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A former West Baton Rouge judge who served a lengthy suspension for judicial improprieties before stepping down entered a crowded race for sheriff just ahead of Thursday's deadline for candidates seeking to run for public office across Louisiana. 

Former Judge J. Robin Free's entrance into the West Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's race sets up a four-way match among him and incumbent Sheriff Mike Cazes, Barnell Williams and Mike Zito. All four qualified as Democrats.

It was one of a handful of last-minute entries before the 4:30 p.m. deadline for candidates to qualify for the Oct. 12 ballot.

Free, a longtime judge, faced allegations that he had harassed sheriff's deputies involved in speed enforcement along U.S. 190 before resigning from the bench in 2017.

The complaints came after he had finished a one-year suspension in 2016 when the Louisiana Supreme Court found he failed to maintain the integrity of his position. Justices censured Free after finding he made inappropriate comments toward women in domestic abuse hearings, showed bias toward prosecutors and used slang when speaking to defendants in several criminal cases, among other allegations. 

Free told The Advocate that he didn't harass deputies but stopped short of saying how he planned to repair potentially ruptured relationships with law officers who lodged complaints.

"I talked to them about things that came to light and the things they were doing," he said. "If they think it was harassment, it wasn't intended that way."

Cazes meanwhile is seeking his fifth term in office following a tumultuous year of investigations and other allegations. They include the conviction of a deputy for malfeasance, an investigation into Cazes reportedly hiring a sex offender to do work on his home through a work-release program and added concerns about transparency after a deputy fatally shot a man during a drug raid late last month.

In 2015, Cazes comfortably won re-election with 73 percent of the vote in a two-way race.

Across the river, East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, seeking a fourth term, faces two challengers. Two Democrats qualified Thursday to challenge Gautreaux, a Republican first elected in 2007. Mark Milligan, who ran unsuccessfully against Gautreaux in 2007 and 2011, is a former Baton Rouge police officer. Charles “Carlos” Jean Jr.  is a former Baton Rouge Community College police officer.

East Baton Rouge Coroner Dr. “Beau” Clark, a Republican, faces a Democratic challenger in Dr. Rani Whitfield, a physician at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. Whitfield has made a name for himself in the community as “Tha Hip Hop Doc,” using rap as a way to educate and inform others on health issues.  Clark has served as coroner for the last eight years and is seeking a third term.

A somewhat unexpected development at the close of qualifying was Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis’ bid for Clerk of Court, challenging incumbent Doug Welborn.

Collins-Lewis is a Democrat nearing the end of her third consecutive term on the Metro Council. Welborn, a Republican, has served as the parish's clerk of court since 1991.

Over in Tangipahoa Parish, a last-minute filing Thursday by incumbent Coroner Rick Foster ensured someone will be coroner. The candidate list had remained bare for much of the three-day qualifying before Foster filed his paperwork. Foster, a Democrat, is considered elected without opposition.

Many other races in both Tangipahoa and Livingston parishes also finished with incumbents elected without opposition.

Tangipahoa Parish President Robby Miller and Clerk of Court Gary Standa, both Republicans, and Assessor Joaquin “JR.” Matheau, a Democrat, did not draw any opponents.

In Livingston Parish, Clerk of Court Jason Harris, Coroner Ron Coe and Parish President Layton Ricks, all Republicans, also were unopposed for reelection.

In West Baton Rouge, incumbent Parish President Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot faces Clayton Hebert. Both qualified as Democrats.

Incumbent Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff Beauregard "Bud" Torres III faces a challenger in his bid for reelection. Torres, a retired state trooper, has held the role since 2007 and now faces Rene Thibodeaux, the head of the Morganza Cultural District. Both are Democrats.

The deadline to register to vote in the Oct. 12 election is Sept. 11. Early voting is scheduled Sept. 28 to Oct. 5. A runoff election, if needed, is set for Nov. 16.

Staff writers Emma Kennedy, Terry Jones and Grace Toohey contributed to this report. 

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