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Voting signage is posted outside of a polling place on Bunker Hill Drive, Saturday, August 15, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

The coronavirus has shut down a lot of in-person politicking in this year's race for East Baton Rouge mayor-president, but with seven weeks remaining until Election Day, and five weeks until the start of early voting, look for the seven candidates to soon hit the airwaves and find pandemic-appropriate ways to reach out to voters.

Social distancing restrictions have prevented a lot of the person-to-person campaigning voters would normally have seen by now. An economic downturn, linked to the temporary shutdown of many small businesses amid the virus' spread, has dried up many of the typical funding wells candidates would have solicited.

However, pollster Bernie Pinsonat said there's still a lot more time for candidates to campaign — and for the race to heat up.

"Why spend money so far out when the public's attention span is so short?" Pinsonat said. "Most candidates like to wait until the last four to six weeks to start spending money. Voters don't really start making up their minds until the last two weeks before an election." 

John Couvillon, president of the political consulting group JMC Enterprises of Louisiana, disagrees. 

Because it's expected the pandemic will substantially increase the number of mail-in ballots for this year's fall elections, Couvillon said mayoral candidates should be working hard now to make their best impressions on voters, who will likely start seeing ballots hit their mailboxes in the next few weeks. 

"The percentage of those voting on Election Day will be significantly less than what it has been in previous election cycles," he said. "If you haven't been aggressively campaigning by now, you're going to miss the boat by the time voters start getting their mail-in ballots."

Incumbent Sharon Weston Broome, a Democrat, has a large pool of challengers looking to block her attempts at a second term. Among them are former state Rep. Steve Carter, Metro Councilman Matt Watson, businessman Jordan Piazza and newcomer Frank Smith III, all Republicans. 

Current state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, another Democrat, will appear on the mayoral ballot as well, along with Baton Rouge attorney "E Eric" Guirard who's running as an independent. 

The Advocate had scheduled a candidate forum Tuesday in partnership with Louisiana Public Broadcasting, but it was postponed Sunday as Tropical Storm Sally approached Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. The event will be rescheduled and it is expected it would be shown live on The Advocate and LPB websites.

The race had an eighth candidate, but Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker was disqualified last month after failing to sufficiently counter allegations, made in a lawsuit, that she hadn't file state income tax returns in 2016 and 2018 by the time of July's qualifying period. Wicker accused Broome of being the puppeteer behind the challenge to her candidacy, a claim Broome's campaign later called "baseless."

Wicker had been pegged by political analysts as a formidable opponent to Broome — someone who could potentially pull votes from Broome's Democratic Black base. 

Wicker's ousting definitely helps Broome, according to Pinsonat. But it doesn't lessen the likelihood Broome will have to face someone in the run-off. 

"Tara is a city councilwoman who had a following. She's out and now it's up to the mayor to make sure she gets those votes rather than Denise Marcelle," another Black woman in the race, Pinsonat said. "But she's still probably going to have half the white support she had last time with Carter in the race. He's going to take some of those votes in the LSU/Highland Road community."

Carter's entry into the race was unexpected, and one that would seem to make it tougher for Watson and Piazza to lock up the parish's conservative voting bloc. 

Carter, 76, served three terms in the Legislature representing House District 61, beginning in 2007. There, he focused more on infrastructure and education.

From 2012-15, he was chairman of the House Education Committee, where he sponsored bills that expanded school vouchers statewide and toughened teacher tenure rules.

He's already said city-parish government is in need of a major shakeup. Going as far as to say he would "implode the entire system."

Watson has pitched himself as hands-on leader who isn't afraid to get down in the ditches to help address what he calls years of neglect to the city-parish's infrastructure — a problem he squarely places on Broome's shoulders. 

He has placed police reform and blight reduction as pillars of his campaign platform. And has previously promised to "do the job" of mayor-president, not just "have the job." 

Piazza, who at age 32 was the youngest mayoral candidate to qualify, says he is seeking the job to stem the exodus of young professionals he says are fleeing the city-parish due to a failing school system, the city's high crime rate and lack of job opportunities.   

The co-owner of Uncle Earl's Bar on Perkins Road, Piazza has promised to transform Baton Rouge’s economy by luring additional industries and working more closely with the parish’s small-business community.

Marcelle describes herself as a "proactive leader" she feels the city-parish doesn't currently have. This is Marcelle's second attempt at the city-parish's top administrative spot. 

The House District 61 representative has said she intends to implement what she calls an S.O.S. platform: supporting businesses, offering traffic solutions, and standing up to crime.

Guirard has offered a number of unconventional ideas for his campaign. His "Fuse the Rouge" platform consisting of goals regarding improving the parish's school system, making traffic more tolerable, lowering Baton Rouge's crime rate by merging the city's police department with the Sheriff's Office, and implementing more business-friendly policies and fostering a racially inclusive, cleaner and healthier community.

Smith has previously said he's not a serious contender, only qualifying for mayor-president to promote the message that everyday citizens like him want effective change in local government. 

The latest campaign finance reports shows Broome with nearly $300,000 of cash on hand as of Aug. 5. Piazza is next, having raised more than $35,000 and loaning himself an additional $21,700. 

Watson raised roughly $52,000 and spent $35,000 as of 90 days ahead of the election. Marcelle's campaign finance report, filed Sept. 8, shows she has received nearly $10,000 in contributions and taken out a $10,000 loan. 

Guirard and Carter have both reported zero dollars.

With just over seven weeks left before Election Day, Couvillon expects activity to ramp up soon.

"It really does seem to be a late blooming race; I'm surprised no ads have started airing on TV yet," Couvillon said. "This election is really about persuasions. The candidates won't have to focus of voter turnout because the presidential race will take care of that. They have to start putting efforts into making voters feel they are the best candidate for the position."


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com