When St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain first ran for the office he’s now held for nearly 20 years, he faced a crowded field of 10 candidates, eventually defeating Slidell Police Chief Ben Morris in a runoff by a scant 300 votes.
Since that 1995 election, Strain hasn’t seen a formidable challenge, and he drew not a single opponent four years ago. But this fall, as the sheriff seeks his sixth term in office, he has three opponents in the Oct. 24 primary, and just as in his first campaign, one of them is a Slidell police chief.
Randy Smith, who is term-limited in his job as Slidell’s top cop, announced he was running for sheriff in January. Jennifer Werther, a retired Navy chief petty officer and secretary of the Louisiana Libertarian Party, began her campaign efforts much earlier, taking to social media in mid-2014. Scott Illing jumped into the race in late July, days after he retired after a long career as a U.S. Customs agent.
Like Strain, Smith and Illing are Republicans.
Strain said he doesn’t think there’s anything to be read into the fact that he has competition this time around. “It’s a terrific job,” he said.
He’s running an upbeat campaign that focuses on what he says is St. Tammany’s low crime rate and his efforts over two decades to lower it further, even as the parish has grown.
“My objective is to bring to (voters’) attention that we are blessed to be living in a parish where crime is an afterthought,” he said.
But when candidates decide to take on longtime incumbents with big campaign war chests, it shows they sense some vulnerability, University of New Orleans professor Ed Chervenak said. Politically savvy candidates don’t get into races to be sacrificial lambs, he said.
Smith certainly can claim to be politically savvy. Like Strain, he beat Ben Morris when he first ran for office, and in 2011, he was unopposed for police chief.
“It’s not an easy challenge to run against a well-known incumbent,” he said of the sheriff’s race. “I thought about it a long time.” But the time is right, he said, because he thinks St. Tammany voters are hungry for new leadership.
The two political newcomers in the race, Illing and Werther, also stress the need for change as well as their outsider status. “The sheriff has been in office too long,” Illing said. “It’s become political, and the other candidate running (Smith) is also political.”
Werther said corruption scandals in St. Tammany Parish government and her desire to root them out are part of what’s spurring her candidacy.
Push for term limits
Voter discontent and a push against establishment candidates — particularly in the Republican Party — are national trends, Chervenak said. The popularity of a presidential candidate like Donald Trump is evidence of that, he said.
In St. Tammany, he points to a strong push for term limits by good-government advocates as part of the reason incumbents like Strain are drawing opposition. The parish’s large municipalities — Slidell, Covington and Mandeville — have term limits. But efforts to impose limits on the 14-member Parish Council haven’t yet succeeded.
The council will vote next month on whether to put term limits for its members on the ballot next year after earlier voting not to include such a measure with a package of other proposed charter amendments on the Nov. 21 ballot.
The only parishwide office that is term-limited is that of the parish president, with a three-term limit.
For years, St. Tammany hadn’t seen much turnover in most parish offices. But recently, two parishwide officials who once seemed unbeatable left office under duress: Peter Galvan resigned as coroner before pleading guilty to pocketing public money in 2013, and last year, Walter Reed announced he would not seek a sixth term in the face of a federal investigation that turned into an indictment in April.
This summer, Clerk of Court Malise Prieto surprised political observers by saying she would not seek a sixth term, citing what she called “ugly politics.”
The only parishwide official in St. Tammany who didn’t draw an opponent during qualifying last week was Charles Preston, who won a special election in May 2014 to fill the remainder of Galvan’s term as coroner.
Strain was the only candidate in the sheriff’s race to file a campaign finance report 90 days before the Oct. 24 primary, and he had nearly $350,000 in his account for the period that ended July 16. While Smith and Illing say they are having success raising funds, the 30-day report — which all four candidates must file — will shed more light on how well-financed the challengers are.
Debate on crime rate
But as the race picks up momentum, Strain’s opponents are beginning to snipe not only at the length of his tenure but also at his performance in office, with his spending practices, deputies’ pay, oversight of the St. Tammany Parish jail and the parish’s work-release program emerging as issues.
Strain called his 750 employees the Sheriff’s Office’s best asset and credits them with the parish’s reputation as a safe place to live. He said his deputies are the best-paid law enforcement officers in the parish, and he’s provided at least a 2.5 percent cost of living raise every year he’s been sheriff.
The sheriff takes issue with those who criticize his extensive spending on equipment as “buying toys,” calling such expenditures essential for deputies’ safety. “Equipment ensures that at the end of a shift, you see your family,’’ he said.
Strain boasts he has had clean audits every year of his tenure and cites a drop in crime during that time. The year before he took office, there were 10 murders in unincorporated St. Tammany Parish, he said, but in recent years, that number has been in the low single digits, with none in 2013 and four last year.
But the sheriff’s opponents say the low crime rate has little to do with Strain. Crime is low in St. Tammany Parish because of its residents, who are mostly family-oriented and law-abiding, and because of good schools and a strong economy, Illing said.
Werther said she would bring fiscal conservatism to the office — something she said is lacking. She criticized Strain for what she calls empire building, citing his construction of buildings such as a new forensic lab.
Illing and Smith are adamant that deputies need a pay raise. Smith said the agency is losing deputies to other jurisdictions. Illing said a raise of 10 to 12 percent is needed and could be accomplished by more effective and efficient budgeting and perhaps reducing the workforce through attrition.
Smith and Illing both said the running of the jail is a concern. In August 2012, Strain and the parish signed a comprehensive agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that stemmed from concerns about the handling of suicidal and mentally ill prisoners.
Smith said reviewing jail operations would be a top priority for him. Illing said jails are difficult to run and it is critical to have supervisors with Department of Corrections experience. At present, he said, the jail is staffed mainly with deputies who have run afoul of Strain or who are young and inexperienced.
Werther wants to shrink the size of the jail population and stop taking in state prisoners.
The challengers also are zeroing in on work-release as a vulnerable spot for the incumbent. Work-release programs allow offenders near the end of their sentences to work in the community during the day while being locked up at night. Strain closed Northshore Workforce Solutions, a privatized work-release program in Covington, last year after a rash of escapes and media coverage that focused on lax oversight.
Smith called the issue one of public safety and said he wants to review the Slidell location that has remained in operation, noting that it has some of the same management as the Covington facility. He is not a supporter of privatizing work-release programs, he said.
Illing said such programs are run effectively in many places, including by the federal government. But he faulted Strain for giving a contract to a private company without bidding it out, noting that the company’s owners had connections to the sheriff.
Smith and Illing both tout their law enforcement and managerial experience. Smith points to his success in running the Slidell Police Department as evidence he can handle the bigger job. Illing, who was in a supervisory position as a U.S. Customs agent, says he managed task forces ranging in size from 40 to 400.
Werther says her budgeting background with the Navy included having to makes plans for budget reductions of 10 percent and 20 percent.
But Strain says he should be judged not only on what he’s done, managing a force that’s doubled in size in 20 years, but also on what he plans to do, including plans to reduce the size of patrol areas to improve response time.
The four candidates will face off publicly for the first time Monday when Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany — one of the loudest voices for term limits — hosts a debate at the John Davis Center in Lacombe beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.