A polite four-way primary race for the House District 77 seat has given way to a heated runoff, as two conservative Republicans, Rob Maness and Mark Wright, vie to succeed John Schroder.
Maness was the top vote-getter in the Oct. 14 primary, capturing 37 percent of the vote to Wright's 25 percent.
The other two first-round candidates, businesswoman and attorney Lisa Condrey Ward and Justice of the Peace Casey Revere, have both endorsed Wright, as did the Republican Parish Executive Committee.
Schroder gave up the seat to run for state treasurer. His unexpired term ends in January 2020.
In the primary, all four candidates painted themselves as change agents who would go to Baton Rouge to fix the state's fiscal woes and make sure that roads and drainage are taken care of in the district, which centers on Covington and takes in much of western St. Tammany Parish, including Madisonville and part of Folsom.
In stump speeches, they stressed their own credentials and strengths rather than going on the offensive.
But the runoff has become more of a rumble. Maness has taken shots at Wright, criticizing the losing candidates who endorsed him as "insiders" from the local community and describing Revere as a 27-year-old would-be career politician.
Wright has criticized what he has called the "pathetic attacks of my opponent on my supporters and endorsements," saying that Maness can't assail Wright's own work in the maritime industry or on the Covington City Council.
Further roiling the waters are a series of attack ads paid for by a political action committee with ties to one of Maness' opponents in the 2016 race for U.S. senator, former U.S. Rep. John Fleming. Maness has responded with ads that say Baton Rouge insiders are attacking him and supporting their "insider candidate, Washington lobbyist Mark Wright."
Wright, 47, is southern regional vice president of the American Waterways Operators trade association. On his Facebook page, he has decried what he calls "desperate lies and conspiracy theories" and said he is not a Washington lobbyist but that his employer's policy is to register all of its regional executives as lobbyists. "There is a big difference between registering to lobby and lobbying as a profession," the post said.
Maness, 55, said that he is running on three and half decades of "real leadership" as an Air Force colonel, now retired, and with Entergy. "I know how to develop solution-oriented policy," he said.
He said Wright has done nothing to address drainage and transportation infrastructure needs in the district and that he didn't come out against controversial economic development district taxes imposed by parish government or Lake Pontchartrain Causeway toll increases.
"I believe the EDD taxes were illegal and unconstitutional and would have enacted legislation to rescind them over the head of the parish president," Maness said, adding that he spoke out against both, unlike Wright.
He blasted the negative ads by the Better Louisiana PAC linked to Fleming as retribution for the 2016 U.S. Senate race, saying he's disappointed that other Republicans are trying to split the party.
Painting himself as the outsider candidate, Maness said that political insiders are coalescing around his opponent.
"This race is about a new political era with Donald Trump — not that I love what he says all the time — it's a focus on America," Maness said. "The citizens and families of West St. Tammany are my first priority. ... They need somebody in their corner. That's what I'm running on."
Wright said he is running on the same theme as in the primary: that his experience working in an industry essential to Louisiana's economy, his service on a city council and his community involvement make up the best combination of experience for a state representative.
Wright said he was happy to get the endorsements of Ward and Revere, who he said had the best view of those left in the race. He called Maness' criticism of their backing sour grapes because Maness had sought their support as well.
"Lisa (Ward) actually called me the night of the election and said, 'I've told my people to vote for you,' " he said.
Wright said he is not running attack ads but is running a positive campaign and providing facts to counter his opponent's claims.
The Covington City Council had nothing to do with the parish's economic development district taxes or Causeway toll hikes, he said. But during his time on the City Council, he said, that body has never raised taxes.
"We have a very clear record in Covington of addressing roads and drainage," he said, pointing to meetings that Covington officials had with state and parish leaders after 2016 flooding and their support of legislation to remove snags from scenic rivers. "Where was Rob on that legislation?" he said. "It's clearly wrong to say we've done nothing. We've done a lot."
Wright said he's had to work to gain name recognition against an opponent who he said has spent millions to boost his name over the last three years, alluding to Maness' two losing runs for U.S. senator.
Wright has drawn more contributions recently, according to the latest campaign finance reports, with nearly $52,000 in donations from Sept. 25 through Nov. 6, compared to just over $28,000 for Maness.