Editor’s note: One in a series of mayoral race issue stories.
Both Mayor-President Kip Holden and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker say their experience in public office and their management skills have prepared them to lead Baton Rouge for the next four years, but two others from outside the political arena are hoping voters turn to them for leadership.
Holden and Walker, the best-financed and most well-known of the mayoral candidates, face two no-party candidates in the Nov. 6 race for mayor-president — attorney Steve Myers and businessman Gordon Mese.
Holden’s eight years at the helm have focused on his vision to turn Baton Rouge into “America’s next great city.” But his second term was also marked by a falling out with the Metro Council, whose members frequently describe him as combative and uncooperative.
Walker is finishing his third term as District 8 councilman. In his last term, the Metro Council swiftly and unanimously voted him to chair the council as mayor pro tem. But some council members say he hasn’t delivered on promises to streamline the often tumultuous meetings.
Holden said his leadership style is to hire the right people and let them do their jobs, without micromanagement.
“I allow them to be creative and utilize their skills that they bring to city-parish government,” Holden said.
Walter Monsour, Holden’s first chief administrative officer, said Holden has a clear vision for the city-parish and is not afraid of a challenge.
“The most successful people have no fear of defeat and are not afraid to lose,” Monsour said.
He said Holden’s leadership has been tested and proved through major disasters the city-parish has endured in the past eight years, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Holden’s first year in office as mayor, Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and Hurricane Isaac this year.
Holden is calm and confident during times of emergency, Monsour said, and “has a strong faith that he’s got the competent crew that will do their jobs.”
During Isaac, Holden and his top staff manned the parish’s Emergency Operation Center on Harding Boulevard around the clock, delivering at least two televised news conferences a day to keep residents abreast of weather conditions, power outages and road conditions.
Holden, a Democrat, has had several chief and assistant chief administrative officers over the years, and is known for crossing party lines when selecting his closest advisers. Monsour, now executive director of the parish Redevelopment Authority, is a Republican and someone Holden said he still considers a close adviser. John Price, who became an assistant chief administrative officer in January, previously served as the chairman of the parish Republican Party.
Holden said he looks for “unity” when selecting members of his administration but also wants people who will be frank with him even when they disagree with him.
But Holden has sometimes reacted angrily when the Metro Council disagrees with his proposals. Many council members say his principal weakness as a leader is an unwillingness to cooperate.
“The mayor is more authoritative, he’s very focused on what he wants and typically doesn’t entertain negotiation,” Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said.
Edwards is nevertheless supporting the re-election bid of Holden, a fellow Democrat she describes as “very visionary, very smart and certainly politically savvy.”
“I wish, perhaps, that he wasn’t as laser-focused as he is and integrated more team spirit and congeniality, but that’s a matter of personality,” Edwards said. “And personalities, at the end of the day, aren’t what’s important for making the city better.”
Councilman Joel Boé said each side bears some responsibility for poor communications between the council and administration. He faults the mayor’s office for not doing a better job of providing information to council members and seeking their feedback before placing items on the agenda for adoption.
Holden said he regrets if that has happened on occasion but insisted there is plenty of communication between the council and his top staff on most issues that go before the council.
He said some of the criticisms are unwarranted, such as when the council decided in 2011 against sending a proposed $748 million bond issue to voters after complaining that the mayor hadn’t give them enough advance information on what would be contained in the proposal.
“That was a lame excuse,” Holden said, noting that he had repeatedly explained the bond issue would mirror the first two versions that voters had rejected in 2008 and 2009 with the exception that it would not include the proposed Alive riverfront attraction. The Alive project had been a lightning rod for criticism.
Holden acknowledged the strained relationship between him and the council but placed much of the blame on the council.
He cited the council’s frequent use of putting items on the agenda under administrative matters, which means neither the public nor the administration know anything about the items being voted on until the day of the meeting. He also said the council’s decision last December to take over his discretionary fund, which had money for charities and economic development initiatives, was something he felt was “outside of the lines.”
