The group leading the effort to incorporate a new city of St. George in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish is heavily using social media rather than TV and radio advertising in its pursuit of independence from city-parish government.

The social media campaign has often focused on attacking Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and her administration whenever the group’s leaders feel she’s fallen short in handling an issue or has taken actions they see as attempts to derail their effort.

A typical example from a Facebook post on July 29: "926 million dollar budget, 8 new staffers in the Mayor’s Office alone, multiple tax increases, and they still can’t find the money to address drainage. We will."

Drew Murrell, spokesman for the St. George movement, said it makes sense to have a robust social media presence in the campaign to create the new city.

"Partially it's about controlling your message or narrative," he said. "It's the best place to reach the most amount of people and get the hugest benefit."

The opposition to creating the new city has mostly been quiet, on any platform. But leaders intent on blocking what could become the parish's fifth city promise their social media footprint will grow as the Oct. 12 election for the incorporation measure approaches.

The downside to a social media focus is that it can stoke racial undertones associated with the movement to create St. George, which would be primarily white and wealthier than the majority-black city of Baton Rouge.

The vitriol mostly plays out in the comments section of official posts from the St. George camp and its opponents, like Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway.

"It's always a concern," Murrell said. "The downside being that anybody can make a comment and be perceived as a supporter or spokesperson for the group. We have deleted people on occasions. (Racial) undertones are tacky and terrible from both sides."

Could the racial tension hurt or help either side?

John Couvillon, president of JMC Analytics and Polling, doesn’t think the back and forth along racial lines will hurt St. George's chances given the demographics of voters in the majority-white proposed city.

An incorporation attempt four years ago failed to advance beyond the petition drive, and afterward, Couvillon made a block by block analysis to determine where the effort fared best.

That initial effort included a much larger cutout of southeast East Baton Rouge, with roughly 23% black voters. St. George backers changed the boundaries for the current incorporation try, and Couvillon said the pool of black voters is now about 12%.

"The fact that the second incarnation has reduced the black population so much heightens its chances for passage," he said.

If the anti-St. George people want to defeat the measure, he said, they need to find more conservative messaging that will reach those voters and give them a reason to vote against it.

Southern University political science professor Albert Samuels said he’s perused the comments sections of the St. George committee's official Facebook page and found that race clearly appears to be an issue for some who support creating the new city.

"I've read some of the things they have said about black kids at Woodlawn and how they wish they weren't there," he said.

The push for the new city is rooted in the area's desire for its own school district, something state legislators said they wouldn't agree to without St. George becoming a municipality. Having its own school district was at the center of the petition drive the first time around; it's rarely mentioned anymore.

"Some of the people pushing this, they generally don't believe they're acting out of any racial self-interest," Samuels said. "They categorize what they're doing as trying to gain control of their local tax dollars and airing out their grievances with the city-parish.

"It may be in the interest of the leaders of the movement to at least minimize, as much as possible, the overtly white versus black angle to some degree. But it's really hard to deny there will be racial implications with this."

Michael Beychock and M.E. Cormier, two of the spokespeople with Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway, both shied away from questions regarding any perceived racial bigotry associated with St. George's social media presence.

But they said their side will be ramping up its social media campaign soon, using the platform to disseminate facts over the fiction they say the other side is putting out about the proposed city.

"I can present data-driven campaign with a data-driven perspective," Cormier said. "We can discuss the differences in the two maps from each effort and let people draw their own conclusions as to the motives."

Beychock said their message will also drive home their stance that St. George's incorporation will translate into additional taxes for residents throughout the parish.

"Whether you're white, black, Democrat or Republican, if it passes, you'll pay higher taxes," he said. "We'll have concrete examples where and why. There are some things they've said on the record that contradict their (proposed) budget, which we will point out to voters."

And while the anti-incorporation group bears the name "Residents Against the Breakaway," no one would break away from anything. The effort would create St. George in a currently unincorporated area, and St. George would still be within East Baton Rouge Parish but as an independent city.

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