A month after announcing the return of their campaign to create a new city in the southeastern swath of East Baton Rouge, St. George organizers are focusing on the number 12,951.

Their petition drive to bring the city’s creation to a vote of the people hinges on the organizers amassing that many signatures from registered voters in the boundaries of the proposed city. The goal is significantly smaller than organizers needed in their first iteration, which fell 71 people short in 2015 of the 17,788 signatures needed to propel the original campaign to a vote.

Organizers are optimistic.

“Our support couldn’t be better, couldn’t be higher, couldn’t be more overwhelming by this point,” said Andrew Murrell, the spokesman from the three-person legal team working on St. George.

But the opposition to St. George, which relentlessly hammered the previous campaign, has not started to pummel the new petition drive. The groups that worked to defeat St. George last time have been mostly quiet thus far. Political analysts say they expect that to change during the remaining eight months before the St. George petition is due to the East Baton Rouge Registrar of Voters.

St. George is already sprinting with 50 or so volunteers. People who live in the new boundaries of the proposed St. George and who signed the petition last time have already received letters with instructions on how to sign the new petition.

And while St. George volunteers previously relied on door-knocking and mass signing events to garner signatures, their focus this time has been more targeted. They have mailed past supporters blank petition pages to sign and prepaid envelopes to send back.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 households also received St. George robocalls that said the campaign's records recognized them as past supporters, though some have disputed the veracity of the records. 

“Their whole campaign is much more focused,” said pollster Bernie Pinsonat, who said it’s too early to tell whether St. George can meet the signature threshold for a vote and too early to tell whether it would pass at the polls. “They’re no longer rag tag. They’re well-funded and they know what they must do to overcome the government roadblocks that killed it last time.”

New messages and maps

Much of the St. George campaign last time consisted of public petition signing events, door knocking and meetings. While doorknockers started their work within the past week, Murrell said St. George is unlikely to hold future town hall meetings or public forums.

Rather, the group has leveraged social media to interact with supporters, and St. George does not have a singular face of its campaign.

While the push for the new city grew out of a desire for a separate school district in East Baton Rouge Parish, the schools component will not be as central in the messaging this time. Instead, St. George advocates want to win supporters with a promise they can run a government that’s better performing, more responsive and less expensive than the bureaucracy of City Hall.

“We see a very 21st century approach to where we have a very small government team but we have subcontractors doing the work,” said Chris Rials, the co-chairman of the St. George petition, who said the schools issue is why he became passionate about St. George.

Rials said St. George would have four city employees, and contrasted its size with the soaring pension costs and growing budget of East Baton Rouge parish.

“In the long term, East Baton Rouge Parish (government) cannot sustain itself,” he added.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s administration is out to disprove that. Broome, who has been critical of St. George since her previous years as a state legislator, has put her finance department to work analyzing the recently released St. George budget, which projects the city could operate with a $24 million surplus.

Broome’s administration is looking at the projected tax collections that St. George’s accountants say would make up the budget, as well as the possible effect St. George would have on the city-parish’s budget. St. George accountants project the new city would cut $29 million, or 9 percent, from the city-parish’s general fund.

“Our work will speak toward why everybody needs to be a part of East Baton Rouge Parish and we don’t need any additional breakaways,” Broome said in a previous interview about how she will oppose St. George.

Murrell and Rials said they analyzed the signatures on the previous petition attempt and used new polling to determine their pockets of support. If a precinct had low levels of voters who signed the old petition, or a high number of people who withdrew their names after signing it, then that precinct was not likely to be included in the new St. George boundaries.

They declined to give specific examples of precincts where they had low support and that are no longer included in St. George. The maps show that Gardere and neighborhoods north of South Harrell’s Ferry Road, which of which were included in the previous boundaries, are no longer within the boundaries. Murrell said changing the maps was an attempt to “honor the wishes” of those who did not previously support St. George.

Opposition on the way

Opponents of St. George say their own campaign should start to show signs of life within the next month. M.E. Cormier, a leader from the Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway group that helped to defeat St. George last time, said she is still organizing a team of volunteers.

Cormier is confident that people are willing to battle St. George again. She said many previous volunteers who helped pick signatures off the petition in 2015 have expressed interest.

They will likely have to change some of their strategy. Rules for persuading people to remove their name from the petition — a crucial tactic the opposition used in the previous campaign — have changed. State law now says people have only five days after the petition reaches the registrar to change their minds.

Cormier’s group also pounded St. George organizers last time on names that were fraudulently added to the petition. She said she has already heard from eight people who said they received St. George robocalls but did not sign the past petition, which could reawaken those concerns. 

“If you can’t be honest with people about whether they signed it or didn’t sign it, I’m not sure how people can believe anything you say,” said political consultant Michael Beychok, a vocal St. George critic.

Both the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Together Baton Rouge — groups that are now at odds over popular tax exemptions for manufacturing corporations — took anti-St. George stances during the previous campaign.

BRAC has started an internal analysis of St. George, but has not taken a position on it yet, according to spokeswoman Kelly Bienn. Together Baton Rouge leader Broderick Bagert said his group will consider St. George’s financial impact before they decide whether to take a stance.

Pinsonat said the state law's required timeline for the petition will guide St. George’s opponents on when they need to bring the pressure.

“If St. George is loud, if they turn up the volume, it seems to me like that turns up the volume on the other side,” Beychok added. “I expect we’ll get to that point closer to the deadline.”

Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​