With topics ranging from policing and flood protection, to St. George and the coronavirus pandemic, the six top candidates for mayor-president tackled some of the biggest issues facing East Baton Rouge Parish at a forum Tuesday hosted by The Advocate and Louisiana Public Broadcasting.
The forum was streamed live and featured incumbent Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, former state Rep. Steve Carter, attorney E Eric Guirard, state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, businessman Jordan Piazza and Metro Councilman Matt Watson.
Defense wins championships, a rule for incumbent politicians as well as coaches.
What would you change about policing?
The candidates were first asked what, if anything, they would do to change policing in Baton Rouge, considering the parish’s rising homicide rate and the protests both here and nationwide over racial tensions with law enforcement.
Eighty-two people have been killed so far this year across the parish, just one away from the total number of homicides during all of 2019, according to unofficial records maintained by The Advocate.
Broome said her administration made strides early on in reforming police practices, implementing new use-of-force and de-escalation policies, and blamed the coronavirus for the recent spike in crime.
Both Carter and Piazza said the city needs to hire more police, and along with Marcelle, said law enforcement officers deserve a pay raise. Watson said he'd create a new assistant chief administrative officer in the Mayor's Office focused on public safety to provide oversight of law enforcement and communicate directly with communities affected by violence.
Broome also took credit for equipping police officers with body cameras, though Marcelle said it was her own leadership on the Metro Council that carried the idea across the finish line.
Guirard, who described his campaign as out-of-the-box, said he’d like to merge the Baton Rouge Police Department with the Sheriff's Office to create martial-arts trained "community police on steroids," which he plans to call the "Guardian Rouge."
What would you do about the new City of St. George
One of the biggest decisions facing the winner of this year's crowded race for mayor-president is what to do about the looming incorporation of a new city, St. George.
Broome defended her decision to file a lawsuit stalling the city’s creation, arguing that its her job as the chief executive of the parish to ensure that the city had a feasible plan to stand up what could become the parish’s fifth municipality.
“If you were an architect or developer, you wouldn’t build a house without a plan,” Broome said.
Carter said St. George’s organizers did everything prescribed to create a new city but said there has been too much divisiveness in the parish. Piazza said St. George is the result of inefficient municipal services and said if the city-parish had done better, the issue likely would not have reached this point.
Guirard noted that St. George began with dissatisfaction with the education system, and said he’d use the mayor's bully pulpit to completely reform education, giving parents more choice. He said he thinks St. George’s boundaries were gerrymandered around minority communities, a contention also raised in Broome’s lawsuit.
Marcelle said she'll leave the lawsuit to the courts, and said there should have been more work on the front-end to annex additional areas located inside St. George's proposed boundaries into the city of Baton Rouge.
Watson said that the city-parish should work together with St. George to come to an amenable and equitable path forward for the entire parish.
What should the city have done about coronavirus?
With more than 400 parish residents now dead from the novel coronavirus, and countless others put out of work, the six candidates were also asked how the city-parish should have handled the crisis.
Piazza, who had to temporarily shutter his bar, said businesses should be allowed to reopen and said the city-parish erred by adopting a “big government” mentality. He said the restrictions were a “political move” meant to keep people home during an election year.
Marcelle said she would have dedicated more resources toward coronavirus testing in the inner city. Carter said that masks have helped, but said the city-parish needed to "protect businesses more than we did."
Watson said that instead of a mask mandate, which Broome announced in June, he would have relied more heavily on health experts to try to convince residents to act voluntarily.
Guirard said it was a mistake from the get-go to shut down and questioned the accuracy of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University revealing that more than 200,000 Americans had died so far from the coronavirus pandemic.
Broome said she was proud of her administration’s response to the pandemic and said she worked alongside local health officials to make data-driven decisions. She said the mask mandate was a step in the right decision, noting that it was encouraged by the White House’s coronavirus task force.
Drainage, infrastructure points of contention
Several of Broome’s challengers chided her administration for what they said was a lack of preventative maintenance to the city-parish’s canals and culverts. Piazza said that, conveniently, it seemed like a lot of work was getting done right before the election.
When asked the first place he’d take visitors to Baton Rouge, Carter started off by saying he wouldn’t take them to any ditches or canals.
Broome said the parish’s current infrastructure wasn’t built to handle “showers on steroids” and said the maintenance was scheduled independent of the upcoming election.
On a lighter note, the six candidates faced a lightning round of questions at the end of the debate to give voters greater insights into their personality.
Broome said her favorite movie was “Harriet.” Piazza said his was “Rush Hour.”
Marcelle said the first place she’d take visitors is downtown Baton Rouge.
Guirard, who was wearing a t-shirt, said he wants to be the “fitness mayor.”
Watson said Thomas Sowell, a conservative intellectual, was a personal hero. Carter said he admired Ronald Reagan.
Watch the full video below: