Mayor-president candidates laid out their ideas Wednesday for keeping young college graduates in Baton Rouge and for helping to ease economic disparity and racial tensions across the Capital City.
Eleven mayoral candidates showed up for a forum at Southern University, trying to woo its students, professors and neighbors. Many of their questions were based on issues especially important to those who attend the historically black university, such as racial divides and the lack of development in north Baton Rouge.
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Candidates were quizzed on their top priorities for the city-parish, their specific plans to reduce traffic, and their ideas to improve relationships between the Baton Rouge Police Department and the community.
All candidates said their campaign platforms recognize implicit bias exists across Baton Rouge, and that they would try to diversify the types of businesses that receive contracts from city-parish government.
The candidates in attendance were Democrats Sharon Weston Broome, Denise Marcelle, Byron Sharper and Greg Lafleur. Republicans John Delgado, Smokie Bourgeois and Braylon Hyde also attended. And independent candidates Darryl Gissel, Beverly Amador, Cade Williams and Rufus Craig also tried to draw pockets of voters.
The only candidate who did not attend the forum was Republican Bodi White.
The primary is on Nov. 8, with a Dec. 10 runoff if necessary.
Most of the candidates pitched police reform as one of their top priorities.
"Everyone should feel safe in our community and not threatened by public servants," said Broome, the former state senator.
Amador said the killing of Alton Sterling in early July created a lack of confidence in the Baton Rouge Police Department. A BRPD officer shot Sterling in an incident captured in a cellphone video posted online, prompting protests in Baton Rouge and across the nation. A few weeks later, a gunman killed three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers and injured three others before he was shot and killed.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the shooting of Sterling.
When debate moderator and adjunct Angelle Bradford asked about police and community relations, Amador said he would "fire on the spot" any officer who shot at an unarmed resident. A Baton Rouge police report says officers spotted the butt of a handgun protruding from Sterling's pocket before the shooting.
"We give the government a monopoly on policing," Gissel said. "With that monopoly, we need to make sure everyone in the community feels like they're treated the same way."
The racial discussion leaked into mayoral candidates' answers about economic development as well.
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Hyde said Baton Rouge's leaders need to acknowledge that the city-parish is racially divided and that Baton Rouge does have a race problem. Delgado reminded attendees of the north Baton Rouge incentives he passed through the Metro Council earlier this year to help lure development.
State Rep. Marcelle said minority-owned businesses should have had a better chance to compete for government contracts with flood cleanup.
"We should have a seat at the table and that seat should have been before those contracts were put out," Marcelle said.
Other candidates invoked the southeastern portion of the parish, saying the movement to create a separate city of St. George would have destroyed Baton Rouge. They said the divides in the parish — including disparities in north Baton Rouge and the push to create St. George — only weaken it.
"I would say no one in this parish fought harder against the St. George incorporation effort," Delgado said. None of the candidates at the forum openly supported the movement to create St. George.
Given that the forum was held by Southern's Student Government Association and community organizer Daniel Banguel, many candidates tried to fit Southern into their plans for Baton Rouge's future.
Sharper said he wants to create an entertainment district in north Baton Rouge near the university.
Bradford, the moderator, asked Marcelle and Broome specifically about their plans to keep Southern University graduates in Baton Rouge.
Marcelle said young people are fleeing the Capital City because "we are set in our ways." She said she wants a fair Baton Rouge, and highlighted her push on the Metro Council for a fairness ordinance to ban discrimination against the LGBT community.
Broome said she wants to use a Southern University fellowship program in which students could pitch ideas for Baton Rouge revitalization. She also said she wants to raise the minimum wage.
This article has been updated to reflect that Angelle Bradford is an adjunct at Southern University, and not a student as previously stated. We regret the error.