Tragedy Reshapes Mayor’s Race in Baton Rouge

Whoever wins this month faces the tough job of uniting and rebuilding a community that’s still hurting from deadly police shootings and floods.
by | December 2016
Holden stepped down to run for Congress. (AP)

Baton Rouge is ready for new leadership. The Dec. 10 mayoral election has been reshaped by a series of tragedies this summer.

On July 5, the death of Alton Sterling made Baton Rouge the site of yet more protests against police shootings. Less than three weeks later, those protests turned violent, when a man killed three law enforcement officers, critically wounding a fourth. Then in August, Louisiana was struck by floods that amounted to the nation’s worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Baton Rouge was one of the areas that was hardest hit, with thousands of homes damaged. “The period of time in which so much happened was just an enormous shock to the community,” says Adam Knapp, president of the local chamber of commerce.

Knapp suggests that an area that was divided and angry after the shootings came together during the floods, with strangers helping strangers. The mayor’s race has naturally been reshaped by the events.

But not exactly the way one would think. Instead of unifying, the race has been a crowded and chaotic affair. A dozen candidates ran to replace Mayor Kip Holden, who had decided to step down after 12 years as mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish. Particularly after the shooting, Holden was criticized for not stepping up to provide leadership or even maintain much of a public presence.

With such a large field, candidates spent much of their time trying to appeal to limited constituencies in hopes of earning just enough support to make the runoff. Now, with just a month between the Nov. 8 primary and the election, there hasn’t been much time for the remaining candidates -- former Democratic state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome and Republican state Sen. Mack “Bodi” White -- to make the switch to a broader, more inclusive message.

Still, given the number of people who supported other candidates in the primary, a lot of votes are available to the candidate who best presents a message of inclusion and rebuilding. “Each candidate has to talk about recovery and the healing process,” Knapp says, “both flooding and the significant event that laid bare the problem of poverty in our community.”

To that end, Broome supports a local increase in the minimum wage, which White has criticized. She has also taken a harder stance than White, a former detective, in calling for an overhaul of police practices. While she talks about body cameras, he talks more broadly about training and improved community relations.

The next mayor will also have to address other issues that were paramount ahead of this summer’s events, notably traffic congestion. Infrastructure will be a key concern for the new mayor -- both roads and the completion of a diversion canal and other waterways that could mitigate flooding.

But in the wake of so much suffering and unrest, the new mayor must strive to unite the city. “We need someone who wants to try to bring everybody together,” says Robert Mann, a journalism professor at Louisiana State University. “I’m not convinced that person is actually running.”