State District Judge Mike Erwin cites his nearly two dozen years of experience on the criminal bench in East Baton Rouge Parish as the chief reason why voters should re-elect him to a fifth term over his first-ever challenger — lawyer, Zachary city prosecutor and Metro Councilman Trae Welch.

“I feel it’s important to the people of East Baton Rouge Parish … that they have someone on the bench with experience, and not put a baby behind the wheel, so to speak,” the 64-year-old Erwin, a Democrat, said in a recent interview at his office at the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.

“The people of East Baton Rouge Parish deserve to have somebody who knows what they’re doing,” added the 19th JDC’s senior jurist, who doesn’t believe the 42-year-old Welch is qualified to handle the job.

Welch, a second-term Metro Council member and former Baker City Councilman, touts a résumé that also includes a litigation law practice in Zachary, where he has been city prosecutor for nearly a decade, and chairman of the Greater Baton Rouge Airport Commission.

Welch, who changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican after the 2012 council election, insists he’s ready to hit the ground running if elected Nov. 4 to the Division L seat on the 19th JDC.

“Day One … there’s no question we can start rolling from Day One,” he said, adding that he would be fair and work hard.

Erwin, the 19th JDC’s lone remaining judge once elected parishwide, now is running in a judicial subdistrict that includes Baker, Zachary and Central and some areas in Baton Rouge, including Broadmoor and Sherwood Forest.

Erwin lives in Baton Rouge but not within the subdistrict’s boundaries, something Welch — a Baker native who resides in Zachary — is making an issue of on the campaign trail.

“The point of the subdistrict is to get people elected from those areas,” Welch contends, adding that Erwin is out of touch with the subdistrict’s voters. “That’s a huge issue. Judges necessarily have to know what’s going on with the people that come before them.”

Erwin, who said the allegation that he’s out of touch is a non-issue because it’s untrue, stressed that a judge does not represent a particular segment of the parish.

“We handle cases from all over the parish. You don’t represent people. You represent justice,” the former assistant city prosecutor and former East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney said. “If he wants to represent people, he should stay on the Metro Council.”

Erwin added that he knows from his judicial experience when to help people and when to put them in jail.

Welch, who represents the Baker-Zachary areas of the parish on the council, said he’s proud of his public service — be it elected or volunteer — and his involvement in the community, but feels he could do more as a member of the judiciary.

“I think I could have so much more of an impact in people’s lives on the bench,” he explained.

Erwin said his entire adult life has been dedicated to serving the public.

“This was my goal all along — to work for the public,” he said.

Welch also said he’s proud of his community involvement, and he questioned Erwin’s.

“I don’t know how much more involved I can be,” countered Erwin, who said his entire adult life has been dedicated to public service. “I handle a docket five days a week. That’s my job.”

Erwin also noted he doesn’t invite Welch along whenever he ventures into the judicial subdistrict.

Welch feels his prosecutorial experience combined with his litigation practice would allow him to handle both criminal and civil cases, something Erwin does not do.

At the 19th JDC, civil cases are randomly assigned to seven of the court’s 15 judges while criminal cases are exclusively allotted to the other eight jurists. Erwin is one of those eight.

“That’s just done by agreement,” Welch said.

Erwin said it’s simply too much work to try to handle a criminal and civil docket at the same time.

“Go ask all of the ones who tried it. None of them stayed with it,” he said of some of his 19th JDC colleagues.

Welch described himself as “an action guy” and said he learned an important lesson from both of his parents — former 19th JDC Judge and current state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Jewel “Duke” Welch, and former Metro Councilwoman Roxson Welch, who is executive director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Family and Youth Service Center.

“You don’t sit on the sidelines and complain about things,” he said.

If elected, Welch promises to dedicate part of his court to deal with domestic violence, and says he’ll be tough on repeat offenders and sexual predators.

Erwin feels his experience as a prosecutor and judge is a key to making the streets safer from criminals and crime.