The instructions were simple: Raise your hand if you pledge to keep the city-parish unified and oppose the proposed City of St. George. No explanation needed.
Baton Rouge mayoral candidates Sharon Weston Broome, John Delgado, Darryl Gissel and C. Denise Marcelle quickly put up their hands. R.J. “Smokie” Bourgeois did not. Mack “Bodi” White slowly raised his hand in the air, joining the others to pledge opposing the polarizing movement he once sought to help.
The question was posed to the city’s top six mayoral candidates during a rapid round of questions at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s candidate forum held late Tuesday at Baton Rouge Magnet High School.
The forum touched on the candidates’ views on transportation, blight and cleanliness, criminal justice reform, government efficiency and economic development—all issues outlined in BRAC’s recently released election platform.
The candidates identified traffic and blight as issues hurting Baton Rouge’s ability to attract businesses. But angered by the yes-no format of the St. George question, White would later revisit the issue during his closing remarks, chiding the chamber for framing the question differently from the way others were asked.
“It’s not fair,” White said, questioning why a query about the city’s summer tragedies and the shooting of Alton Sterling—another highly divisive topic—wasn’t asked in a similar way. “Those folks had a legitimate concern with their children and their schools. And they had seven out 10 failing schools in southeast Baton Rouge when I took office and they asked me to help, and I did.”
Though relatively dormant now, the St. George movement has continued to hang over White—a Republican state senator—during this election season.
“Now, I’m not against St. George, but it’s a divisive issue,” White said, adding that, if elected, he would try to help the people in the St. George area fix their schools and provide them with services while simultaneously fixing north Baton Rouge.
On the issue of traffic and transportation, most candidates said they supported the continuation of the city-parish’s Green Light Plan, an expansive traffic and infrastructure improvement program. The second phase of the plan is on the Dec. 10 ballot.
Gissel, an independent, is one of the program’s supporters. He also said he supports a new Mississippi River bridge, adding stakeholders in the region need to come to a consensus on what they want to do to fix traffic congestion if the city-parish is going to attract federal dollars.
Delgado, a Republican, also said he supports the Green Light Plan. Delgado said he wants to turn Nicholson Drive into a southern bypass and use the four center lanes of Airline Highway as a toll road to pay for traffic projects. He also supports a northern loop.
Broome, a Democrat, said she plans to designate a person in her administration to specifically handle traffic issues. She wants to utilize the CRISIS plan to widened the interstate and focus on multi-modal transportation solutions to connect the city, parish and region. She said a revamped Capital Area Transit System plays an essential role in addressing the city’s transportation issues.
White said he was able to help secure dollars for Pecue Lane improvements and get $250 million for the widening of interstates 10 and 12, adding that leaders have not prioritized transportation issues.
Marcelle, a Democrat, also supports continuing the Green Light Plan, adding that she believes the Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility plan, which would connect Airline Highway with interstates 10, 12 and 110, could help alleviate traffic congestion.
Bourgeois, a Republican, called CATS a disaster, but said he believes the bus system can be fixed. He also wants to utilize rapid response teams to help move wrecks and clear roads.