Street Showdown

by Nathan Stubbs

Wilfred Pierre and Joey Durel are among the high profile supporters now involved in the District 44 runoff between Chris Williams and Rickey Hardy.

On election day, Rickey Hardy went through his usual routine. He woke up about 2 a.m. and was on the road an hour later putting up his last campaign signs. For the majority of the day, Hardy drove all through north Lafayette in his GMC Sierra, hauling a trailer with a pair of 4-by-8 foot campaign billboards. In the bed of his truck, a set of speakers blared zydeco and gospel music. As he passed through neighborhoods, Hardy called out to bystanders through a microphone rigged up in the front of his truck: "Don't forget to go to the polls. Vote #53 Rickey Hardy, the man for all the people," adding as an occasional reminder, "There's going to be some champagne for the campaign."

For Hardy, a veteran school board member now making his first run for District 44 state representative, his one-man get-out-the-vote drive was the culmination of a relentless campaign. In the weeks leading up to the Oct. 20 election, Hardy campaigned everywhere he went: at corner stores, at Wal-Mart, and knocking on doors and meeting with people in the district's neighborhoods, often late into the evening.

The hard work paid off. Hardy, who reported having the least amount of campaign funds among the five candidates in the race, stunned many political observers by finishing second in the field, showing why he has enjoyed popular support in his four terms on the school board and also earning himself a spot in a Nov. 17 runoff with the primary election's top vote-getter, City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams.

"It's a simple approach," Hardy says. "Bring my campaign to the streets. Go meet with the people. That is the way I have done it in the past; that has always been the way I've campaigned, and I will continue to do just that."

Pitting the resourceful Hardy against Williams, the early favorite in the race, the District 44 runoff election promises to be one of the more intense showdowns on the Nov. 17 ballot. Williams, a veteran councilman of 16 years, has long been known for his campaign organization. Williams typically has teams of supporters out rallying voters to the polls and reporting back precinct totals. For the Oct. 20 primary, Williams held election day rallies at both his father's North University restaurant, Country Cuisine, as well as at the zydeco club El Sido's. "We're 17 days out of this campaign," Williams said last week. "And we have over 40 events planned in between now and election day. I'm going to offer myself to the public as the best qualified candidate, the clear choice for District 44."

The two candidates are vying to become the district's first new state representative in 16 years. Current District 44 state Rep. Wilfred Pierre is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election.

While the crowded primary campaign yielded little in the way of big-name endorsements or heavy spending, that will likely change now that only two candidates remain. This week, Pierre will officially announce his support for Williams, whom he has already been helping to raise money. "I feel strongly that Chris is better prepared to deal with the issues of the state than Rickey," says Pierre, who served as a Lafayette city councilman in the same district as Williams before being elected to the state Legislature. "I think the issues of the city are a microcosm of the issues of the state. It's to me a natural progression from dealing with city issues to move to the state level."

Also working behind the scenes is City-Parish President Joey Durel, seeking to bolster fund raising and support for Hardy's campaign. Hardy was one of the first African-American public officials to support Durel in his 2003 mayoral run. Durel, along with several members of the Lafayette City-Parish Council, frequently clashed with Williams over the councilman's repeated claims that his district was not getting its fair share of capital outlay projects, even while budget numbers often proved otherwise.

Williams also battled with city officials over an effort he helped spearhead to re-name Willow Street in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Williams made racist accusations toward his colleagues who did not support the initiative, which some claimed would tax businesses having to change their addresses. Tension over that issue culminated when Williams was slapped with a $1,500 fine and a year's worth of probation for writing "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive!" on the council desk in permanent marker.

Durel doesn't mince words in explaining why he believes Hardy would make a better representative than Williams. Despite that Hardy has been on the school board while Williams works alongside Durel in city-parish government, Durel notes, "I've worked with Rickey very well for four years. I've spent more time in my office with him than I have with his opponent. [Chris Williams] has never come to my office to discuss an issue in four years that I've been in office."

Durel adds he believes Williams has been "derelict" in his duties as a member of the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority by frequently missing the board's regularly scheduled meetings. Board minutes show that of the 23 meetings the LPUA has held in 2007, Williams has been absent at 15 of them.

"I think right now we're very fortunate," Durel continues, "that we have a team of people coming together as a really strong delegation for Lafayette and all of Acadiana. I believe that Rickey Hardy is far and away the only one of the two candidates [in District 44] that would be a team player. And Rickey is I think much more principled in his decision-making than he is political. So, in my opinion, if the people of his district really want to put together a team of people that are going to bring things back to Acadiana to improve and better things for them and their community, Rickey's the only choice."

Williams and his supporters have also alluded to Hardy's ties to Republicans, like Durel and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany ' whom Hardy also endorsed ' as an issue for the district, which is made up heavily of Democrats. For Hardy, it's a non-issue. "I don't apologize for my friends," he says. "I honor [Durel's] help. I respect people from all walks of life. No matter what color or creed. When I choose my socks, I choose them by their color. And when I choose my friends, I choose them by their character." Asked whether he believes Williams has been a divisive representative on the city-parish council, Hardy replies, "Well, Ray Charles could see that, so I'm not even going to answer that question."

Outgoing state Rep. Pierre says Williams' frequent conflicts with his fellow city-parish councilmen are not an accurate reflection of how Williams would work as a state legislator. "I think it's a product of that council," Pierre says. "You've got trying issues on that council. You had stubborn minds on that council. You had a lot of egos and personalities. Look at the makeup of that council, and you can understand that Chris had to be combative."

Despite the controversy, Williams has remained popular among many of his supporters. In the Oct. 20 primary election, he carried 12 of the district's 31 precincts, more than any other candidate. (Hardy carried nine). The results also show that Williams struggled in many of the district's majority white voter precincts. A sampling of seven of those precincts shows that third place-finisher Terry Landry had the strongest support among white voters, followed by Hardy. Williams garnered just 15 percent of the vote in those precincts, besting only the overall election's fifth place-finisher, Derriel McCorvey.

By contrast, a sampling of 11 of the district's precincts with the largest majority of black voters shows Williams leading with 41 percent, followed by Hardy with 34 percent.

Of the other three candidates in the primary election, thus far only McCorvey has weighed in on the runoff. McCovery, who garnered only 5 percent of the vote, endorsed Williams last week. Planning Commissioner Fred Prejean, who finished fourth in the running with 13 percent, insists he is not getting involved in the runoff election. Third place-finisher Landry, meanwhile, has spoken cryptically about his possible endorsement of one of the two candidates. Landry says he and some of his supporters plan to "interview" both Hardy and Williams this week and may make some form of endorsement after that.

"We haven't made a decision whether we're going to do that, but we haven't ruled it out," he says. "Somewhere in this process, I'm going to do what I think is best for this district, and I'm prepared to do that, but I have to do it with all the information I need to make an informed decision."

By any account, Nov. 17 will be a true test of both Hardy's and Williams' support bases. With most of the major statewide elections already decided, the two candidates will be largely on their own in encouraging voters to get to the polls on a day that is expected to yield a low voter turnout. With two veteran campaigners like Williams and Hardy, any loss won't be for lack of effort.

"It's time for the overtime," Hardy says, likening the election to a test of endurance. "It's time to get tough on defense and be executing a great offense."