Gordon Mese, wearing a red polo shirt and cargo shorts, held his handmade campaign sign as cars whizzed through the intersection of Corporate Boulevard and Jefferson Highway on the morning of Aug. 16.
Mese responded to every honk with a wave.
“My family has been in Baton Rouge for 100 years,” he said. “I probably know most of these people,” he said, laughing.
Waving that sign is how Mese launched his campaign for East Baton Rouge Parish mayor-president earlier this year. It’s something he does when business is slow at the Garden District Nursery, the business he runs and co-owns with family members.
Holding the sign, which urges people to check out his Facebook page, Mese walked up and down the sidewalk outside the nursery.
A second sign, placed in the nursery’s window, calls Baton Rouge’s development code the parish’s biggest problem.
The code, known as the Unified Development Code, is the reason Mese has traded the coveralls and Crocs he wears at work for the jackets and ties of campaign events and forums.
The Unified Development Code is “a comprehensive combination of ordinances including, but not limited to, the Subdivision Ordinance, Zoning Ordinance, Sign Ordinance, and Landscape Ordinance,” according to the city-parish government’s website.
Mese calls it a “cracked foundation” on which the city of Baton Rouge is built.
“Baton Rouge is a dysfunctional mess,” he said. “It’s stifling the community.”
Changing — or as Mese would prefer, discarding and rewriting — the ordinances that make up the code would make Baton Rouge a more livable city, he said.
“I can connect just about any social problem we have to it, every bit of our infrastructure problem to it,” Mese said.
“It creates a different front to attack crime,” he said, citing the top issue in the campaign. “Through the UDC, you can actually start changing the environment where all this crime is coming from.e_SDRq
Mese said the code has allowed neighborhoods to develop without proper green spaces and connectivity which, if added, would reduce crime.
“Just from that environmental change, you will have a certain percentage of the population that just starts acting better,” he said.
Mese said he has seen Baton Rouge’s crime problem firsthand: members of his family have been held up three times, he was stabbed six times with a screwdriver after confronting someone who was breaking into his car, and his nursery has been burgled so many times Mese has referred to it as a “nonprofit business.”
“These are not new problems,” he said. “We have had a crime problem for 30 years.”
To help traffic, Mese would make sure there were good bike paths and sidewalks to encourage people to get out of their cars, he said. Mese would extend a grid pattern — streets arranged into north-south and east-west routes — into the southeastern part of the city where traffic is at its worst.
“I live in midcity,” he said, referring to the traffic that resulted from an Aug. 22 tanker truck crash and subsequent 24-hour closure of Interstate 10.
“Once you got to College Drive, there was no traffic problem because there is a grid.”
A formative battle
Mese got his first real taste of fighting against the code in 2003 when he joined a group of residents battling against the construction of the Walmart in Village Square on College Drive.
Richard Barker, one of the residents, said Mese helped the cause.
“The people in the Southdowns Civic Association were worried about the traffic it would generate,” said Richard Barker, who was president of the association at the time. “That basically was the issue.”
Mese recognized the problem right away, Barker said.
“He impressed me with his knowledge of planning and his knowledge of the community,” he said.
Mese attended community meetings with the Southside Civic Association and was quoted in a newspaper story accusing the city of “selling our soul for sales tax.”
The Walmart got built, but the company contributed to infrastructure improvements on College Drive, Mese said
Barker said Mese is the same now as he was then.
“Every time I have talked to Gordon, he’s come across with his very honest and forthright opinion,” Barker said. “What you see is what you get.”
Baton Rouge roots
Mese’s family — which has been in Baton Rouge for five generations — has owned the spot where the nursery sits for the better part of a century. His grandparents once operated a gas station at the site.
Mese lives nearby and often walks to work, he said. Unlike many, he eschews the cellphone.
“I am either at the nursery, at home or at the movies or some place where I don’t want you to call me,” he said with a laugh.
During slow times in the nursery, Mese often picks up the sign and heads out to the street.
He has also had some T-shirts made with slogans, such as “Mese against the Machine” and “Mese Mayor Relax.”
Mese doesn’t distribute yards signs; he encourages supporters to make their own. Many have and posted pictures of the signs to his campaign Facebook page.
Unlike the other three candidates in the Nov. 6 race, Mese refuses to accept campaign contributions.
“I wanted to do this for less than $2,000,” he said.
So far, he has held to his budget, he said.
“That’s the power of the Internet,” he said. “You can effect positive change without spending a half-million dollars of other people’s money,” he said.
That desire to run a different kind of political campaign is what has attracted some of his followers.
“If Gordon wins, it will be a wonderful example of how things can be done differently,” said Scottie Knost, who owns a landscaping business and has known Mese for about 10 years.
“He’s putting himself out there; he has gone outside his personal space because he loves Baton Rouge,” she said.
Knost said current Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration had done some “good things,” but “I just think that Gordon is young and has new and fresh ideas and that’s why I am going to vote for him.”
Knost said she had made two yard signs supporting Mese: One for herself and another for a friend.
From the start, Mese — who is making his first run for political office — set out to run as an alternative to the much better known candidates in the race, Holden and Metro Councilman Mike Walker. A fourth candidate, Steve Myers, like Mese, is an independent.
“I saw a window of opportunity to do this,” Mese said. “Mike and Kip are not going to do what I am going to do.”
Mese said he welcomes the opportunity to debate the other mayoral candidates.
“Neither of them wants to discuss my platform,” he said, referring to the two frontrunners.
Mese said he and Myers had never met before the first candidate debate but discovered when they talked later that they held many views in common.
“I am not running against those guys,” Mese said early in the campaign, referring to Walker, a Republican, and Holden, a Democrat.
But when asked if Walker and Holden were part of “the machine,” he replied, “I hope they are smart enough to understand that.”
The ‘problem solver’
Mese said his training as a landscape architect uniquely qualifies him to run the city.
“With my training as a landscape architect, which is urban and regional planning, I know what to do to make this city right,” he said.
Mese said he has been trained as a “problem solver” and understands from his years operating the nursery what it means to run a business.
Mese refuses to call himself an underdog but conceded that dislodging more traditional candidates is a formidable task.
Regardless of the outcome, Mese said, just being part of the process and raising issues he cares about is worth it.
“There’s no downside to what I am doing,” he said. “It’s a win all the way around.”