|Kip Holden and Mike Walker, once close allies, now are facing off in a mayoral contest generating little excitement from donors or voters.|
Back in the summer of 2008, Metro Council member Mike Walker counted Mayor Kip Holden among his closest political allies. “I love Kip Holden to death,” Walker said at the time, in reference to the mayor's proposed $900 million bond issue. “I'm glad he has the courage to present this bond issue.”
These days, the love is nowhere to be found, and Walker—the main challenger in the mayor's bid for a third term—is taking on his former friend in one campaign forum after another, attacking Holden's record on crime, crime and, well, crime.
“The No. 1 responsibility of all public officials is public safety,” Walker said at a forum in late September. “Mayor Holden has forgotten that.”
That Walker and Holden's relationship has devolved so dramatically in such a relatively short amount of time is one of the more interesting aspects of the 2012 Baton Rouge mayor's race. The other is that the lackluster political contest has been such a sleeper—focusing on few issues, attracting just one viable opponent, raising little money, and generating almost no interest outside of the most diehard of political circles.
Why didn't more hopefuls challenge a mayor that just 18 months ago was at war with the sheriff, the Metro Council and the daily newspaper? Is Holden's victory a foregone conclusion—or is there anything Walker can do to win? And what does it say about a community in which no one wants to run for the city's top elected position?
“I recruited hard for this race and finally quit because I couldn't find anyone that would light a fire under people,” says businessman and political activist Lane Grigsby. “Politics is so ugly and mean-spirited that qualified, capable and competent people do not want to run.”
The turning point
Four years ago, only those in municipal political circles thought Walker would challenge his buddy Holden. But then, in politics four years is a lifetime. Back in the halcyon days of Holden's first term, the two worked well together and Walker championed several of Holden's prized initiatives, including a new downtown library, a tolerance resolution and—above all—the $900 million bond issue, which would've paid for a new jail, infrastructure improvements and the controversial Alive attraction downtown.
“They were such allies that Walker was a bigger advocate for the tolerance resolution than Kip,” recalls political radio show host Jim Engster. “Kip, in fact, actually told Walker they didn't have the votes, and Walker insisted it was the right thing to do. Walker has totally flipped on that now.”
Even at the beginning of Holden's second term, the two were still in the same camp. But throughout 2009, Walker began moving from right of center to far right field, clearly trying to differentiate himself from the mayor, who at the same time was becoming increasingly contentious in his relations with the council. The bond issue elections—three of them, no less—had a lot to do with it. The parish was firmly divided over the issue, and that split was reflected among politicians, who were either for it or against.
The other major factor was a rising crime rate and the perception that it was spiraling out of control, spilling over into white neighborhoods from the more notoriously dangerous low-income areas in the northern part of the parish. In September 2010, when a Beauregard Town woman was murdered in her own home by an intruder, who also shot the victim's young daughter, the outrage over crime bubbled over at a public rally—a moment, the Walker team now says, that marked the councilman's split from the mayor.
“Kip and Mike were allies till Beauregard Town, and Mike went out there and said there is a crime emergency in this community,” says political consultant Roy Fletcher, who is producing Walker's campaign ads. “The break really started at that point.”
Crime and cash
Thus, by the time Walker officially entered the race, it wasn't much of a surprise. Nor has been his focus on crime. It was evident from the day he kicked off his campaign with a speech to supporters at Cortana Mall, asking them rhetorically: “Are we becoming New Orleans?”
When pressed on the racial implications of the question, Walker said he meant only to suggest that Baton Rouge's crime rate is almost as bad as the Crescent City's. In the months since, he has hammered at the theme time and again. In forum after forum—and there have been plenty—Walker calls for a zero tolerance-style approach and the creation of a 24/7 misdemeanor court, while Holden touts his solution, an Operation Ceasefire-style initiative called BRAVE. Both are good ideas, but the candidates have only criticisms for one another.
“Crime is really the only issue in this race,” says political pollster Bernie Pinsonat. “It's probably 70% of Kip's problem and it's all anyone cares about.”
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If the campaign is short on issues, it has also been short on money. So far, Holden and Walker together have raised just more than $800,000 and have spent even less than that. To put in perspective, consider that candidates running last year for BESE—an unpaid position—spent more than $1 million each.
“If you compared a BESE race, which is basically nothing, and the money spent last year by these education reform groups to get Chas Roemer re-elected and Kira Orange Jones elected, it's amazing,” Engster notes. “Even Bobby Jindal, with no opponent in 2011, spent $10 million.”
