First-term St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom is angling for another four years at the helm, but she’ll have to fend off five spirited challengers in the Oct. 24 primary, some of whom are sharply critical of her response to 2012’s Hurricane Isaac. In addition, questions about water quality have dogged the parish during her tenure.
Robottom, 55, a Democrat from LaPlace, has held the office since winning a special election in 2010 to replace Bill Hubbard, who 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.
In answering her critics, Robottom says she has managed unforeseen disasters well, and that she will bring a number of lessons learned into her second term.
“It’s not an easy job,” she said. “And it’s very important that we have qualified individuals in office with experience and a proven record of accomplishment.”
In addition to Robottom, the field includes Danny Becnel Jr. and DeLisa Brown, both Democrats from LaPlace; Democrats Charles Julien, of Reserve, and Terry Gene Lewis Sr., of Mount Airy; and Kent St. Amant, of LaPlace, the lone Republican in the race.
The crowded field seems to make a Nov. 21 runoff between the top two primary finishers likely.
Becnel, 71, is a well-known and wealthy trial lawyer. He touts his wealth as giving him independence and said his lifetime of experience winning class-action suits against big industry is a badge of honor that shows he will fight for the public and against corruption.
“I’ve handled every case that starts with a ‘b’ for billions,” he said with typical braggadocio.
When he looks at the current administration, he said, “I see negligence,” adding: “And so I’m running to represent the people.”
If elected, Becnel said, he will not take a salary or seek a second term in office. Likewise, he said he will forgo an expense account, a parish vehicle and parish-provided health insurance, noting that because of his age, he is eligible for Medicare.
“Before I leave office, I will reduce the salary of the parish president so it is not $150,000 and does not include a car and an expense account,” he said.
He said Robottom should have declared a mandatory evacuation for Isaac, and that not doing so put residents in danger while letting the parish government’s insurance company off the hook for damages.
He also blames parish leadership for the brain-eating amoeba found in the St. John water system last year, citing two now-former parish workers’ guilty pleas for their failure to properly test chlorine levels.
He also has criticized Robottom for not pushing to file a lawsuit against BP on the parish’s behalf. He said that failure cost the parish several million dollars.
“I’m running for parish president for love of this parish and because the people have been screwed,” he said. “I just think I need to do something to save the parish.”
Brown, 31, said her youth and separation from politics make her a unique candidate. Exactly 40 years Becnel’s junior, she said she has “energy, and the power and ability to learn.”
“This job takes an ability to just be able to get up and go when it is time,” she said. “And I don’t have any political ties, so I am able to understand and be transparent with the people, because I am the people. We need something fresh. We need something new.”
A minister in LaPlace, she said her family’s church — Faith Healing and Deliverance Ministries — “always has been the backbone of the community.”
“We were always the first family that people would come to for help,” she said. “I believe that the duty of the parish president is to serve the people of the parish, and I have been in public service all my life.”
As a small-business owner — she said she owns a day care center, a Christian academy, a catering business and a job-placement resource center — she said she has seen why some businesses leave the parish or are failing.
“We need to support businesses here, and if you haven’t, like me, experienced what it’s like to fight to have a business stay open, or fight for your voice to be heard, then you don’t fully understand that struggle and can’t properly address it,” she said.
She said the parish needs more recreational opportunities, and she promises a greater focus on water quality and testing.
“I think our government has done a great job, but it has done all that it is capable of doing,” she said. “I just want to put the government back into the hands of the people.”
Julien, 52, a former parish councilman, said he is “the blue-collar candidate” who can provide the parish with a better future because he understands the virtues of rehabilitation and second chances.
An eighth-grade English teacher in St. John, Julien said he sees how easily children can make bad decisions and why “they have to be given an opportunity to right their path.”
“We have to be life-changers because everyone will make mistakes,” he said.
In 1990, Julien pleaded guilty to a felony — possession of a controlled substance. He served on the council from 2008 to 2012, but he said he didn’t run for a second term because “there was a discrepancy of whether it was legal to run at that time or not.”
Now, 15 years after the completion of his sentence, he is allowed under state law to run for election and “I decided to be parish president.”
“All people make mistakes, but what we cannot do is allow society to ostracize them and not let them become productive citizens,” Julien said.
As parish president, he said, he would work to increase extracurricular activities for children “to make sure that they become civic-minded adults.” He also would “keep jobs in St. John so that our residents have opportunities to work and support their families.”
“This election is not about an individual,” he said. “It is about our future and our children.”
Lewis, 57, a pastor in River Ridge for the past 22 years, said the parish is fractured and he is the candidate best suited to repair it. “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” he said.
He said his tenure working as a union negotiator for chemical plants taught him “how to resolve conflicts.”
“We can’t be at odds with one another all the time, because you can’t get anything done when you are not working together,” he said.
Lewis pointed to recent conflicts between the parish president and the council over the appointment of department heads, and he said Robottom “is not accessible to the people.”
“What we have now is a failure in leadership,” he said. By contrast, he said, he would be “open, honest and accessible.”
“I possess good character, and I will be truthful with the citizens,” he said.
Like many of the candidates, he said he would focus on improving street drainage, water quality and levee protection.
“I would try my best to bring us all together, and if we can do that, then we can accomplish a lot in this parish,” he said.
Robottom, 55, shrugs off her critics, instead highlighting the new drainage pumps, road repair work and progress toward a federal levee system that her office has spearheaded since she was sworn in five years ago.
“The bottom line is that more has been done in the last four years of this parish than has been done in the last 20 years,” she said. “We have tripled the amount of work that is being done in St. John. And the fact that we have been able to do this despite what has been described as a difficult relationship with the council, that is a success story.”
She gives a two-pronged defense of her decision not to call a mandatory evacuation before Isaac: First, “the weather forecasts predicted it wouldn’t be this severe,” she said, and second, “there had never been a history of flooding in St. John.”
“With just that short a period of time, it is difficult and you make decisions which are best for the residents,” she said. “I’d hate to see what would have happened if we weren’t so prepared, or if there was somebody else in this seat, what might have happened.”
A proposed $718 million, 18-mile federal levee project to protect the parish from Lake Pontchartrain has gained momentum since Isaac. Robottom pointed to the Army Corps of Engineers’ endorsement of the project in June as a critical step in the realization of a plan that’s been on the drawing board for 42 years.
The parish is waiting for Congress to approve funding for the project.
“Anyone can talk about what they are going to do, but it is clear what we have done and the projects we are doing to help improve the lives of our residents,” she said. “In order to make changes, you have to understand the current state of things.
“This job has a learning curve, and we are ahead of it now.”
St. Amant, 51, said his leadership abilities and history of public service make him “the only one who is qualified for the job with a diverse background of extensive management experience.”
“I have seen many, many, many politicians give the same old rhetoric, and nothing has been done,” he said. “And my personally living through the nightmare of Isaac and having to rebuild my home and having to live through the very difficult permitting and building process — that’s what made me run.
“We are governed by too many rules and too many fees.”
As the lone Republican in the race, he said, “we need to rein in spending and take a more conservative approach. Government doesn’t need to get any bigger. We just need to be more efficient with what we have.”
He said he would streamline the permitting process, making it faster and simpler. And he said his former job as director of sales and marketing for Wyndham Vacation Resorts in Destin, Florida, has given him valuable experience managing multimillion-dollar budgets and overseeing personnel.
To improve drainage and recreation offerings in the parish, he would move more employees into those departments from other departments, he said.
“We are overstaffed in certain areas but understaffed in other areas,” he said.
A former St. John sheriff’s deputy and Army private, he said he “always has looked to service the public’s best interests.”