Four candidates campaign to fill 79th District seat

Last year’s resignation of State Rep. Tony Ligi has created a power vacuum in his Kenner and Metairie district that four challengers are scrambling to fill.

Ligi announced that he was leaving the Legislature to head the Jefferson Business Council in the fall, and the race for the 79th District seat has drawn candidates with disparate backgrounds. Voters will select the new representative March 2.

Allison Bent Bowler says that her experiences as the chief financial officer for Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans and as the child of small business owners make her particularly qualified to handle the state’s fiscal and educational challenges.

Bowler said she gained valuable political experience working on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s congressional campaign, and with the Greater New Orleans Republicans. But she said working as an accountant, auditing businesses and nonprofits and overseeing the $7 million budget of the state’s top high school, is what has really prepared her for the position. The state needs more legislators who understand how businesses work, she said, and who understand the education debate from the perspective of schools.

“I’ve seen areas that need to be addressed in our state government,” said Bowler, who noted she joined the race because she wants to see the state progress and keep its best talent home. “I want Louisiana to be a place that my son will be able to raise his family. … I want to continue improving Louisiana.”

Metairie lawyer Paul Villalobos said that when he heard of Ligi’s resignation, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give politics a try. Villalobos always has been interested in politics and was searching for a way to help his community.

“I’ve pretty much grown up in this area,” Villalobos said.

He said that his background as a lawyer gives him a unique appreciation and understanding of the state’s laws and how all of the little nuances are vitally important. He thinks lawmakers have to be careful what language is included or removed from laws. Villalobos said he wants to return the focus of the district to the people who are its constituents.

“I’m very concerned about this community and the people that live here,” Villalobos said. “I think first and foremost, we have to focus on the strengthening and propagating the businesses that we have locally.”

Businessman Jack Rizzuto also would make helping businesses a priority but said his background as a business owner gives him a better understanding of what the district needs. Rizzuto ran for the position previously but finished third.

“I’ve been passionate about this seat since I ran six and a half years ago for this seat,” Rizzuto said.

He said he has the time and means to devote himself full-time to the job and that his experience running a multi-million-dollar business is valuable. Rizzuto said he will provide the district with the extra attention it needs if it’s going to reverse the trend of half-empty shopping centers and strip malls. Rizzuto also wants his children to be able to raise their families in Louisiana, but said that’s not possible if the state doesn’t become more business friendly.

“I want my kids back after college, but at the rate we’re going, kids are moving away from here,” said Rizzuto, who touted his endorsements by Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and Kenner Police Chief Steve Caraway. “We’ve got to bring jobs and opportunity to the district.”

Julie Stokes said her qualifications for representing the district can be boiled down to three specific attributes: membership, leadership and statesmanship.

Stokes, a certified public accountant, said she been active in a variety of community groups for years, such as Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni’s Economic Development Committed and the Young Leadership Council. That shows she’s invested in the district and that she understands the direction it needs to take, she said.

“I’m really interested in seeing this area use its resources properly and become business friendly,” she said.

Stokes said she understands how changes get made at a variety of levels, and she wants to be the one making public policy. She’s tired of seeing Louisiana struggle with the same problems decade after decade, she said, and thinks fresh ideas are needed. She said she understands public policy and that her training as an accountant means she understands a variety of fiscal issues.

“We just, until the last couple of years, haven’t done a very good job positioning ourselves,” Stokes said. “It’s very important that we put people in office who are going to conduct themselves as a statesman.”