Cazes Zito

Mike Cazes (left). Mike Zito (right).

Longtime West Baton Rouge Sheriff Mike Cazes faces Port Allen Marshal Mike Zito in the general election, a race where mending trust between the parish's top law enforcement agency and the community has been pushed to the forefront following a tumultuous year.

In the space of a few months, the parish has seen a malfeasance conviction of a deputy accused of assaulting women during traffic stops, several jail inmate escapes and the deadly shooting of a man by a deputy at a motel.

The series of incidents has proved unsettling for a community deciding who it wants to lead law enforcement in the parish for the next four years.

Cazes, a 63-year-old Democrat, has held the office for the past 16 years and faces Zito, a city marshal and former Port Allen police officer who's also a Democrat. Their path to the Nov. 16 election saw them finish atop a four-man ballot during the October primary, in which no candidate reached more than 50% of the vote.

The incumbent sheriff is bidding for his fifth term and has touted his tenure in office and his relationship with rank-and-file deputies and his staff.

"The Sheriff's Office isn't made up of Mike Cazes," he said. "It's made up of 200 men and women who wear the badge and protect the streets."

Zito pointed to recent turmoil involving the Sheriff's Office, including a fatal shooting by a deputy in July that prompted a handful of demonstrations, a wrongful-death lawsuit and calls for a federal investigation.

State Police are still investigating the death of Josef Richardson, 38, who was shot in the back of the neck by West Baton Rouge deputy Vance Matranga Jr. during a "no-knock" narcotics raid of the Port Allen man’s motel room.

Zito has criticized Matranga being allowed to return to work in a limited capacity, saying it could stir further unrest in the community. He said that if he's elected he'll work to improve relations with the community through neighborhood patrols and by connecting people to deputies through social events and other programs.

Zito faces formidable competition in Cazes, the incumbent who kept a sizable lead over his challengers in the primary race.

Cazes secured roughly 43% of the vote while Zito finished second with about 25%. The incumbent sheriff also carried nearly every precinct, including population centers in Port Allen, Brusly and Addis.

Cazes comfortably won reelection in 2015 by securing 73% of the vote and won by a similar margin in 2011.

Leading up to the runoff, Zito said he's been targeting voters who selected other candidates in the primary. Cazes is angling to do the same.

Barnell L. Williams, who finished last in the primary election for sheriff, endorsed Cazes, saying the lawman shares the vision he pushed on the campaign trail for improving relations with the community and adding programs that steer young people away from criminal activity.

Williams attracted just more than 18% of the vote, roughly 6 percentage points behind former District Judge J. Robin Free during the October primary.

Zito also lags far behind Cazes in fundraising for his campaign, with Cazes raising at least $97,000, compared to Zito's $7,500, according to their campaign reports.

More than 75% of Cazes' donors listed addresses outside of the parish, with the majority in East Baton Rouge.

Among the issues Cazes has had to confront in recent months are the frequent inmate escapes from the parish's jail and its work release program. The sheriff said he's bolstered security around the jail's work facility but has little control over inmates who leave jobs they work outside the facility.

Inmates enrolled in the state's work-release program are often close to finishing their criminal sentences and the state doesn't allow violent offenders to enter into the program.

Cazes defended the program, saying it lessens the likelihood someone will return to jail by allowing the inmate to earn money and gain skills.

Early voting for the runoff election begins Saturday and runs until Nov. 9, excluding Sunday.

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.