Harson-Stutes battle in 15th Judicial DA race heating up

The money is flowing in for this year’s 15th Judicial District Attorney’s race, one that pits a four-time incumbent who is used to running unopposed against his former lead prosecutor, who decided to run in the midst of a bribery scandal that has racked the office.

As the campaign donations flow in, people are starting to take sides in the election that will be held Nov. 4.

Campaign finance records show incumbent District Attorney Michael Harson raised $380,825 in 2013, while challenger Keith Stutes collected $208,825.

Harson said Wednesday that he raised the bulk of the money, more than $300,000, in the last few months of 2013. And money has continued to flow in since Jan. 1 even though he’s held no major fundraisers, he said.

Stutes, who bolstered his campaign fund with loans totaling $10,000 from Home Bank last year, said voters want a change.

“An incredible number of people … are crying out for change, positive change,” Stutes said. “These loud voices are what convinced me that (running for office) is the right thing to do.”

University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science professor Pearson Cross said the support Stutes is receiving is unusual because longtime local-level officeholders such as Harson often are returned to office as long as they want. After Harson’s first election, where he had opposition, he ran unopposed the next three times.

“There seems to be a fairly concentrated and well-organized attempt to support an alternative to Mike Harson,” said Cross, noting that Stutes’ challenge to Harson was a challenge from within the office.

Stutes was Harson’s major-crimes prosecutor before retiring in December 2012.

Though Harson has raised more money, Stutes has picked up endorsements from former U.S. Attorneys Mike Skinner and Donald Washington, who are sponsoring a $250-a-couple fundraiser on May 1 for Stutes.

Skinner did not return a call Wednesday. Skinner and Washington in a joint statement stressed the need for “integrity in the criminal justice system.”

“We also understand that we need a district attorney who has the respect of other law enforcement agencies and one who is able to work with those agencies,” the statement reads.

What Skinner and Washington danced around in the two-page statement, dated Feb. 13, is the ongoing federal investigation of the 15th District Attorney’s Office, which oversees Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes.

Harson has not been implicated in the ongoing federal probe, but he has been shaken.

Some employees in his office have been implicated, and some have pleaded guilty to federal crimes, including Harson’s longtime office manager Barna Haynes.

Haynes last year pleaded guilty to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in illegal plea deals.

The qualifying period for the Nov. 4 primary is Aug. 20-22. A runoff election, if needed, would be held Dec. 6.

“I think this campaign has the potential to be incredibly ugly,” Cross said.

Harson said Wednesday he expects a difficult campaign.

“I’m sure there will be things that have been harped on for the last two years, and it will continue for the next year or so,” Harson, 64, said. “We’ll to live with it until that time.”