Facing off against each other on a second night of candidate forums organized by the Alliance for Good Government’s Jefferson Parish chapter, challengers Louis Congemi and Jimmy Lawson went on the attack against incumbent at-large Councilman Chris Roberts.
Congemi and Lawson described Roberts as uncooperative, manipulative and combative. Roberts shot back that he had the support of elected officials on both sides of the Mississippi River, a powerful labor union, and the parish’s influential Republican Executive Committee, showing that he was indeed skilled at working with groups of all creeds.
In the end, the alliance was unconvinced by Congemi and Lawson, and Roberts landed the group’s endorsement.
Others who got endorsements were incumbent state Reps. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego, and Ebony Woodruff, D-Harvey, for House Districts 83 and 87, respectively. The first slate of alliance endorsements Monday night also went to any incumbents who participated.
Lawson and Congemi balanced taking verbal shots at Roberts with talking up their qualities as government leaders.
Lawson, who served on the Jefferson Parish Council from 1976 to 1995, argued that the council Roberts is currently the chairman of lacks transparency, accountability and civility. Yet a successful council needs all three, said Lawson, touting his pursuit of outdoor recreational options for the parish and funding for drainage improvements to protect homes from flooding.
Congemi, a former Kenner mayor and Jefferson Parish Council member, accused Roberts of worsening the divide that the Mississippi River creates between the East and West Banks of the parish. Roberts, who resides on the West Bank, needs to be replaced with someone who is going to bring the two sides together, said Congemi, offering himself up as the solution. He mentioned prioritizing flood protection, drainage and road improvements while serving as Kenner’s mayor and as a councilman.
Roberts told the audience his East and West Bank support base demonstrates he is not divisive. Among his supporters are Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, District Attorney Paul Connick, Assessor Tom Capella, Metairie-based Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, and Westwego Mayor John Shaddinger, he said. Endorsements from the AFL-CIO labor union and the Jefferson Parish Republican Executive Committee further prove an ability to work with various organizations, said Roberts, who’s been on the council since 2004.
Tuesday’s debate occurred after both Roberts and Congemi defeated lawsuits seeking to knock them out of the Oct. 24 primary.
Roberts on Tuesday said he’s been under attack since before the election because he’s denounced the Housing Authority of Jefferson Parish, an independent agency funded by federal dollars he has accused of repeatedly abusing its power. Lawson, Roberts has noted, is a member of the authority by appointment.
In the race for state House District 87, which includes Harvey, Marrero and the Woodmere subdivision, incumbent Woodruff touted her educational background and her two years in office; former legislator Derrick Shepherd ran on his previous experience and as an example of redemption; and Rodney Lyons Sr. highlighted ties to the community forged over three decades.
Woodruff, who has an undergraduate degree in business administration and a law degree, said she was able to help get the Brown Avenue Canal flood control project funded to the tune of $3.7 million, noting the effort had languished since 1999.
Shepherd, who served in the House and the Senate, said he knows how to get bills through the legislative process and how to block bad laws. Addressing “the 600-pound gorilla” in the room, he said his guilty plea and two-year stint in prison for public corruption in 2008 make him an example for people who’ve made mistakes.
“I made a mistake. I own it. I don’t run from it,” he said. “I’m asking you for a second chance.”
Lyons, former president of the Woodmere Civic Association, said he would bring his experience working with residents of the largest enclosed subdivision in the state with him to Baton Rouge, if elected. That experience, he said, makes him the candidate who knows the true wants and needs of the district’s residents.
Asked about gun control, all the House 87 candidates said they support tightening background checks, though Shepherd said he wouldn’t support anything that imposed a financial burden without some form of funding.
Asked about funding shortfalls at the Jefferson Parish Public Defenders Office, Lyons said he would work to make sure the office is fully funded, but offered no specifics. Woodruff said other court fees, possibly from diversion programs, could be looked at to increase funding.
Shepherd said he’d like to see the office fully funded, but said the money always has to come from somewhere and he’d never take it from education, health care or public safety.
In the race for House District 83, Marrero Democrat Kyle Green made a case for change against Billiot, the two-term incumbent.
“We complain about the way things are in our state, but we keep doing the same things over and over and expect different results,” said Green, who ran against Billiot four years ago.
Green said he would push to make changes to state budgeting to make it so that cuts don’t always have to come from health care and higher education, and that he would have voted to expand Medicaid in Louisiana under the Affordable Care Act.
Billiot, who has drawn criticism from Green for supporting some of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s initiatives, said that while it sometimes looked like the Legislature was “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he and other representatives were always assured that the numbers would work out.
“We were possibly, at times, misled,” he said.
Nevertheless, Billiot said he always fought hard to make sure the district got its fair share of funding and projects, highlighting the construction of South Kenner Road and the expansion of the Huey P. Long Bridge.
He noted that he voted in support of John Bel Edwards’ bid to expand Medicaid under the ACA in the Legislature earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Normand showed up Tuesday prepared to debate his lone challenger, but political newcomer Anthony Bloise of Bridge City did not appear for the forum.
Nonetheless, before receiving the alliance’s endorsement, Normand was allotted time to address the audience. And the sheriff, chairman of the governing board of the publicly-owned East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie, reiterated his belief that the financially-troubled hospital would survive even after an effort to lease it to a private operator fell apart earlier this year.
Normand also said the parish got a good deal in the pending agreement to lease its financially-troubled public hospital in Marrero, West Jefferson Medical Center, to LCMC Health for 45 years in exchange for at least $200 million in payments and $365 million in capital improvements.
The lease deal will officially close Sept. 30, a hospital commissioner said.