State senate candidates Cleo Fields and Patricia Smith tangled Monday on where Fields lives, the character of the candidates and whether Fields' explanation for a decades-old transaction with former Gov. Edwin Edwards should satisfy voters.

The contenders, both Democrats, appeared at the Press Club of Baton Rouge 12 days before the Oct. 12 primary.

They are running for the Senate District 14 post being vacated by state Sen. Yvonne Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, who is being forced out by term limits.

The district includes LSU, Southern University, the State Capitol and low-income neighborhoods near the petrochemical plants.

Fields repeated his stance that his official, longtime residence is at 5347 Hollywood St., which is in the district, amid comments by Smith and others that he spends most of his time at a second house he owns near the Country Club of Louisiana, well outside the district.

Fields said that, while he is sure of his position, he expected the residency issue to spark a legal challenge after the candidates filed for office in August.

Smith said only a "loophole" in state law allows a candidate to qualify for office based on his official residence while living elsewhere most of the time. "You should live with the people you want to represent," she said.

Smith has said she could not find an attorney to represent her in the 19th Judicial District, which includes Fields' brother, Wilson Fields, in its ranks of judges.

Smith has repeatedly indicated that her character sets her apart from Fields.

"I have integrity," she said. "I have never sold my people out."

Smith said she would not say whether Fields "has a character flaw or an integrity flaw."

Fields said he is confident Smith would not question his integrity because she sought and received his endorsement three times when she ran for the state House.

Smith has served in the House since 2008 and, like Colomb, has to leave because of term limits.

Fields is a former state senator who also served in the U.S. House and made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1995.

Smith said that, during her campaign, she is often asked about an episode in 1997 caught on a hidden FBI video that showed Fields stashing about $20,000 in cash in his pocket during a meeting with Edwards.

Fields was not accused of wrongdoing.

"If I had done something wrong or illegal, they would have indicted me," Fields said of federal authorities. 

Said Smith, "It is up to the people on whether that is an answer they accept or do not accept."

The candidates split on the value of charter schools, which are public schools run by nongovernment boards.

Smith, who served on the House Education Committee, noted that the original law that established charter schools said they should serve as sites for innovative methods that could be replicated by traditional public schools. "That has not happened since charters have been in place," she said.

Fields said state tax dollars should follow the child regardless of school choice. "I think we spend too much time in the state pitting one group against another," he said of various education methods.

Fields, who served in the Senate from 1997-2007, said the post has essentially been vacant during Colomb's 12 years in office.

"And that is wrong," he said. "I am running because we need a senator, you know? People's lives are at risk."

Colomb, who has endorsed Smith to succeed her, could not be reached for comment.

Both candidates said legislative redistricting is best left to the Legislature rather than employing a citizens' panel, like some states do.

"You can't take the politics out of politics," Fields said.

Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against Fields in 2003, said Fields asked to meet with her this time to let her know he was entering the race.

Smith said she told him he should run for the state House seat she is vacating. "He never answered," she said.

Said Fields, "i didn't answer because I don't run for office just to run for office."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.