The Louisiana state Senate contest between Democrats Cleo Fields and Patricia Smith is not only about experience and education, but also whether Fields really lives in the senatorial district.

Smith, a House member since 2008, said it is common knowledge that Fields primarily relies on a second home in a wealthy part of southeast Baton Rouge, far from his official residence in north Baton Rouge. "That is a serious character flaw to me," Smith said.

"I think it is important for folks to understand that using loopholes we have in the law to allow an individual to use a home that he would not live in today to actually run for an office says a lot about a person's integrity, their character," she said.

Fields said Smith's comments represent a desperate attempt to distract the voters of Senate District 14.

"My domicile is 5347 Hollywood St. and everybody knows that," he said, a reference to the home where he has long claimed his homestead exemption in the north part of the city.

"It is not a trick, it is not a game," Fields added. 

"Yes, I do own multiple properties," he said. "I have a right to do that. I have one domicile and that is where I am entitled to run."

The contest will be decided in the Oct. 12 primary since there are only two candidates.

Senate District 14 is located entirely in East Baton Rouge Parish, covering much of Southern University and LSU campuses as well as the State Capitol and downtown Baton Rouge. The district also includes the low-income neighborhoods next to the petrochemical plants in north Baton Rouge as well as the Gardere area in south Baton Rouge. Two-thirds of the registered voters are African American, and 60% are Democrats.

Fields is trying to regain the Senate seat he once held, before he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1992. He made an unsuccessful run for governor in 1995, was elected to the Senate a second time in 1997 and served until 2007 before being forced out by term limits.

Fields said he has been on the sidelines long enough.

"I have a very strong passion for education," Fields said. "That is one of my driving forces."

He said he is especially proud of the work of the Louisiana Leadership Institute, a nonprofit group he founded in 1993 to promote academic and leadership skills for youngsters.

Fields said during his dozen years out of office, he "stayed connected to the community, did public service not as a public official but as a private citizen."

Fields also said he stayed out of politics because he did not want to challenge an incumbent, and to allow his two sons to finish high school.

One son, Brandon, is a senior at Tulane Law School. His other son, Christopher, is about to graduate from Chapman University in Los Angeles.

Smith said for the past 12 years she has played a key role in the overhaul of state criminal justice rules, promoted Medicaid expansion before Gov. John Bel Edwards did so in 2016 and sponsored a 2018 bill to restore voting rights for some felons.

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She is a longtime advocate for deaf students, increasing the state minimum wage and a wide range of public school issues as a veteran member of the House Education Committee.

Smith often suggests that, unlike her opponent, she has never been engulfed in controversy over any personal dealings.

"People that know me know that I am an honest person, that I have a lot of integrity and am not willing to compromise my constituents," said Smith, 73.

The Senate post Fields and Smith are pursuing is held by state Sen. Yvonne Colomb, a Baton Rouge Democrat who is being forced out by term limits.

In 2003, then-state Sen. Fields, long known for his potent get-out-the-vote operation, easily fended off a challenge from Smith, a former member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.

Fields holds a wide financial edge in this latest race, reporting $175,457 in the bank compared to $65,977 for Smith, according to finance reports that were due 30 days before the primary.

Fields, 56, is a trial attorney who has practiced law since leaving the Legislature. "I think people know the work that I have done, the voice that I bring," he said.

"They know that I am a coalition builder," Fields said. "I don't just walk up to the mic and raise a whole bunch of sand and then go home, and then the next morning raise some more sand.

"They (voters) know I am the guy who is working to get the job done, building coalitions to make the state better.

"I think that is missing," Fields said. "People want some adults in the room."

But Smith said that by spending most of his time outside his district — Fields owns a home near the Country Club of Louisiana off Highland Road — he has lost touch with his constituents.

"When you are disconnected from the people day to day, then you lose your impact on them," she said.

Asked about his residence on Hollywood, Smith said, "We know it is not his primary home. We know that he does not spend nights at Hollywood."

Said Fields, "I have been connected to the district for a very long time and have not lost that connection."

"If she felt that I did not live in the district then there is a legal remedy for that," he added. "She chose not to exercise it."

Smith said she opted not to challenge Fields' residency in court because no attorney would take the case.

"They wouldn't take it because of his brother," said Smith, a reference to 19th Judicial District Court Judge Wilson Fields, a former state senator himself. (The judge's office did not return a call for comment.)

Cleo Fields dismissed Smith's statement, saying Wilson Fields would have had to recuse himself from any such challenge and that any ruling on a residency case could have been appealed. "When people are desperate, they say desperate things," Cleo Fields said of Smith.

Even 22 years later, controversy remains over a hidden FBI video that showed Fields stashing about $20,000 in cash in his pocket during a meeting with former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

"Well, again it is an unfortunate situation that has come up in his life," Smith said of the episode.

She said voters are entitled to know what the money was for. "It is another piece where integrity and character play a huge role in this race," Smith said.

Fields, as he often has, noted that he did not hold public office at the time of the video. "That was investigated by the highest authorities in the land and they concluded, not me, that I did nothing illegal," he said.

"I don't know what more to say or do," Fields said. "They concluded that Cleo Fields did not commit a crime."

In a 2009 authorized biography by Leo Honeycutt, Edwards said the $20,000 was to help Fields pay off his campaign debt from his 1995 race for governor.

Fields said he has not read the book.

"I don't want to comment on it," he said. "But, I do want to comment that whatever happened I was a private citizen and it wasn't illegal."

Mark Ballard of the Capitol News Bureau contributed to this report.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.