Pierre bobs and weaves The Ind, just as Hardy finally sets foot into the debate ring.
In a strange, body-switching turn of events, businessman Vincent Pierre dodged questions from a media outlet - this very publication - but threw jabs at incumbent state Rep. Rickey Hardy, while Hardy willingly answered journalists' questions and resurrected his boxing gloves - figuratively, of course - at Monday's District 44 runoff debate.
Both Democrats, who face each other in the Nov. 19 runoff, were asked whether they support Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposed plans to privatize public education and grade teachers' performances. A product of the public education system who served as a Lafayette Parish School Board member, Hardy is an advocate for reforming public education and believes there needs to be a scale to measure teachers' effectiveness.
"We need to have a mechanism that will work, [and] that's gonna have teachers evaluated based on performance," says Hardy, donning a vermilion tie emblazoned with UL Lafayette insignia. "Just ask your coaches, if they have an 0-9 losing record on the football field at UL, that coach won't last but two years. However, teachers stay in the system for 20, 30 years and they've never been evaluated."
Apparently taking his cue from Opelousas Mayor Donald Cravins, who has refused to even participate in a debate if an Independent reporter is on the panel, Pierre refused to agree or disagree with Hardy's stance, citing his contention with The Ind as grounds for not answering.
"I choose not to answer this question from The Independent," said Pierre, whose raucous supporters applauded and cheered this statement although moderator and UL journalism professor Dr. Robert Buckman requested they hold all applause until the end of the debate. "The Independent has been very biased toward me in the last couple of weeks. It is unfortunate...We are running a race for both people, and I refuse at this time to answer from The Ind."
Although Pierre did not answer questions from The Ind, KADN FOX 15's Mike Mitchell asked Pierre about his ties with ex-Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams, which The Ind's Leslie Turk and Heather Miller reported on in this Oct. 26 story, "The Ex Factor."
"I am not running on any influence but the children and economic development of Lafayette," said Pierre, refusing to directly answer Mitchell's question.
When asked about his allegiances to City-Parish President Joey Durel, Hardy said he has a "working relationship" with Lafayette's executive branch and compared that relationship to one a Republican would have with President Obama. Pierre noted at the debate that Hardy aligned his votes with the Jindal administration 72 percent of the time and against it only 4 percent.
"I'm going to work real hard, but I'm not going to support continuously voting yes on everything that the governor brings up, everything that comes from the administration," said the challenger.
At one point in the debate, Hardy accused Pierre of lack of experience. Pierre, who once co-owned a dry-cleaning service (it's unclear what he does now), says Hardy has not created enough jobs in District 44 - which encompasses 30 precincts in northeastern Lafayette Parish from University Avenue to Gloria Switch Road. Hardy argued he has created jobs, citing the North Lafayette TIF initiative that led to a bustling Target-anchored retail center, and also pointed to his appointment on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He explained that it takes time to accomplish tasks in Baton Rouge, charging Pierre with acting upon "feelings" rather than facts.
"He [Pierre] has never served in public office before, doesn't have a record, has never ever been elected to public office, but he can sit down and criticize what I do and what I have done," said Hardy. "My opponent has done nothing. He wants to go to Baton Rouge; he's going to bring the magical wand and be able to do a whole bunch of things working with the transportation department, working with legislators. It takes time to do those things."
Pierre, a Southern University alumnus, criticized Hardy's vote in favor of the Southern University New Orleans-University of New Orleans merger.
Pierre said there is a much bigger picture to consider: "I think we need to look at the entire system to make sure that everyone is getting a fair and equitable education."
Hardy acknowledged he voted in favor of the merger, likening it to that of corporate mergers like the one between AT&T and Cingular. "The system is failing," the incumbent contended. "It's not the children. We have to do better than what we are doing."
The candidates agreed on one key issue: economic development. They say ushering in more oil and gas industries in Lafayette will provide employment opportunities for District 44 residents. They added that infrastructure improvement would boost economic conditions.
Calling I-10 and I-49 "the front yard of this area," Pierre said: "We need to work tirelessly to try to bring service roads so we can get companies to locate here. We have the right product, we have the right place, and this is the right time for people and businesses to come here. There have been absolutely nothing brought to this economy into District 44 as it relates to jobs and the economy in the last four years."
Hardy countered that the $20 million Evangeline Thruway extension project proves he has been helping the economy within the last four years.
During the Oct. 22 primary, Hardy earned 43 percent of the vote, Pierre took home 40 percent and a third candidate, Roshell Jones, received 17 percent. Jones has since endorsed Hardy.
The debate was sponsored by the UL chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the university's Political Science Club.