A little more than a year removed from Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa's acquittal on a bribery charge, two challengers qualified Tuesday to be the top executive of Louisiana's fastest-growing parish.
Elsewhere in the first day of qualifying for the Oct. 12 election, four-term East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III, a Republican, drew challenger, Mark Milligan, a Democrat from Zachary.
In Tangipahoa Parish, four-term Sheriff Daniel Edwards, the brother of Gov. John Bel Edwards, has endured plenty of bad publicity in recent years over rogue narcotics agents, problems in his jail and undercover detectives who went too far in an attempted sting of a St. Helena strip club.
Edwards, a Democrat from Independence, qualified to seek a fifth term but drew two opponents, Cameron Crockett, a Republican from Tickfaw, and Arden Wells, a Republican and perennial candidate from Ponchatoula.
In Ascension, two Republicans qualified Tuesday for the parish president race: Clint Cointment, the Gonzales surveyor who narrowly lost to Matassa in 2015, and Murphy Painter, a onetime chief Ascension sheriff's deputy and state Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner.
Matassa did not return a cellphone message for comment Tuesday about his election prospects, but he is widely expected not to seek reelection after a tumultuous first term in office and even attended Painter's campaign announcement at the Gonzales Civic Center in late April.
Should Matassa stay out the race once qualifying ends Thursday, Ascension voters will be able to weigh in on two of the parish's top political offices that for many years had been held by longtime politicos who had not typically garnered potent opposition, if at all.
Six-term Sheriff Jeff Wiley, perhaps the parish's most powerful politician for a generation, stepped down in early January. His daughter, Erin Wiley Lanoux, had won an election the previous fall to be parish court judge, and the sheriff fulfilled a promise not to serve if his daughter became judge.
Wiley had not faced an election opponent since 1999. Three qualified Tuesday to run to replace him: interim Sheriff Bobby Webre, the former chief deputy whom Wiley named his successor and became sheriff in January, and two others, Byron Hill, a former deputy for 10 years, and Moses Black Jr., a former Gonzales Police Department officer. Black is a Democrat. Webre and Hill are Republicans.
The trio will be running for two terms in October: the remainder of the current term and the next four-year term, meaning the winner will be sheriff until June 30, 2024.
Webre said he is looking forward to furthering initiatives he put in place since taking office in January. They include organizing the parish into three patrol areas, opening a Prairieville substation and setting up an east side booking center so patrol deputies don't have to travel to the jail in Donaldsonville for east bank arrests.
When asked, he said his more than 34 years at the Sheriff's Office have made him uniquely qualified to be the next sheriff, having started in patrol and working his way up to a supervisor, jail warden, chief of criminal operations and chief deputy.
"I spent my entire career, my entire career, never had another job, I spent it serving the people of Ascension Parish," Webre said.
Hill, who was in the Sheriff's Office between 2005 and 2015, worked in uniform patrol, water patrol, the mounted division and in criminal investigations, but never had a management role in the department. Hill left the Sheriff's Office to form his own trucking company but now works full time as a recruiter for the U.S. Army National Guard, he said.
Hill said he is running because he doesn't think the keys to the office's leadership should be passed from one person to another. Promising to keep the public foremost if he is elected, he said he would keep politics out the department's hiring, firing, promotion and law enforcement decisions.
"It will be all true, transparent, right down to the budget, every penny spent, the citizens are gonna known where the money's going and why it's going there ahead of time," he said.
A 15-year veteran of the Gonzales Department, Black has a whistleblower lawsuit pending against the city and Chief Sherman Jackson. The suit accuses the chief of looking the other way on racially charged officer misconduct and the alleged April 2015 beating by officers of a DWI suspect. Black claims he was fired over his attempts to report the improper behavior.
Jackson has denied the claims and said Black was fired for insubordination. The suit is pending, but a city civil service board upheld his termination in June 2018. Black sued in state court in July 2018 to appeal the decision but a judge upheld the ruling in late February.
Black could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but, in a recent Facebook post, wrote that poor leadership in the parish has led to a lack of trust in law enforcement. He promised to be a sheriff who will do the "right thing for the people of Ascension Parish and not themselves."
"As the sheriff, I will restore the People of Ascension Parish ('s) trust and faith in law-enforcement with unbiased fairness and Equal justice for all, not (a) select few," Black wrote.
In the 2nd state Senate District, Troy E. Brown, the onetime holder of the seat who resigned in February 2017 as the Legislature was poised to expel him over domestic violence allegations, qualified to run against incumbent Sen. Ed Price.
Price, D-Gonzales, won a special election in May 2017 to fulfill the remainder of Brown's current term. Price and Brown, who is also a Democrat, will be running in a sprawling district that spans parts of multiple parishes along the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche.
In Ascension, the parish president's follows a failed bid last year by local business people and the A Better Ascension group to change the home rule charter to end elections for parish president.
Among many changes, the group wanted a professional and apolitical administrator who would have had to have government training qualifications and been appointed by the Parish Council.
But the effort failed last year over concerns that the changes would deprive residents of their right to select their leaders and revert the parish back to its police jury days.
Fast-forward a year, and familiar touchstones are the focus of council and parish president campaigns so far — growth and development — but, perhaps, with more vigor than in the past after the devastating August 2016 flood.
Cointment, who lost to Matassa by 117 votes in a November 2015 runoff where more than 30,000 votes were cast, said he is running because the parish is at a "tipping point" as population growth has outstripped the parish's infrastructure, worsening flooding and traffic. He said there is a groundswell for change.
"These problems only tend to get worse, and I don't think that we have a current administration that focuses on solving the issues," he said Tuesday.
Painter couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday, but said at his campaign announcement in April that he was running to address the parish's problems with growth and has a love for public service and had the knowledge to make government serve the public.
"Government is supposed to work for the people," said Painter, who noted that, among his many qualifications, he has a master's degree in public administration.