The four candidates in Saturday’s special election agree that River Parishes’ House District 58 has more than the usual numbers of refineries and chemical plants, yet the residents reap few benefits from the proximity of so much industry.
Trying to better integrate the community with the massive plants in their backyards is the number one issue for the four Democrats running to replace Ed Price in the Louisiana House. Price, a Gonzales Democrat, was elected to the state Senate in May necessitating this special election.
A Nov. 18 runoff is scheduled between the top two vote-getters if no candidate wins a majority Saturday.
The four come from the most populous ends of the House district that stretches along both sides of the Mississippi River from Iberville Parish through Ascension and into St. James Parish.
Two of the candidates – Miguel Aubert and Ken Brass – hail from Vacherie at the southern tip of district. Adrienne Ricard Conish and Alsie Dunbar, both making their first bid for public office, live in Gonzales, on the northern end.
Home to the iconic Oak Alley antebellum plantation as well as the Whitney Plantation’s memorial to slaves, the 58th includes some of the nation’s largest refineries and chemical plants. DuPont Chemical, BASF Corp., Motiva, Shell Oil and the other massive manufacturing facilities that line the Mississippi River employ about 15 percent of the district’s 41,000 residents.
But unemployment in District 58 hovers around the state average of 5.7 percent and is a full percentage point more than the national average. Among African-Americans, who make up the majority in the district, unemployment runs at 10.4 percent.
Median household income is $42,600 per year, as compared to the $51,700 in Baton Rouge and $53,000 nationally. Twenty-four percent of the district’s population is on food stamps and that’s more than double the national average.
Yet, about $272 million a year of the corporation’s property taxes, as calculated by Together Louisiana, are forgiven, ostensibly because those projects are creating jobs. Though plants pay substantial taxes, the exemptions leave District 58 taxpayers responsible for an increased share of the costs for the necessary roads, schools and law enforcement.
That sticks in the craw of the candidates, three of whom work directly for the companies. The fourth is a acquisitions consultant.
“We are in the heart of the industrial area and they’re not hiring the local people. They’ve built hotels to house people from other areas to work,” said Miguel D. Aubert, from Vacherie. As state representative he would look at the tax breaks granted to the corporations that own the plants, which were granted in return for creating employment.
Aubert is the son of Elton M. Aubert, who was the state representative from 2008 to 2012 and was St. James Parish councilman for 16 years before that. The son ran for his father’s seat in 2011, but was beaten by Price.
“My Dad made some progress when he was in. We haven’t moved forward since. I want to continue where he left off,” Aubert said. “If you’ve done something in office you should be able to see it.”
Conish grew up in Convent among people who knew and supported each other, shared values and goals.
“That sense of community and opportunity is no more, even though there are so many industries in the district,” Conish said. As a representative, she would seek out the grants and training programs that are available, just not in the River parishes.
“It’s really about education and information and to bring programs that expand opportunities to qualify a disadvantaged workforce; educate them beyond a career in fast food,” she said.
Conish said she was in the U.S. Army during Desert Storm. Since returning home she founded a program management consulting firm that helps with defense acquisition. She reports to the Ethics Board that her firm pays her more than $100,000 a year. Her business helps her understand the complexities of government and how best to navigate them, she said.
It has been a low key campaign with little money, less media coverage and no forums. Instead, the candidates have been knocking on doors, setting up tailgates at high school football games, visiting churches and all the other activities that go along with retail politics.
Alsie Dunbar, who has worked in area plants doing process and product quality management, said she started thinking about running during casual conversations with the parents of the girls being exposed to math and science careers through her volunteer mentoring program.
Parent after parent around Ascension Parish was telling her that they were concerned that the public schools were not adequately preparing their children for the jobs available at the nearby plants.
“There’s a shortage of jobs going to local residents. The truth is some of our residents, a lot of our residents, just aren’t qualified to get those jobs,” Dunbar said. The answer is to introduce math and science to young children in the schools and continue that emphasis through high school.
She is the daughter of Allen “Jubilee” Dunbar, Archie Manning’s wide receiver and No. 86 during the New Orleans Saints’ 1973 season.
Ken Brass agrees that the main focus for the next representative is training and educational programs that would ensure a pool of residents can qualify for the work the plants and contractors have.
He wants to make sure satellite training centers are made available in the under-served parts of district that are on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
Brass also want to use the post to keep the highways up-to-date and ensure that drainage is adequate. He has been a St. James Parish Councilman since 2008.
Like his three opponents, Brass was fuzzy on how state government should attack a looming $1 billion decrease in revenues expected when an additional penny of state sales tax – passed to bridge an earlier deficit – expires on June 30.
“There may be some budget cuts,” he said, but refused to say what exactly, echoing the thoughts of his opponents. All four say they are open to extending the extra sales tax into the future.
“We need to look at all the options. In some instances you may have to raise taxes,” Brass said. Only Aubert took the possibility of increasing taxes off the table.
A majority-minority district, legislators pulled a substantial chunk of black and Democratic voters from surrounding white and Republican districts, concentrating more conservative voters in those House districts.
Two thirds of the district’s 25,829 registered voters are African American and 71 percent are Democrats.
The City of Gonzales has a tax proposition, Iberville Parish is voting for a Public Service commissioner, St. James Parish for a clerk of court. Otherwise, the House District race is the only thing on the ballot other than the race for state treasurer and three constitutional amendments that are on every ballot in the state.
House District 58 Candidates
Miguel D. Aubert
Political experience: Second run for House District 58 seat
Employment: Process technician at Dow Chemical Co.
Educated: Ascension Catholic High School, certificate in electrical engineering at Delgado University
Kendricks "Ken" Brass
Political experience: St. James Parish Councilman and Democratic Party State Central Committee
Employment: Electrical Engineer at BASF
Educated: Lutcher High School, bachelor of science in electrical engineering at Southern University
Adrienne Ricard Conish
First try for elective office
Employment: Initiatives Etcetera LLC, managing principle
Education: East Ascension High School, associates degree from University of South Carolina; bachelor of science degree in business administration from American InterContinental University
Personal: Divorced, two sons
First try for elective office
Employment: Consultant who works engineering projects
Education: East Ascension High School, Southern University dual degreed in Science and Engineering