It’s been two decades since Louisiana’s sixth largest municipality Bossier City has seen this much electoral competition, but will it end the same by sweeping a significant portion of incumbents out of office, or even go farther, in the most significant partisan contests not special elections in the state in 2021?
In the aftermath of those municipal elections, three City Council members left their jobs as a result of voter dissatisfaction principally over the decision to build and where the now Brookshire Grocery Arena. But current councilors independent Jeff Darby and Democrat Bubba Williams stayed on, and still in office from then are the two victorious at-large councilors Republicans Tim Larkin and David Montgomery. Joining them in a special election a year later was Republican Scott Irwin.
The revolt didn’t trouble Democrat Mayor George Dement, who won his record fourth and final term. That kept city Chief Administrative Officer Lo Walker in business, who as a Republican succeeded Dement in 2005 and has won reelection ever since.
And from 2001, of the eight spots available in city government (mayor, two at-large councilors, five district councilors), elections there on out drew an average of just over nine candidates a cycle. The stultifying apathy of the Bossier City electorate – missing many transients who never register to vote and of those who do many pass on city election participation – a significant number of whom are either or both new to the area or relieved they escaped Shreveport, attributes that produce less incentive to appraise critically incumbent policy-making, when combined with no term limitations has allowed long political careers to flourish in this sea of indifference. The last citywide contest – in 2009 with Republican Marsha McAllister failing to oust either Larkin or Montgomery – drew a miserable 8 percent turnout.
That may change in 2021. It’s not only that the Council’s favorite punching bag, Irwin who unlike his colleagues has faced a challenger in most of his reelection attempts, has drawn a challenger – and his most serious to date. Bossier Parish School Board member Republican Shane Cheatham has twice won unopposed and has launched an aggressive campaign against Irwin.
Also, Republican incumbent Tommy Harvey is calling it quits after a couple of terms, with McAllister and long-time grocer Republican Vince Maggio vying to replace him. However, Darby, Williams, and Republican Jeff Free – on the council since 2013 – received free passes to another term.
Yet the citywide level might feel the biggest impact. For the first time since Dement’s first win in 1989, four candidates will contest for the at-large seats that possibly could send both Larkin and Montgomery packing. Joining them are real estate agent Republican Chris Smith and pastor/retiree Democrat Lee “Gunny” Jeter.
Actually, it’s more in theory that both incumbents would lose their jobs. Jeter, who heads up the recently reactivated Bossier City NAACP, won’t have enough appeal to win or even advance to a runoff. With Republican registrants making up a majority of the electorate, and blacks not even a fifth of it, the best he can do it siphon votes from the others.
What his presence will do is increase substantially the chances for a runoff. In this scenario, one of the three GOP candidates will win outright by capturing at least 25 percent of the vote, but it’s more likely that another won’t join him. Smith also has run an aggressive campaign, joining Cheatham in calls for greater city government transparency (by way of example, after they began bringing up the issue the Council finally began posting online the text of proposed ordinances, supporting materials, and reports prior to meetings), lackluster economic development especially in south Bossier City, and in improved policing. This gives Smith a significant chance to knock off an incumbent.
Even Walker, attempting to break Dement’s record, will feel a threat for the first time since his initial win. Republican businessman Tommy Chandler, who didn’t succeed in his at-large race in 2001, filed to oppose him. He also has echoed themes sounded by Cheatham and Smith, and he and Cheatham have called for term limits. That’s not all that binds them: both serve as leaders on the party’s Parish Executive Committee, which indicates after years of sleepwalking the local GOP might become more forceful in demanding accountability from city leaders, even of their own party.
Although at 60 Chandler is no spring chicken, age may become an issue in this race. Walker, 87, may be the oldest mayor in the country of any city above 50,000 inhabitants. In some ways, his age and 32 years in one of the top two positions in city government serve as a metaphor for the sclerosis holding back the city about which the challengers speak.
The slate of candidates this election cycle provides those perturbed by the past paucity of electoral choices that made Bossier City government seem more like it was run by the Politburo the chance to do something about that perception.