SADOW: BESE Tilt Tops Congressional Races For Intrigue

Of the three regional elections occurring in Louisiana this spring, the least consequential of the races should prove the most fascinating.

The pair of special elections for Congress will have little to no drama. In the Second District, the departure of Democrat former Rep. Cedric Richmond attracted 15 contestants, including several repeat performers. And it actually provides, unusually, faint hope for Republicans.

Featured are past candidates Democrat state Sen. Troy Carter and Karen Peterson, who differ not much in their extreme liberal ideology (over the past five years he has averaged 29 and she just over 16 on their Louisiana Legislature Log ratings), but Carter comes off as less strident, more congenial, and does have Richmond’s backing, making him the favorite. But a scenario exists where Republican Claston Bernard, who is black as is Carter and Peterson, could win in the majority-black district.

Bernard has three things going for him: a chance to consolidate the Republican vote, that unlike all but one other candidate he comes from the Baton Rouge area, and the other candidate from that area is even farther left and more divisive than Peterson, Democrat Gary Chambers who has made a name for himself for advancing every trendy, divisive cause even remotely related to race.

Chambers will attract a few hardcore believers, but the remainder of the district in the area outside of Jefferson and Orleans Parish, a third of registrants, plus Republicans in those two parishes will be open to the conservative appeals of Bernard, who has some celebrity status from his track exploits at Louisiana State University and in the Olympics and who also sits on the Republican State Central Committee. Especially if he can push out Carter from the inevitable runoff, he could rob Democrats of the seat.

Not much drama there, but it has more than in the Fifth District. There, for this election necessitated by the death of Republican Luke Letlow just prior to his taking office, his accomplished widow Julia Letlow is the prohibitive favorite. With name recognition and a pre-built donor base, the only question is in a field of 16 whether the other numerous Republicans could siphon enough votes from preventing her winning without a runoff.

Which leaves the most intriguing race of the bunch, for the District 4 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education seat opened by the resignation of Republican Tony Davis. No party teacher Cody Whitaker will have the least impact on the contest. My Louisiana State University Shreveport Democrat colleague in our Department of Education Asst. Prof. Cassie Williams also won’t make much of an impact, in part because she’s only been in the state less than a year.

But mainly it’s because support from the political left will flow to Emma Shepard, a retired teacher and longtime shill for teacher union interests and against meaningful school and teacher accountability. In 2014 she soundly lost a run for the Caddo Parish School Board in a district with less favorable demographics than the BESE district, which is about 60 percent white and has a small plurality of Democrats.

She might make the runoff, largely because of the spoiler role former state Sen. John Milkovich will play. Running this time as an independent, in his time in the Senate he displayed some reform tendencies in education policy, but principally became known for his maniacal opposition to the Common Core State Standards initiative adopted years ago. That issue has lost a lot of potency since, but he still might attract the dwindling number of voters infused with diehard opposition to it, and more likely at the expense of the two Republican candidates, at least one of whom will make the runoff.

Republican Shelly McFarland, business owner and wife of the GOP’s state Rep. Jack McFarland sounds reformist themes, but she faces headwinds. Coming from Winnfield makes voter base building more challenging than the other candidates (except for Whitaker, who interestingly also comes from Winnfield) based in Shreveport, and voters might be leery of handing the couple more political power (which would replicate the duo of District 5 Republican Ashley Ellis and no party Monroe Mayor Friday Ellis, except that she won her spot before him and they don’t hold office at the same level of government).

Yet most costly might be her husband’s dogged campaign to raise gas taxes in the state, an effort to which even the Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards Administration hasn’t exactly committed itself and Republicans generally oppose. Unfair, perhaps, but the sins of the husband may cost his wife a runoff spot.

Which would go to Republican lawyer Michael Melerine. Also impeccably voicing reformism, Melerine will have the support of the politically-connected firm at which he works, who boasts as a partner GOP state Rep. Alan Seabaugh and who just lost as a partner newly-elected without a runoff in a competitive race Republican District Judge Chris Victory. This perhaps makes Melerine the candidate to beat.

A Republican almost certainly will win this contest, but which one and how to get there will make for its entertaining aspect.

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