Highs and Lows

by Nathan Stubbs

Saturday night was the end of the road in many of Lafayette's hard-fought local elections.

After all the votes were tallied Saturday night, there was plenty of celebration and plenty of heartache. Going into election day, Lafayette was home to many of the state's more heated legislative races, as well as having contested races for all nine city-parish council seats.

No finish was as dramatic as in the District 31 state House race, where incumbent Don Trahan surprised many by pulling off a narrow 33-vote victory over Nancy Landry. Landry, who was ahead in polls leading up to the election and raised nearly twice the funds as Trahan, was on top in returns through most of the night, up until the last few precincts came in from Vermilion Parish.

Making the loss harder to stomach, Landry received multiple calls, including from City-Parish President Joey Durel, congratulating her on a victory just as the last returns came in and swung the election the other way.

As was the case four years ago, Trahan lost Lafayette Parish but was once again propelled to victory by strong backing from his native Vermilion Parish, which makes up roughly 20 percent of the district's voting population. In 2003, Trahan edged out fellow Republican Charlie Buckels by 13 votes. Landry's campaign had made it a point to challenge Trahan in Vermilion and significantly narrowed Trahan's victory margin there compared to four years ago. But while Buckels carried Lafayette Parish by more than 1,300 votes, Landry only bested Trahan by 303 votes in Lafayette. Trahan also was boosted by close to a 65 percent turnout from voters in Vermilion Parish, galvanized by heated parish elections for sheriff and police jury.

Overall, voter turnout in Lafayette Parish was a disappointing 44 percent. Clerk of Court Louis Perret, who handily won his own re-election, suspects the highest voter turnout came from the south side's District 43, which runs into Broussard and Youngsville. The race for the District 43 state House seat was one of the more intense contests Lafayette has seen in recent memory. Furniture store owner Page Cortez managed to win with 55 percent of the vote, despite being significantly outspent by his opponent, architect and private prison magnate Pat LeBlanc. LeBlanc, who largely self-financed his own campaign, spent at least $300,000 on the race, according to recent fundraising reports. LeBlanc also was backed by both U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany and outgoing District 43 state Rep. Ernie Alexander.

Cortez spent just under $200,000. He was also aided by the Political Action Committee Leadership for Louisiana, headed by state Sen. Mike Michot and state Rep. Joel Robideaux. The group bought a series of ads in the final weeks of the campaign that were critical of LeBlanc and his company's role in an alleged bribery scandal in west Texas. On election day, both LeBlanc and Cortez had scores of supporters out waving signs on major street corners, often facing off against each other on opposite sides of the same street.

"They had just an incredible get out the vote machine on both sides," Perret says. "And with direct mail, the radio, the TV, all that going down to the wire, I thought the race would have been closer. Fifty-five percent is pretty decisive."

In Lafayette's other big state House race, Councilman Chris Williams and school board member Rickey Hardy will face off in a Nov. 17 runoff election for the District 44 seat. While Williams was widely viewed as a frontrunner in the five-person race, Hardy overcame both a relatively late entry into the race and a sizeable fundraising handicap to finish second with 29 percent of the vote, just one percentage point behind Williams. The remaining three candidates ' Fred Prejean, Terry Landry and Derriel McCorvey ' combined to collect 41 percent of the vote and could still play a major role in the race by lending support to either Williams or Hardy.

"Rickey Hardy shocked some people," says Perret, noting that several people had predicted Landry, the best funded candidate, would wind up in a runoff with Williams.

"Rickey Hardy is the epitome of a street fighter," he adds. "This guy knows people in his neighborhood, is very much connected to his community and I think showed that knowing people on the ground really helps you."

That kind of street-level support has also been the foundation of Williams' political career. "Chris Williams is the James Brown of politics," Perret says, referring to the late Brown's moniker as "the hardest working man in show business."

"Chris is a hero in his community," Perret adds. "This [race] is going to be a barnburner."

Local city-parish elections on Saturday produced four more runoff elections. The election represented the first time in which term limits went into effect for councilmen, resulting in four open seats. (Three other council incumbents, Marc Mouton, Rob Stevenson and Bobby Badeaux, opted not to seek re-election.)

In District 3, where Williams is stepping down, Shawn Wilson and Brandon Shelvin will face each other in a runoff. In District 4, the seat being vacated by Louis Benjamin, Jan Swift will challenge Kenneth Boudreaux, who narrowly missed getting more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary election. District 2 will see a runoff between incumbent Dale Bourgeois and retired firefighter Jay Castille. And the District 9 council seat, being vacated by Randy Menard, will be decided between two Republicans, Huey Romero and William Theriot.

Elsewhere, Councilman Bruce Conque won a decisive re-election in District 6, collecting 57 percent of the vote against two opponents. South Lafayette Districts 7 and 8 resulted in easy victories for Republicans Don Bertrand and Keith Patin. And in District 1, African-American city Councilman Purvis Morrison of Scott showed the strength of his campaign by emerging victorious with 53 percent of the vote in a 75 percent white voter district.