverne Saulny, a former staffer for Landrieu and an employee of Robottom’s administration.
All are black except for Sabiston.
Robottom denied that any of them have been deeply involved in her campaign.
She said she released Becnel’s voice message because she considered it an attack on every African-American in the parish.
She said the claim that he was actually referring to city political players was hard to believe, given that his own campaign is being managed by New Orleans-based consultant Billy Schultz.
“I urge voters to reject him and his racist thinking,” Robottom said.
Becnel insisted that Robottom — whom he supported when she was first elected to her office in 2010 — was twisting his words to distract voters from her failings as parish president.
Even before the voice message came to light, the race had been contentious. Becnel has criticized Robottom for not ordering a mandatory evacuation of the parish during Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
He also repeatedly has blamed her for the brain-eating amoeba found in the St. John water system last year, pointing to the guilty pleas of two former parish workers who failed to properly test chlorine levels.
Robottom has defended her tenure, saying forecasters never predicted that Isaac would hit the parish as hard as it did and claiming the parish water supply is in better shape than ever, thanks to recent improvements.
Becnel finished the six-way Oct. 24 primary with 140 more votes than Robottom. The next two top vote-getters in the primary have endorsed Becnel.