With the DA's race too close to call and negative media coverage of Mike Harson on the ebb, will challenger Keith Stutes take the gloves off?
With the DA's race too close to call and negative media coverage of Mike Harson on the ebb, will challenger Keith Stutes take the gloves off? By Walter Pierce
Keith Stutes is all go-go-go these days. On Saturday, Sept. 20, he had five campaign stops in three parishes including a clay shoot in Vermilion, a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., in Lafayette and a volunteer fire department get-together in Acadia. That's a typical day for the former chief felony prosecutor for the 15th Judicial District, which comprises the aforementioned parishes.
"When you're in the middle of the swim, it's kind of hard to see the end and what's all around you, but I'm definitely cruising at a good pace," Stutes says. "I'm everywhere I can be."
Photo by Robin May
Candidate Keith Stutes at a recent campaign event
The Republican challenger is in the final push to send his former boss, District Attorney Mike Harson, onto the unemployment roll. Yet, believe it or don't, after an infamous and no doubt personally embarrassing OWI bribery scandal in 2013 in the 15th Judicial District Attorney's Office that will almost certainly lead to jail time for one of his former assistant prosecutors and two other office workers and, more recently, the revelation first brought to light by this paper that he quietly gave himself a pay raise even as the foul miasma of the OWI scandal clouded the air, Mike Harson has a good shot at getting re-elected.
Stutes can win, say Lafayette political insiders familiar with both men who asked not to be identified for this story, but it won't be easy. Harson, an old-school Democrat - we're told he bristles when people tell him he could cruise to re-election if he would just switch his party registration to Republican - has had the job for 20 years and incumbency has built-in advantages, namely two decades of cutting deals, shaking hands, slapping backs, doing favors, otherwise known as forging political alliances. And his nonprofit, which hosts an annual golf tournament, has doled out more than $1 million to nonprofits over the years - something the incumbent has been eager to advertise in photos on his Facebook page and in campaign ads (the kind of mixing of nonprofits and politics the IRS might frown upon). Harson has scratched a lot of backs, and now he's leaning in for some scratching of his own.
"The only thing Harson has done for decades is eat crawfish and barbecue with school board members, mayors and councilmen of little towns, sheriffs, deputies, etc. - and he's done favors' for all of them," says one source.
That's especially true in Vermilion Parish, where popular Sheriff Mike Couvillon and other pols are squarely in Harson's corner. The consensus among our sources is that Harson will win Vermilion handily - at least by a 65-35 margin, if not better.
"Last night I spoke with someone in Vermilion Parish who is very connected politically and he told me Harson owns the parish, especially because of the judge's race with his former assistant DA [Laurie Hulin] as a candidate whose dad [Jewitt Hulin] was the most powerful politician as treasurer of the police jury and whose family and friends are everywhere. Every yard in Vermilion Parish with her sign also has a Harson sign," says that same source. "And we know how Vermilion is: the most clannish, parochial, provincial and paranoid grouping of people, and Harson has the clans - all of them."
What's more, says another source, is that Harson's staff in Vermilion is the most competent of all three parishes. They're well liked and respected, the peccadilloes in the Lafayette office notwithstanding.
Moreover, the OWI scandal in the Lafayette office didn't get much coverage in Vermilion Parish. A search on the website of the parish's biggest newspaper, The Abbeville Meridional, shows the most recent story was last April when Harson mailed out an apology to voters for his lack of oversight in the pay-for-plea affair.
But, Stutes says, based on his interactions with voters across the 15th JDC, the scandal is getting traction with voters due to the coverage by Lafayette media, notably television, which reaches Acadia and Vermilion parishes.
"More and more people are acknowledging that they know something about it because it comes up in the conversations," Stutes says. "There's been plenty of coverage about it. Mike's apology letter got that information out there for people who didn't know about it. It's been a process, and more and more people are asking about it. And the media has kept it alive with the trial [of alleged mastermind Robert Williamson] that was supposed to be coming up in October."
Fortunately for Harson, a federal judge decided to move the Williamson trial until after the Nov. 4 election.