Analysts attribute the relatively anemic pace of fundraising and campaign spending to a couple of factors. For one, Holden has name recognition throughout the parish so doesn't need to spend a lot on advertising. For another, big donors haven't coalesced behind either candidate in great numbers and, therefore, have kept their purse strings tightly drawn.
One notable exception is the Oct. 17 fundraiser for Walker at a hip restaurant in New Orleans' Warehouse District, a rather curious venue given the candidate's blue-collar, Biblebelt-bred demeanor. It is being hosted by some of the state's top Republican pols—U.S. Sen. David Vitter, and U.S. Reps. Bill Cassidy and Steve Scalise—and suggests that money from the GOP might finally start flowing in significant amounts.
“That's a big, big deal and it's a big help to Walker,” says Pinsonat. “There's only so much money you can raise in Baton Rouge.”
Still, with political ads only now starting to hit the airwaves, many voters are unaware there is even a campaign under way. As a result, there hasn't been a lot of excitement.
“What is interesting to me is that no one has started advertising on television just four weeks out from Election Day,” says Bob Mann, who holds the Manship Chair at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication. “You see yard signs and stories about the forums, but the advertising is starting pretty late.”
Running from the race
Why didn't more hopefuls jump into the race? Besides Walker, only two other minor candidates are giving it a shot, Gordon Mese and Steve Myers. Both are credible candidates with professional backgrounds, and could pick up enough votes together to force Holden and Walker into a runoff. But neither has the name recognition or political organization in place to make it to December, much less win. (See related story here.)
Others who considered a run but decided against it suggest the timing wasn't right. East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who concedes he was “approached by several individuals and asked to run,” opted out because his “heart and background are in law enforcement. … I plan to stay the course and continue doing what I'm doing.”
Metro Council member Tara Wicker also gave the race serious thought, after being courted by various groups. She decided against it because she “didn't want to get in the middle of everything going on between Mike and Kip.” Also, she says she didn't want to run because she knew it would be an uphill battle to take on the incumbent. After all, even though Holden doesn't enjoy the same level of widespread support he did during his first term, he's still the mayor, and a generally likable one at that.
“With him being the incumbent and having the popularity that he has, it would have been tough,” Wicker says.
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In reality, the numbers are the main reason most candidates on either side of the political spectrum have stayed out, say political analysts. Given that nearly 40% of the city's population is African American, and the fact Holden is still popular with black voters—and not that unpopular with most white voters—the race is his to lose.
“I think people are reasonably enough satisfied with Holden not to turn on him at the end of the day,” political consultant George Kennedy says.
That said, if Walker can raise enough money in the next two weeks to flood the airwaves with seriously negative ads—enough to make Holden's supporters either stay home or vote against him—Walker could force the mayor into a runoff. If that happens, all bets are off. But at this point, analysts don't think that's a likely scenario.
“If he gets 95% of the African American vote, he only needs 10%-20% of the white vote to win,” Mann says. “That's why you haven't seen more candidates running.”
There may be another reason, though, that more candidates have not thrown their hat in the ring: a general disgust with the electoral process and politics in general. People are burned out, cynical and fed up with the negative tone of campaigns and the incessant criticism that seems to follow getting elected. Grigsby says that's why those he approached about running scoffed at the idea.
“I spoke to elected officials, businesspeople and non-elected public servants,” Grigsby says. “In one case it would have meant a pay reduction. In another, they said they didn't think their spirit would be able to stand the ugliness of a political campaign. I quit recruiting.”
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Pinsonat says those attitudes are not unique to Baton Rouge or to Louisiana. He sees the same reaction all over the country and for many different types of races.
“You've got a lot of smart people running businesses who would be great running government but they're not going to go into politics because they don't want to put up with what you have to put up with,” he says. “It used to be an honor and a challenge. Today, they not only are not interested; they don't like the political process and don't want any part of it.”
If correct, that's a sad commentary on American democracy, and it portends a bleak future, long-term, not only for Baton Rouge but for the state and the country. But others say nothing that profound is actually going on in this mundane mayor's race.
“There are still plenty of people who would like to run for mayor; they just don't want to run this time around,” Mann says. “I think for this race, no one thought they could beat Kip without another African American in the race and politicians usually do not like to run in races they know they cannot win.”
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