Now that voters have shown their embattled parish president the door, many political observers expect the Nov. 21 runoff for St. Bernard Parish’s top job to be decided by a fraction of its residents.
Facing pending criminal charges in three separate jurisdictions, first-term incumbent David Peralta won 3 percent of the primary vote Oct. 24, good for fifth place in the seven-way race.
In the runoff, voters will choose between two Parish Council veterans: Wayne Landry, who took 32 percent of the primary vote, and Guy McInnis, who had 27 percent.
Discussion of issues in the campaign has focused largely on improving St. Bernard’s aging water infrastructure and protecting its water supply from the Naegleria fowleri amoeba that killed a young boy in 2013 and was detected again this summer. The candidates also are urging residents to reconsider their rejection last year of nearly $10 million in tax renewals to fund services such as fire protection, garbage, libraries and recreation.
Landry is backed by former Councilman Tony “Ricky” Melerine, who finished fourth in the primary, and Roland “Jimmy” Roques, a political newcomer who came in last.
McInnis is supported by third-place finisher Louis Pomes, as well as the parish’s district attorney, Perry Nicosia, and sheriff, James Pohlmann, who beat Landry in a bruising 2011 campaign.
Most observers expect the race will boil down to which candidate can mobilize his supporters for what’s expected to be a low-turnout election. About 43 percent of the parish’s nearly 25,400 registered voters headed to the polls for a crowded primary ballot last month — a figure that beat the statewide average.
“I think a lot of the last time was just making sure that Peralta couldn’t get in,” said Ron Chapman, a history professor at Nunez Community College and a columnist for the weekly St. Bernard Voice. “That’s what it’s going to come down to: voter turnout, and who gets their people out. I don’t think it’s a question of really anything else.”
Landry, 56, a Democrat who lives in eastern St. Bernard, served on the council from 2008 to 2012. He helped spearhead development of the $70 million, publicly owned St. Bernard Parish Hospital and later served — without pay — as its interim CEO after the nonprofit Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System withdrew from managing it in late 2012.
He also served at the same time on the five-member board that oversees the hospital but resigned last year after a state Ethics Board opinion concluded he was prohibited from holding both positions, which had drawn the ire of some Parish Council members.
While running the hospital, Landry frequently clashed with the council and built a reputation as a hands-on, ambitious, outspoken leader and, in the eyes of some, a micro-manager.
That sometimes brash demeanor is often cited by both detractors and supporters.
“He’s not a puppet to anybody. He doesn’t have anybody pulling his strings, so I think he’s going to be a person who does what he feels is right for the parish and without anybody else trying to pull the strings and tell him what to do,” Melerine said. “That’s what I like about him.”
If he’s elected, Landry — a wealthy businessman who loaned his campaign $70,000 last month — said he will have his work cut out for him, noting that after Peralta’s troubled tenure, St. Bernard has “an image problem second-to-none that’s on a downward spiral.”
But not surprisingly, he believes he’s the right man for the job.
“I’m good at what I do. I really am,” he said. “I’m a good manager of money; I’m a good CEO. But this is not a job you can do by yourself, and we’ve got a heck of a responsibility ahead of us.”
Landry’s campaign platform includes operating parish government more efficiently, attracting new businesses, improving youth recreation offerings and reducing fees for them, and holding quarterly meetings with residents to update them on issues and gather their views.
McInnis, 52, of Meraux, has worked as a teacher and basketball coach at Chalmette High School for the past 16 years. As a first-term council member, he has no party affiliation.
An accountant by trade, McInnis served as the council chairman and has sat on its Water and Sewer Committee. He also was elected a justice of the peace in 1996 and managed the Sheriff’s Office’s finances in the mid-1990s.
Major hurdles facing St. Bernard, he said, include continuing to eliminate blight more than a decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated the parish. He also promises to promote transparency in government, place public records and contracts online for public scrutiny and make sure St. Bernard’s government operates in compliance with its parish charter.
McInnis has largely — and proudly — kept a positive tone as he campaigns. In an interview, he avoided directly criticizing Landry while touting his own, long-standing ties to the community.
“We’re just doing the same things we’ve done the whole time: sending a positive message to the citizens of our parish, letting them know that the leadership of our parish will be in good hands if we are elected,” he said. “We’re qualified, we’re ready to hit the ground running on the first day, and we will bring integrity on the regional stage.”
While former parish President Charles Ponstein said he appreciates Landry’s business savvy, he’s not sure that his sometimes brash style of leadership would suit the job. “When you’re president, you have to be able to get along with the council, and I think Guy personally has that disposition to get along, as opposed to Wayne,” said Ponstein, who served two terms as president beginning in the late 1990s.
McInnis also touted his demeanor as his one of his strengths. “I think what sets me apart is the respect I have for employees, and how I interact with them and get along well with people who work for me,” he said.
That kind of attitude, he said, is what voters are ready to embrace after watching the council battle through one confrontation after another with Peralta in recent years.
“I just think they want our elected officials to get along and cooperate with each other for the betterment of all the citizens in St. Bernard,” he said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.