Voters in Kenner, Metairie to decide on Ligi’s replacement in House

As the final days of the campaign for the District 79 seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives wind down, candidates are pushing hard to drive home their core messages, which for some include jabs at each other.

Voters will decide Saturday who will replace retired Rep. Tony Ligi, and the front runners for that position appear to be businessman Jack Rizzuto and accountant Julie Stokes. Stokes and Rizzuto have exchanged snipes in recent days, with each pointing the finger at the other for turning the campaign ugly. Lawyer Paul Villalobos and Allison Bent Bowler, the chief financial officer for a local high school, are also competing for the seat.

Rizzuto claims Stokes has made personal attacks on him and his family to distract voters from the fact that her civic involvement is self-serving. Rizzuto’s father, Philip Rizzuto, was convicted of conspiring to bribe a judge in the 1980s, and Stokes’ supporters have pointed to that conviction and some of the businesses Rizzuto’s company is involved with as issues.

But Rizzuto says the real issue is that Stokes has regularly missed meetings for the Regional Transit Authority, on which she serves as a commissioner, and has overstated her civic involvement to influence voters.

As a businessman, Rizzuto said, he knows what’s needed to eliminate empty storefronts in Jefferson Parish and create sales tax revenue that will help police and local governments. That’s why Sheriff Newell Normand and others have supported him, Rizzuto said.

“All Ms. Stokes was doing was padding her ré sumé to run for political officer,” Rizzuto said. “Don’t take personal shots at people’s family … Nobody else is running for office except for me.”

But Stokes counters that it’s Rizzuto who started the attacks, misrepresenting her record as an RTA commissioner and getting surrogates to spread falsehoods about her tenure at other groups. She says that’s because Rizzuto doesn’t want voters to realize that his position on Louisiana’s tax policy, including Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desire to eliminate income tax, doesn’t make sense.

“What scares me half to death is that he has not thought out his tax policy,” Stokes said. “He started all the lies, yet he’s saying I went negative … He went negative long before I did.”

Stokes said she’s gathered a plethora of endorsements from local political groups and politicians such as Jefferson Parish President John Young because they know she has an open mind and will consider any proposal. Right now the state needs someone who understand how to reform businesses and education, not someone who is tied to the politics of the past like Rizzuto, Stokes said.

While Stokes and Rizzuto exchange barbs, the other two candidates took a different approach to the final days of their campaigns. Bowler said she’s avoid the mudslinging and has instead tried to impress upon voters that she alone has the experience in education and fiscal management that will benefit the district. Bowler said she’s stressed that her core values, not politics, will guide her decisions as a lawmaker, and she believes voters are responding.

“We are just keeping our campaign positive and not attacking our opponents,” Bowler said. “I want to bring honest and hardworking and integrity to Louisiana state government.”

Villalobos said that although his chances for getting a victory seem slim, he’s not discouraged or dismayed. He said that he’s enjoyed the chance to meet residents and talk about their concerns for the district, which includes Kenner and parts of Metairie. It’s been amazing to see people respond to his message, he said, and he’s pushing the idea that the next district representative needs to make protecting and promoting existing local businesses a priority.

“I’m really trying to drive home the face that I’m most concerned about local businesses,” Villalobos said. “I don’t deny the fact that I’m a dark horse … But I have really appreciated and relished the fact that I get to speak in front of these groups.”

Ligi resigned his position last year to take a new job with the Jefferson Business Council.