It is a battle of newcomers versus old hands in races for two New Orleans-based state House seats.
The relatively experienced politicos are Rep. Joseph Bouie, a former Southern University at New Orleans chancellor who is defending his 97th District seat, and Jimmy Harris, an aide in U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond’s office who is after the 99th District seat.
Among the fresh faces, MissKeith Prevost is running against Bouie, and her sister, Markeita Prevost, is squaring off against Harris in a three-way contest that includes the Rev. Ray Crawford, a pastor of 19 years.
All the candidates are Democrats.
As might be expected, Bouie and Harris depict themselves as the steady hands, while the Prevost sisters and Crawford disparage their opponents’ links to the local political elite.
Voters have until Oct. 24 to decide among them in races where a looming state budget deficit, calls for returning state-authorized schools to parish control and the need for resources in the city’s most devastated areas all have come up as issues.
The 97th District encompasses Gentilly, Pontchartrain Park and parts of the Lakefront, Bayou St. John and Mid-City. The 99th District includes the Upper and Lower 9th Ward and part of New Orleans East.
Though it’s their first political foray, 20-year-old MissKeith Prevost said she and her 24-year-old sister have been impatient for some time to get involved in politics. “My sister and I have always had a passion for wanting to help,” she said.
Their campaign manager and father, Keith Prevost, said the two women would place reducing poverty and improving education among their top priorities.
He also said they would push to “get rid of TOPS, because TOPS is costing the state $125 million a year, and it’s disproportionately distributed.”
TOPS, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which pays for up to four years of college for eligible students, actually cost the state $250 million this year. Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed lawmakers’ attempt to rein in the program this summer.
Asked why voters should take a chance on two novices, the candidates’ mother, Marcy Prevost, said experience is irrelevant. “They are young, they are hungry, they want it,” she said.
That argument does not cut it for Bouie, the 68-year-old incumbent. He said his life experience matters. “The knowledge and skills that I bring separates me from her,” he said.
Bouie was elected to the 97th District seat after Jared Brossett left the Legislature for the New Orleans City Council in 2014. Since then, Bouie, a lifetime educator, has sponsored legislation to unify the city’s fragmented education system under the Orleans Parish School Board and stop school construction on contaminated sites. Though neither measure passed, he said he will revive the bills if re-elected.
“The School Board has the best bond rating, one of the best in the state, and the best-run schools. Now, they have a new superintendent,” Bouie said.
His other bill, in reaction to the state-run Recovery School District’s decision to rehab a Central City high school built atop an old city dump, was roadblocked after colleagues said it would apply too broadly, he said.
Bouie also wants to expand a 2013 fair wages law for women, which is now limited to state employees. He said vendors under state contract also should have to comply.
“The private domain is a bit different,” he said. “But I believe that if we are going to spend public dollars on contracts, we should ensure that the women under those contracts have equal pay.”
In 2012, Louisiana women earned 67 cents for every dollar men earned, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Harris, one of the 99th District hopefuls, also cited his know-how and experience. “The one thing we have to make sure that we have here in District 99 is a person that can hit the ground running,” he said.
Harris’ political career has been extensive, albeit mostly behind the scenes: He has worked for two New Orleans mayors, two state attorneys general and Richmond, during the latter’s tenures in both the state House and Congress.
Harris leads his opponents in both endorsements and cash, with $25,056 in campaign contributions as of Sept. 14.
If elected, he said, he will work to attract businesses to the only partially redeveloped New Orleans East and 9th Ward. If those areas receive more tax increment financing — a device that uses public tax dollars to subsidize developers’ costs — businesses “will see we have skin in the game,” he said.
Crawford, the pastor, scoffed at Harris’ political pedigree and dismissed him as little more than Richmond’s puppet.
“I’m running against the political machine. The amazing thing about it is they tried to stop me, but they didn’t win,” Crawford said. Though a lawsuit was filed charging that Crawford did not file his state taxes in 2012, an appeals court said Tuesday that Crawford can remain on the ballot.
Crawford, 57, also said he’s no novice. Though he has never held public office, he ran for a state Senate seat in 2003 against Ann Duplessis.
If elected, Crawford said, he would first push to rehabilitate homes, not businesses. “Let’s face it,” he said. “If you don’t have anyone living in that area, how can you work to get (businesses) back in that area?”
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.