Long-shot mayoral candidate Gordon Mese asked Metro Councilman Mike Walker to withdraw from the race during a televised mayoral debate Tuesday night, saying later that he could beat incumbent Kip Holden but Walker couldn’t.
Walker called Mese’s suggestion that he drop out “ludicrous.”
The four candidates discussed a variety of issues at the debate, including crime, merging the Baton Rouge City Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, public transportation and a controversial television ad by Walker linking Holden to Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan.
Mese’s request came at the end of an hourlong debate that was sponsored by WAFB-TV and broadcast live on WBXH-TV cable channel 16. The debate was held at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.
“The race has always been about second place,” Mese said, acknowledging the best hope of challengers hoping to unseat Holden would be to make it past the Nov. 6 primary election to a runoff Dec. 8.
Walker, who serves as the Metro Council’s chairman, is the best-financed of Holden’s three challengers.
“I actually would respectfully ask sir, that you step out of this race,” Mese said, addressing Walker during his closing statement.
After the forum, Walker dismissed that idea.
“Absolutely not,” Walker said. “Never step out of a race you are winning.”
Mese denied that the request was a stunt.
“He cannot beat Kip Holden and I can,” Mese said of the request. “If you can’t cross racial and political lines, you can’t win.”
Earlier in the debate, the candidates faced questions from panelists WAFB anchorman Greg Meriweather, radio talk show host Matt Kennedy, journalist Stephanie Riegel and LSU student panelist Grant Yenni.
On crime, Walker reiterated his statement that the parish is in the midst of a “crime emergency.”
“Some people just don’t want to believe that,” he said. “We are not doing the right things” to address crime, he added.
Walker said he would focus on putting more police on the streets and would sit down every year and make public safety a priority in the budget.
Time expired before Walker could answer a request from Holden to provide specific examples of areas of the city-parish budget he would cut to pay for new officers.
“Trying to put an officer on every corner is not the answer,” Holden said after Walker spoke.
Holden also criticized Walker for not having done anything about crime in the 12 years Walker has been on the Metro Council.
“After being there for 12 years, he’s found the magic pill,” he said.
Mese and fellow no-party candidate Steve Myers said crime would not be solved with a one-dimensional strategy.
Mese advocated a return to a “community policing” model.
“We need to quit creating criminals,” Myers said.
The four were also asked about recent suggestions that the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office be merged into one law-enforcement agency.
Holden said he thought that would be too difficult.
“When you look at the systems, you have two different systems,” he said. “The city police is a civil-service system, the sheriff’s office is not.”
Holden also said the two agencies were on different retirement systems and there were two different pension plans.
“There are too many legal obstacles in the way,” he said.
Walker said he would put it to parish voters to decide.
Walker cited three other cities — Nashville Tenn., Jacksonville Fla., and Louisville Ky. — that he said had merged their parish and city law enforcement agencies with good results.
Mese said it is an idea that should be looked at.
“I’ll agree with Mr. Walker on that,” he said, acknowledging that it would be a difficult task. “If people want it, than we should start eating that elephant one bite at a time.”
Myers said the problems cited with executing such a merger were “excuses” and said the idea needs to be studied.
Three of the candidates said they would end the city-parish subsidy of the Capital Area Transit System, or CATS, which runs the parish’s bus system.
“They made their bed, now they need to sleep in it,” Myers said of CATS, which recently announced that promised services would not materialize after they reduced revenue estimates.
Holden, who supported the property tax to help fund the system, said he does not favor continuing the subsidy.
“The tax was to wean CATS off public coffers,” Holden said.
Walker, who opposed the CATS tax, said he too would not vote to subsidize CATS.
Mese did not directly answer whether he would favor continuing the subsidy.
“They made a smart business decision,” he said. CATS can’t offer services it can’t pay for, he said.
The two no-party candidates, when asked, condemned a recent ad produced by the Walker campaign that criticizes Holden’s administration for using police personnel to chauffeur and protect Farrakhan while Farrakhan was in town earlier this month.
“The last thing I would want to happen is for someone like Louis Farrakhan to get assassinated in Baton Rouge,” Mese said.
Myers said public resources are often used to protect private citizens.
“We use public resources all the time,” he said. “We don’t want Baton Rouge mentioned in the same vein as Dallas and Memphis,” he said.
Walker said the ad exposed a “bad policy” of escorting private citizens.
The election is Nov. 6. A runoff, if necessary, will be Dec. 8.
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