Seven Democrats are running to replace longtime East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council member Tara Wicker in District 10, all working to distinguish themselves from their opponents in the crowded and competitive race.
District 10 is expansive and diverse, stretching along the Mississippi River from LSU into Old South Baton Rouge, downtown, parts of Mid City and some north Baton Rouge neighborhoods, including the ExxonMobil refinery off Scenic Highway and Southern University in Scotlandville. The district is about 63% black and 30% white.
Wicker, who is prevented from running again because of term limits, has endorsed Justin "Jay" Gaudet, who describes himself as more moderate than some of his opponents. He has financial backing from some local conservative donors, including former Republican candidate for governor Eddie Rispone and Lane Grigsby, the Baton Rouge contractor and GOP megadonor. Each donated $1,000 to his campaign, according to campaign finance reports.
Gaudet, 32, said he met Wicker through efforts to address blight in the parish. A Southern graduate, he is a former juvenile probation counselor who started a real estate brokerage and development firm and who runs a nonprofit that renovates condemned houses and mentors youth.
He described himself as "a moderate by definition, but progressive in some ways."
"District 10 is not one-dimensional," he said. "I think it's key for the person in that seat to have a certain level of diplomacy."
But one of his opponents, Quentin Anderson, slammed Gaudet for accepting donations from "extreme right wing interests" like Rispone and Grigsby.
"This is what corruption looks like. This is the status quo," he said in a news release Saturday.
Anderson's platform is focused largely on increasing equity in the criminal justice system, making public transportation more accessible and investing more in development opportunities like the ongoing Plank Road revitalization project.
An LSU Law grad, Anderson works for a Washington-based nonprofit that defends whistleblowers and journalists. He's also executive chairman of The Justice Alliance, a Louisiana nonprofit focused on social justice advocacy.
Anderson, 32, said he knows how to work effectively within the confines of the political process: "how to sell progressive policies to moderates and conservatives too."
Another candidate, Davante Lewis, has surpassed his opponents by several thousand dollars in fundraising. He said that money comes from a wide network of support from people across Louisiana and across the country.
Lewis, 28, is a graduate of McNeese state and is director of public affairs and outreach for the Louisiana Budget Project. He calls himself a consensus builder who decided to run for the District 10 seat after seeing "a dysfunctional council" whose members refuse to come together for the common good.
"Not everything has to be this big fight," he said, referencing recent spats over a potential settlement in the ongoing Alton Sterling wrongful death case and a failed effort to set up a tire shredding facility in East Baton Rouge.
Lewis and Gaudet share an endorsement from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber along with another candidate, Carolyn Coleman, who is touting her experience and wisdom acquired over more than six decades living in District 10.
Coleman, 65, spent her career in East Baton Rouge schools, first teaching and then running the school district's program for homeless youth, which she did for 15 years.
She remembers having to sit at the back of the bus because the seats up front were for White people.
"That kept me forging ahead and knowing there was a better day coming," she said, noting the current council is frequently divided along racial lines. "We've made some progress but we're still not where we ought to be."
Coleman also ran for council in 2004, and said many of the issues facing residents then — such as blighted properties, crime and economic development — are still persistent today, a testament to the lack of progress in recent years.
Eugene Collins, president of the Baton Rouge branch of the NAACP and an outspoken voice at recent Black Lives Matter protests, also has a previous Metro Council campaign under his belt. He ran for District 9 in 2016 and has been endorsed this time around by the East Baton Rouge Democratic Party.
Collins was one of three plaintiffs who sued the council in 2017, alleging an attempt to silence Black voices when several speakers were removed from a meeting after they offered public comment on the Alton Sterling shooting, which wasn't relevant to the agenda item under discussion.
Collins, 36, said he has a unique perspective and understands "what it's like to go from poverty to educated." He said drainage, transportation and development, including protecting against gentrification, are important issues facing the district. He wants to do night walks against crime in neighborhoods plagued with violence and said that job opportunities are crucial to give underserved residents an alternative.
Meanwhile Andrea Cosey has launched her first campaign for public office. She's lived in Old South Baton Rouge since 2007 and spent several years as a special education teacher in Baton Rouge public schools. She now operates a barber college along with her husband, which provides grant funding and financial aid to underserved applicants. She also serves on the board for the North Baton Rouge Economic Development District.
Cosey, 45, emphasized the importance of economic development and expanded job training programs for residents. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Cosey said she watched the city transform.
"I would like for us to restore our communities, embrace our rich and vibrant history and still move forward," she said.
Another candidate with an outside perspective is Markeda Cottonham, a recent transplant from San Francisco who moved here less than two years ago. She said she offers a fresh take on problems that have been plaguing Baton Rouge for decades.
For example, Cottonham said she didn't have a car when she moved here with her young daughter, and was shocked to learn how difficult it was to get around using public transportation. She works as a caregiver for the elderly and disabled in addition to doing event planning and music management on the side.
Cottonham, 29, billed herself as "the people's candidate," saying her priorities are to improve the lives of residents through better public services, more police accountability and higher wages.
"I know the struggle. I'm an everyday citizen," she said. "I'm not in this for political gain, just trying to make change."