Amid all the demonstrations, rallies and news conferences in the wake of the Alton Sterling shooting, one face has been conspicuously absent — East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden, who spent most of Thursday in Washington, D.C., and as of Friday afternoon had not contacted the Sterling family.
He and U.S. Rep Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, spent Thursday trying to secure federal funding for the proposed LSU-downtown tram, an effort the mayor emphasized is important to the parish. But others have criticized his absence from events aside from one news conference with law enforcement the day after the shooting.
Sandra Sterling, exiting a news conference on Friday afternoon held by Gov. John Bel Edwards, told an Advocate reporter that she had received an outpouring of support from Louisiana officials in the wake of Alton Sterling’s death. Sandra Sterling raised her nephew after his mother died in the 1980s.
“There have been so many,” she said, naming Edwards, her attorney and state Reps. Edmond Jordan, Ted James and C. Denise Marcelle, all of whom represent the Baton Rouge area. “Just so many, I’m overwhelmed; I’m really overwhelmed.”
She said she never heard from Holden but added firmly that she would have appreciated and expected a call.
There is also an obligation to the city at large, James said in a separate interview.
“There’s a certain responsibility to calm the community,” he said.
“I’m sure that whatever (Holden) was doing in D.C. was important to the parish … (but) had I been in his position, I would be here on the ground.”
Holden defended his choice, saying the work in Washington was not only important but time sensitive. He also remarked that police are investigating a death threat against him and said he would not have attended recent events even if he had been in Baton Rouge.
“I’m not going to submit me and my family to abuse and ridicule,” the mayor said.
Holden accused other politicians of exploiting recent events to raise their own profiles.
“I’m not a showboat politician,” said the mayor, who is known in the city to dress up in costumes to celebrate certain events.
To Holden it appears that many people are jockeying to assert themselves as the leader of the crowds who are demonstrating on Sterling’s behalf, and perhaps the people demonstrating in Baton Rouge should rally behind one voice, but Holden does not believe he is the person for the job. He said he doesn’t believe the demonstrators like him or will follow him.
The mayor also said he thinks it would be incorrect for him to reach out to the Sterling family after one of their relatives was shot by the police in his own city.
“I don’t think that it’s appropriate for me to go into the faces of people who are grieving and say ‘I’m here to help,’ ” he remarked.
Holden also said politicians such as mayoral candidate Sharon Weston-Broome have incorrectly blamed his office for taking too long to call in federal investigators. Holden has maintained that he was in touch with White House staff within hours of the fatal shooting, which became national news after cellphone video of parts of the incident went viral.
Weston-Broome responded that she had called for an independent investigation but contested Holden’s assertion that she criticized his timing.
“We have to put politics aside,” she said.
“(The people of Baton Rouge) want the servants of the community to be there in times of crisis.”
John Davies, president of the influential Baton Rouge Area Foundation, attended the meeting in Washington with Holden and said the mayor made the smart move by traveling to the nation’s capital.
The local delegation met with Carolyn Flowers, head of the Federal Transit Administration, and Davies said an hour with such a high-ranking official is “precious” and hard to schedule.
The city is trying to get $120 million from the federal government to build a tram, and officials hope to begin hearing back about grants in the next two months, so it was “a pretty important priority” to answer questions and advocate for the funding, Davies said.
The decision came down to serving as a symbolic power in Baton Rogue and doing concrete good for the city, he continued.
“I’m delighted the mayor made the right choice (in going to D.C.),” he said.
However, Holden’s absence has not gone unnoticed.
“Where is the mayor? If you find him, please let me know. Having handled these situations before, I know that his city needs true leadership more now than ever,” said Justin Bamberg, an attorney for the Sterling family, in an email to The Advocate.
At a news conference, where Edwards praised the Baton Rouge community for peaceful demonstrations, a TV reporter commented that Edwards appeared to be stepping into a local leadership role in terms of keeping the peace in the capital city.
“The question is, where is the mayor?” the reporter asked.
Edwards mostly dodged the question, suggesting that it would be better addressed to Holden. But he said the response to the incident required local, state and federal cooperation.
James praised Holden’s staff and associates and said he wished the mayor had sent a representative to Washington, freeing him up to be active in Baton Rouge in the wake of the Sterling shooting.
Marcelle said however he is received, Holden should have put forth an effort to be more available to the community and the Sterling family.
“I think he should have been here. … I think he should have spoken to the family,” she said. “I think he should have at least tried.”
Advocate staff writers Rebekah Allen and Maya Lau contributed to this report.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.