BY FAIMON A. ROBERTS III
Advocate staff writer
September 10, 2012
This is the first in a series of profiles of the four candidates running for East Baton Rouge mayor-president in the Nov. 6 election.
On a hot August afternoon, about a dozen convention planners were gathered around tables in a suite at the Belle of Baton Rouge, sipping cocktails and listening to Kip Holden do what he loves — sell Baton Rouge.
“I wanted to come here and let my hair down, but I don’t have much left,” Holden told the group, pointing to his scalp and flashing a broad smile as the planners laughed. Noticing a member of the group with a receding hairline, Holden apologized and put his arm around the man before planting a kiss on the top of his head, to more laughs.
On the way out, each member of group stopped for a word with Holden. All got a smile. Many got a hug. One said to Holden, “You were great.”
Holden’s charm — often employing a quick smile and a self-deprecating joke — is what some of his biggest supporters say initially drew them to his side.
“He’s maybe the most optimistic person I have ever met,” said Walter Monsour, who served as Holden’s first chief administrative officer. “He is a guy whose glass is always half-full.”
Monsour, who has known the mayor since Holden’s days as a Metro Council member in the early 1980s, said that optimism is part of Holden’s core as a leader.
“He wanted to do everything,” Monsour said. “He was not afraid to go in a new direction, to change.”
Holden attacked problems head on, he said.
“His questions were, ‘Why can’t we do this?’ ” Monsour said.
William Daniel, who ran against Holden in 2004 and is now the fourth CAO to serve in Holden’s nearly eight years in office, echoed Monsour’s judgment.
“He completely won me over with his sense of humor,” Daniel said, referring to his first meeting with Holden, when both were members of the state legislature in the mid-1990s. “I said, ‘This guy has got a great personality.’ ”
Daniel, who represented an affluent south Baton Rouge district in the state legislature, often found himself on opposite sides of issues from Holden, who represented a poorer, north Baton Rouge district.
“We would get up there and we would have pretty sharp differences, but as soon as it was over, he understood the bigger picture that we had to get along,” Daniel said.
Daniel finished third in the 2004 primary. After the polls closed, he wasted no time in offering his support to Holden.
The positive traits cited by Monsour and Daniel have paid off for Holden politically. In 2004, he was elected as the first black mayor in East Baton Rouge Parish history. And in 2008, he managed the astonishing feat of finishing first in every single voting precinct in the parish.
Rift with council
Yet many of the 12 Metro Council members are not so enamored of Holden’s charm. The atmosphere has, at times, been poisonous as members have berated mayoral aides and complained that Holden is unwilling to work with them on policy issues.
The relationship has been contentious since at least fall 2009, when some members of the Metro Council questioned Holden’s second attempt to put before parish voters a $901 million bond proposal that would have paid for an array of infrastructure and public safety improvements.
At the heart of the dispute was the Alive project, a proposed $225 million riverfront attraction that included an aquarium, amphitheater and research facilities. Questions about ownership of the land led several council members to push for delay in bringing the bond issue before voters.
It went before the voters as planned, but failed — a defeat Holden took hard. The council declined to even put a third bond proposal on the ballot last year.
The ill will between Holden and members of the council persists.
“There is a disrespect for council members,” said Scott Wilson, a Metro Councilman who represents Central.
Wilson, who is supporting fellow Councilman Mike Walker’s run for mayor, said he hasn’t spoken to the mayor since early in 2010.
Fellow councilman Trae Welch agreed with Wilson. “I think there is a level of arrogance there,” he said.
Welch said he rarely, if ever, meets with Holden.
“To my knowledge, I have never seen him in my office, I have only seen me in his,” Welch said. “This should always be a two-way street. … I think that’s what bothers a lot of council members. It’s a one-way street.”
Albert Samuels, a professor of political science at Southern University, said Holden could have handled the bond issue better.
“Sometimes it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” he said.
Some people felt like the mayor wasn’t interested in listening to their concerns about the bond issue, Samuels said.
Holden can be prickly when challenged, Samuels said.
“Anyone who has questions about what he is doing, he questions their motives,” he said.
Holden has at times reacted to the council with exasperation, and admits that he can be combative at times.
“My mother used to tell me, ‘Boy, you would argue with a signboard,’ ” he said.
Holden can flash a fiery temper, too.
In 2010, after a heated dispute with Metro Councilman Mike Walker over allowing Holden to speak about his proposed budget at a council meeting, Holden told a TV reporter that “it took every bit of willpower on my behalf not to go beyond the lines and allow this to turn into something physical, and I thank God that it did not.”
Lessons from childhood
Holden was the second of five children. He said his parents fought frequently. When he was in elementary school, he had to go live with his cousins for a few weeks to escape the chaos at home.
Holden said his father, angered in a row with Holden’s mother, once fired a 12-gauge shotgun toward the house from the bar he owned next door.
“There were nights I didn’t know if I would wake up and both my parents would still be alive,” he said.
Despite the tumult, Holden credits his parents with teaching him valuable lessons.
“My dad taught me the value of hard work,” Holden said, noting that his father frequently left his shift at a chemical plant to go to his second job at a restaurant.
His mother often kept the family bar open until the wee hours, even on Christmas Eve or other holidays, he said.
“We could have easily opted for welfare,” Holden said. “She was determined to keep that bar open.”
Holden cited those examples when describing why, as a high school student, he went to work Saturdays as a dishwasher at Metro Airport, earning less than five dollars per day, so he could attend a school trip to the World’s Fair in San Antonio in 1968.
Holden credits his optimism to a faith nurtured at a young age, when he would attend Sunday School by himself. He went so often, he said, he wore out the one suit his mother had bought him and had to borrow his brother’s suit.
That’s one thing that won’t happen to Holden today — he owns about 50 suits and 150 ties.
“I still have some suits with the tags on,” he said, laughing.
Holden, who is vying for his third term in 2012, faces a tougher contest this year than he did in 2008, Southern’s Samuels said.
Holden faces a one-time political ally, Mayor Pro-Tem Mike Walker, a Republican, and two no-party candidates, Gordon Mese and Steve Myers.
Holden is “known and he has name ID,” Samuels said. “He’s certainly going to get the lion’s share of the black vote.”
The election is the same day as the presidential election, Nov. 6. Democrats turning out to help re-elect Barack Obama could help Holden too, Samuels said.
“There was no real serious opposition last time,” Samuels said. “This is going to be a much tougher race.”
Candidate profile series
This is the first in a series of profiles of the four candidates running for East Baton Rouge mayor-president in the Nov. 6 election. The schedule for the other profiles are:
- Mike Walker, Sept. 17.
- Steve Myers, Sept. 24.
- Gordon Mese, Oct. 1.
The Advocate also will be exploring the views of candidates on issues facing the city-parish in a separate series of articles.