The Daily Advertiser got one thing right with this morning’s cover story, “The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Race: 4 Candidates, 3 Big Issues." There are four candidates running.
The Advertiser’s article was inspired by the first round of forums featuring the four announced candidates running to succeed Sheriff Mike Neustrom when the election rolls around in October.
Presented by the Upper Lafayette Economic Development Foundation, the forum attracted a jam-packed audience crammed inside LITE’s auditorium Thursday for a first taste of the candidates running. Just the sheer number who turned out for the event — there seriously wasn’t a free seat in the house — was a testament to the importance of this race.
It's no secret: Picking the right candidate to replace Neustrom will be no easy task. In his four terms, Neustrom has redefined how the chief law enforcement officer of our parish conducts business and, ultimately, how we approach incarceration — replacing ineffective “get tough on crime” philosophies with evidence-based research and programs aimed at providing certain offenders with a road to societal rehabilitation. And the data show Neustrom's approach is proving effective (we’ll save that story for another day).
Getting back to Thursday’s forum, the issues surrounding this race are complex and multi-layered, which made Thursday’s hour-and-a-half forum more like a brief introduction, a chance for the candidates to list their job qualifications while largely sandwiching their positions on the issues at hand between blanket platitudes about how they’re our best bet for holding up the torch of justice, law, order and other generalized police-speak.
Thursday’s forum essentially boiled down to three questions that were supplied to candidates prior to the event, with each getting a three-minute response, followed by a round of closing statements allowing the candidates to say whatever they wanted to say.
And this is where that misleading headline comes into play. Sure, there were three questions featured during this first forum, two relevant, and a third that was arguably but a pipe dream that shouldn’t have much bearing on how we grade these candidates as the campaigns play out through October. That question centered on whether we should relocate the jail, eliciting a range of ideas and possibilities from three of the candidates that ranged anywhere from moving the entire Downtown operation over to the Willow Street complex, to building a new jail, to building a new jail on undeveloped areas at the Willow Street property.
Sure, this might happen one of these days, but if and when that time ever comes, we’ll probably be having this same discussion about who’s going to succeed Neustrom’s successor, meaning a long time from now. (One candidate kept his response grounded in reality, saying this decision, if it were ever to be made, would come from the City-Parish Council, not the sheriff. And he's right.)
The other two questions of the day — the ones dealing with relevant issues in this race — delved into Neustrom, his business-like approach to the job and the numerous diversion programs rolled out under his watch targeting rehabilitation and recidivism; followed by a question asking how the candidates would unify all the various law enforcement agencies in the parish and how directly the sheriff’s office should work with these other agencies.
Yet, with only three-minute responses allowed for each question, the candidates merely scratched the surface, mostly sticking to broad declarations of respect for Neustrom and the diversion programs, followed by more platitudes explaining why they’re the best man for the job.
To sum things up, Thursday’s forum gave us our first chance to get all four candidates under the same roof; we now know each of their backgrounds and their extensive lists of job qualifications; and it allowed the candidates a chance to scratch the surface on at least two of the issues that should go into guiding our decisions on election day.
And with this first round down and a slate of forums to come, our hope is that we’ll start hearing more ideas and bigger questions — questions that cover all the important and relevant issues surrounding this race, the type of questions that will either make the candidate dig down deep for a thorough, well-thought-out response, revealing who we're dealing with and what to expect if he's elected. So despite what you might’ve seen on this morning's cover page of The Advertiser, it's important to know: There are far more than just three big issues surrounding this race for sheriff; unfortunately, we’ve only scratched the surface of two.