A mandate for the unknown

by Christiaan Mader

Garber's victory in the sheriff's race reflects his status as a political unknown. In a race lacking in extreme policy differences, Lafayette voters cast against Leger, the devil they knew.

Photo by Robin May

As tense as the race for sheriff got in the last 10 months, it was easy to forget that it was a contest between conservatives. Attorney Mark Garber won by 7,000 votes, but that tide reflects no repudiation of one political brand over another.

Yes, Chad Leger doubled down on jingoism with his “sanctuary city” show piece, betting that folks could be scared into voting for him, and in service of that tactic he attacked his would-be predecessor Mike Neustrom. But parse Leger’s transitional platform line by line, and you don’t see a lot that Garber would disagree with.

New jail? Yes, please. More cops? Sure, why not. Tension between cops and the black community? Not in this town, bubba! Syrian refugees? Lock the door.

The answers you get on those sort of issues in a campaign are so blasé and populist that you don’t really get much but a crude sketch of a candidate’s vision. Maybe that’s a failure of media. I’ll take that hit if I have to.

So what was the difference exactly? Well, it seems pretty clear that Leger was a regional candidate. He carved his fiefdom out of Scott and Duson and Lafayette’s rural periphery. Folks are inclined to rally around their own, and when negatives balance the scales they vote for the devil they know. Leger’s quarter of a century in local law enforcement gave his supporters reasonable expectation of competency. Spending so much of his time as a provincial chief relegated his influence to the areas he patrolled.

The proof is in the voter pudding. Leger cleaned Garber’s clock in the districts closest to Scott City Hall, winning those areas outright with close to 20 point margins in some cases. Moving to Lafayette’s “urban core,” Garber boasted smaller but decided victories in the interior city precincts, as well as Carencro, Broussard and Youngsville.

At the beginning of this campaign, Garber worked tirelessly to build name recognition across the parish. As a trial attorney, he likely didn’t have much opportunity for press and wide public engagement, so before the marathon crucible of forums began, Garber lagged behind Leger. Steadily, as Garber made himself familiar to Lafayette Parish, his resume countered Leger’s early info advantage. By the end, Garber got real good at rattling off his accomplishments in tight windows of time.

Both men sloshed through negatives throughout the campaign — Leger battled unflattering public perception as a bully and a racist, and that was before he rolled out his “sanctuary city” platform which certainly didn’t help that characterization. Garber fought insinuations that he is a fickle careerist, jumping from job to job as best suits his whimsy. That description compounded with allegations that he actively courted clients in Honduras for his worker’s comp practice and with revelations of a training fatality that occurred on his watch while with the Arlington Police Department.

Both men claim to have run clean, issue-driven campaigns. Note that nearly all of the above revelations were generated by their campaigns or proxies associated with them. And when those slings and arrows came from parties outside their campaigns, they were sure to join the volley. That’s contemporary American politics — throwing rocks with your left hand while raising your right in open-palmed innocence.

Perhaps it was Leger’s public history that worked to Garber’s advantage. Garber, as it were, was — and remains — a political unknown. Even given public notice of his skeletons, the would-be narrative just didn’t stick. Truthfully, that’s not a reflection of Garber’s fitness to serve; it’s a reflection of his novelty as a candidate.

The bottom line is, much of what could be said about Leger could be traced to a history in the public eye, rightly or wrongly. In a time where voters couldn’t care less about lower card races — check the abysmal 39 percent turnout in that race — folks will cast their votes with the least unattractive candidate. Both men had their negatives, Leger’s just stuck harder in areas outside his sphere of direct influence.

Garber takes office in July 2016, so he has time to set up his transition team and begin the first new sheriff’s administration we’ve seen since Y2K. Looking toward the next four years, should Garber want to keep this job, he’ll have more opportunities for error and thus more risk to the cleanliness of his name.

Leger’s political career is far from over. Even give the 10 point spread in this year’s election, you better believe he’d be a viable candidate against a battle-worn Garber in 2019. Garber’s got four years to prove that he was a worthy bet over a familiar face.