Holden said one of the most contentious fights between him and the council was when Walker, serving as mayor pro tem, refused to allow the mayor to speak on the budget he was presenting to the council two years ago. He said blames Walker for violating the plan of government at that meeting and inciting one of the more public fights between the two.
The city-parish Plan of Government says the mayor-president has the right to speak at all meetings and to present information that he deems pertinent to the council.
Holden said he thinks a mayor’s relationship with the council is “very important … but at the same time, this office cannot be micromanaged by the council.”
Walker accepts some responsibility for the confrontation with the mayor at the meeting in December 2010.
“I should have just let him say whatever he had to say and then let him get on out of the building,” Walker said.
But Walker said the council chair has the right to control the meeting and “the mayor-president should respect that.”
While council members agree that Walker is an open and inclusive communicator, some said his leadership of the council has been lacking.
Walker promised when he took the reins of the council in 2009 to maintain decorum, end infighting and grandstanding, and keep council member comments within their five-minute limits. Boé said meetings have not met the standard initially promised by Walker.
“There’s been grandstanding by council members, by the mayor pro tem,” Boé said. “Time limits have been exceeded. We have not been as efficient in meetings as I would have hoped.”
Councilwoman Tara Wicker said she supported Walker as pro tem because he had a strong relationship with Holden at the time and she thought he could be good bridge between the council and the mayor’s office.
“In terms of that relationship unraveling, I think we as a city did not become the place we all hoped we would be at the end of four years,” she said.
In Walker’s pursuit to “please everyone” he often ends up making promises he can’t keep, Wicker said.
“He really does like to make everybody happy,” Wicker said. “As great as that is, it can be a downfall, because sometimes you got to be able to say no.”
Walker describes his management style as “open, consensus building and very communicative.” He calls himself a good listener and a courageous decision maker. He said he thinks he’s done “pretty darn good” overseeing the council in his role as the council’s chairman.
“I try to be fair with what we’re discussing, but I really try to push them along sometimes,” Walker said. “They all represent districts and there are points they have to make, and sometimes you have to let them make them.”
Council members generally agree that Walker’s main strength as a leader is that he brings people to the table.
Councilwoman Alison Gary said Walker is “the type of person who is going to sit down and talk it out with you, and ask you what you think.”
Five current and future council members have already endorsed Walker: newcomers Ryan Heck and Buddy Amoroso and current council members Chandler Loupe, Scott Wilson and Ulysses “Bones” Addison.
“In the four years that I have served with Mike, what most impressed me was his unique ability to bring people together to find common ground and solutions,” Wilson said in a statement, adding Walker also pays equal attention to all areas of the parish. “There are no city limit lines for Mike.”
Walker and Holden also face two other opponents who don’t have the experience in politics but consider themselves strong leaders nonetheless.
Mese said he’s gained leadership skills from running a business — the Garden District Nursery — and from being part of a big family and playing sports most his life.
“That’s going to be my M.O.,” Mese said. “It’s a team sport and it’s not a dictatorship.”
Mese, who likes to remind people that his name rhymes with “keeping the peace,” said he is going to bring civility back to City Hall.
“I think there’s a level of respect that should be afforded to the mayor no matter what, and vice versa to the council,” he said.
Mese acknowledged that he doesn’t have a background in government and said he’d put his trust in the department heads and administrative team members already in place.
He said he’d also have his “kitchen cabinet” of unofficial advisers to guide him.
Myers, an attorney and property manager, described himself as “hands-off” as a leader, but also “detail oriented.”
“I’m a person that sweats the small stuff,” Myers said. “Little things bother me, like DPW workers leaning on a shovel in front of customers.”
Myers said he’d be a “roaming efficiency expert, talking to a lot of people and listening to their complaints.”
He said he sets goals on a “day-by-day basis.”
“The reality is you build a city nail by nail and board by board,” he said.
Myers also said he’s a “long-term visionary and a strategist” and will be thinking about the city-parish in the terms of several years ahead.