With Memorial Day upon us, Gonzales’ Jambalaya Festival in the books, it is now campaign season. Election Day, October 12, will see every parish-wide office on the ballot along with 11 seats on the Parish Council where the normally seamless transition could be a thing of the past. Upstart candidates, unwilling to bide their time and wait their turn, are hoping to capitalize on the palpable anti-incumbency sentiment which seems to have taken root in Ascension.
After a quarter century of Home Rule maybe its time for a mini-revolution.
Seven seats have been targeted by declared challengers, with the official Qualifying Period from August 6-8. At least two more have been subject to rumor with Districts 3 (currently held by Travis Turner) and District 8 (Teri Casso) the only two in which no opponent has been rumored to be considering a run. Those challengers have eschewed the traditional paths to power, family connections and/or playing ball with the powers-that-be.
Consider the current Council configuration.
Todd Lambert has been around since the beginning, first elected on October 21, 1995 though he would sit four years out after losing his seat in 1999. He would return in 2003 and has not faced opposition since. That will change as Dal Waguespack has declared his intention to seek the District 9 seat; and he will do so with the backing of Todd Lambert’s District 7 colleague.
That NEVER would have happened in the past, even though the Council has seen several feuds and members who loathed each other. But, openly endorsing a colleagues’s opponent…NEVER. Aaron Lawler was brought into the fold before his bid to replace one-time Golden Boy (and thought to be heir to President Tommy Martinez’ throne) Chris Loar.
Lawler came on the scene pushing the Better Recreation NOW! ten-year, five mill tax which failed in 2014. In keeping with the tradition of co-opting future colleagues the Council appointed Lawler to the Board of Adjustments on August 7 (alongside one of his declared opponents as it happened). With his pal Loar’s embarrassment in the October 24, 2015 election for parish president Lawler was free to go rogue…and publicly seek the ouster of a colleague four years later.
It is symptomatic of the anti-incumbency climate in which a sitting member feels the need to distance himself from the old guard. Lawler will face an actual outsider on October 12 in the candidacy of Kim Christy who came on the scene to combat the corporate takeover attempt that was A Better Ascension. ABA’s bid to abolish the parish presidency (which Lawler backed with all his limited political capital) came to an end last July.
ABA had two other Council proponents, Bill Dawson and Teri Casso, both of whom ascended to seats on the legislative authority after being appointed to parish regulatory boards/commissions. Dawson, the Council architect of ABA’s push, got his start on Ascension Economic Development Corporation and was seated on a Home Rule Charter Revision Committee a decade ago. A member of Chris Loar’s campaign steering committee, Dawson was also the favored candidate of his District 2 predecessor, Kent Schexnaydre in 2015.
Joel Robert is seeking to unseat Dawson from District 2.
Casso preceded Dawson on a similar path to power, also appointed to Ascension Parish Economic Development’s Board of Directors on October 1, 2009 (according to official meeting minutes) and that Charter Revision Committee. Casso was elected to the District 8 seat in 2011. No candidate has emerged to challenge her this year.
District 1’s Oliver Joseph has served the west bank since winning a Special Election to finish the unexpired term of Alvin Thomas, who was rendered ineligible by a felony conviction in 2006. Joseph had been bested by Thomas in 2003, before accepting an appointment to the Board of Ascension Consolidated Utilities District #1 on February 9, 2004. Coincidentally, Joseph had been removed from that very same board on December 18, 2003, two months after losing the election described above.
Incumbent Benny Johnson is being challenged by Michael Mason for the District 11 seat. Johnson was brought into the fold back in 2000 when appointed to the Board for Fire District No. 1, a position he appears to have held until winning his seat on the Council in 2007. It’s par for the course, challengers being advised to bide their time and gain some experience on one of the appointed boards as the incumbent enjoys “one more term,” hopefully unopposed.
Even District 4’s Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, a rogue elephant trampling on council feelings, accepted an appointment to the Planning/Zoning Commission for 2011. Satterlee stood for election anyway, pulling off a stunner when he unseated the Council’s chair, Pat Bell that same year.
First-term incumbent John Cagnolatti spent four years on the City Council in Gonzales before losing to Gary Lacombe in 2012. Not to worry, with a parish president’s race to coattail on he beat the District 10 incumbent, Bryan Melancon in 2015. Along with Doc Satterlee, Melancon was outside the council loop during his tenure (2012-15). Cagnolatti is up against Jeff Pettit on October 12.
And then there are mere family traditions to recommend one for council. District 3’s Travis Turner whose father is District Court Judge Alvin Turner, Jr. We have not heard of anyone challenging Turner this go around.
Randy Clouatre hails from one of Ascension’s more politically active clans. In the face of Chase Melancon’s vigorous campaign Clouatre has opted out, declaring he will not seek reelection to District 6.
Speaking of politically active clans, legendary police juror/councilman Gilbert Buratt’s progeny has occupied the District 5 seat since winning office in 2003. Dempsey Lambert brings that old-school, police jury mentality to the council. Dispensing favors to supporters, subtly threatening any constituent bold enough to sport his opponent’s campaign sign. That opponent is Brandon Golson.
The choice(s) could not be much clearer. Status quo…
or not. Eight current members of the Council endorsed Kenny Matassa for parish president, and maintenance of that status quo in 2015. As it happens, all eight are backing the same candidate for president in 2019.