District Attorney Mike Harson
Acadia, however, is a little dicier for Harson. We're told it's a parish at a crossroads politically. Many of the old-time politicians like former Assessor Russell Benoit - solons with whom Harson had close ties over many years - have died or retired. Acadia feels like the stepchild in the 15th JDC, we're also told, and has long wanted its own district attorney, so Harson might face a "throw the bums out" sentiment at the polls. But a search on the website of the largest newspaper in Acadia, The Crowley Post-Signal, shows no coverage of the OWI scandal. None.
"I'll bet a Ruth's Chris steak dinner [Harson] doesn't win Acadia 70-30," insists a source. "Keith has an opportunity to pick up a lot of votes in Acadia."
Yet, all agree, Harson will probably take Acadia Parish, too. That's two of the three parishes in the district falling into the Harson column. But of course Lafayette is the big enchilada. There are roughly 39,000 registered voters in Acadia Parish and 37,000 in Vermilion. Lafayette has about 147,000 - almost twice as many as Acadia and Vermilion combined.
Stutes will need to win big in Lafayette to win at all - "probably by at least a 54-46 margin," a source in the know tell us.
That's something the Stutes campaign says is within reach based on a mid-September poll The IND obtained from the Stutes campaign shortly before press time for this issue.
The automated telephone poll conducted Sept. 17 among 1,000 likely voters by Magellan Strategies of Baton Rouge, a go-to pollster for Republicans, shows Stutes with a 53-40 lead over Harson. According to the Stutes camp, the former ADA's lead "is fueled, in significant measure, by dissatisfaction with events in the DA's office." A campaign staffer tells us the poll's respondents were weighted by parish, meaning roughly half of those queried were likely voters in Lafayette Parish. It was conducted before The IND reported that Harson had given himself the pay raise, but according to the Stutes campaign, respondents were asked about the topic, and 74 percent said they would be "less likely" to vote for Harson if he raised his pay; 51 percent said they would be "much less likely."
We reached out to Harson via his office email as well as through Facebook for comment to this story. In both cases our requests for an interview were quickly fielded by Ricky Verret, who said he was handling media requests for the DA. Verret asked what our deadline was and said he would relay the message to Harson.
This was about the time that IND Editorial Director Leslie Turk's report - unflattering, yes, but accurate - about the district attorney, "Amid OWI scandal, Harson sneaks in a raise," was posted to TheIND.com. The story detailed Harson giving himself a $12,000-per-year raise, which he did in an inarguably questionable way: He requested an ordinance, which the City-Parish Council approved, adjusting the manning tables in the DA's office to spread around the salary of his former top prosecutor, Stutes, without explicitly indicating in the request letter (see accompanying story) that some of that extra money was going into his own pocket. In fact, the way the ordinance was worded it sounded like the raises were going only to staff members, and none of the councilmen contacted by Turk was aware Harson was among those getting a boost in his LCG salary - a 29 percent boost, to be specific.
We never heard back from Verret.?
Following our story on the raise other media also reported it, and there's little doubt those reports will help Stutes among undecided voters. But can Stutes rely solely on unflattering newspaper and television reports while staying on the high ground himself?
Says one of our insiders: "He can't win with a do-gooder pose, relying on media and third parties like former U.S. attorneys to do the heavy lifting for him. People want their politicians to fight and expect a fight, and expect Stutes to take the fight to Harson and also expect Harson to counter that Stutes was in his office 15 feet away the whole time the scandal was unfolding and never saw it either. But that would be a fight Stutes would win. Without that fight, Stutes cannot win."
For the time being, the would-be district attorney says he has no plans of devoting campaign resources to reminding voters about the OWI scandal and personal pay raise.
"I've always tried to communicate this as a positive campaign because there's always been an element of people out there who react badly to negative campaigns," he says.
But Stutes also questions why, if he were to do so, it would constitute mud-slinging, countering that it's simply a matter of "pointing out the facts."
"Mike is a nice enough guy, but it's really about the progress of his time at the helm over 20 years," Stutes adds. "The question really is: Is it worth continuing, or is it time for change?"