Two tales of one parish

Mayor Kip Holden says East Baton Rouge Parish is “thriving.” Mike Walker, a term-limited councilman and Holden’s most serious and well-financed challenger, says it’s time to bring “our parish back from the edge of the cliff.”

Holden says the local economy is creating jobs, building wealth—especially in the digital media and movie industries—and ranks as one of the nation’s top performers during the global recession. Walker says we’re losing thousands of jobs and our focus should be on jobs in the oil, natural gas and petrochemical sectors.

Holden says we’re successfully winning job-creating, economic development battles against foreign cities and countries. Walker says we need a “jobs policy, not a foreign policy.”

Holden says investments in downtown Baton Rouge will continue. Walker says there’s already been too much investing in downtown.

Holden says his door is always open. Walker says that door is always closed.

Two men, two views, one Baton Rouge. How is it that Holden and Walker see almost every issue from 180 degrees of separation?

The diametric rhetoric means election season is clearly upon us. Holden, wanting to win a third (and final) term, is painting a rosy picture of Red Stick. Walker, wanting to win a first term, is painting one that’s a considerably bleaker shade of rose. Holden plays the Bob Marley card, singing, “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right.” Walker, trying to trump, throws down the REM rant, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

The truth on almost every one of these issues can be found somewhere in the middle.

Most voters understand the game of political exaggeration, especially when a race turns nasty, as this one most assuredly will.

I’m not sure, however, voters will be so understanding when it comes to the issue foremost on the minds of every resident of this parish: crime.

One of the ugly truths about Baton Rouge is there’s little mass public outrage when violent crime is contained to the largely black neighborhoods of this parish. This is especially true since an overwhelming percentage of our violent crime is of the black-on-black variety. It’s not until a white mother in Beauregard Town is murdered or white students from The Dunham School are shot that this community rises in unison to scream enough is enough.

We can debate what that says about Baton Rouge in the larger societal context, but today’s truth is we’re a parish both fearful and angry about a crime problem that is seemingly spiraling out of control.

That’s why I believe Holden is treading on dangerous political turf by claiming that while a crime problem exists, the statistics (which can be manipulated to prove anything) show violent crime is actually on the decline and that hype, headlines and political hyperbole are ratcheting up the hysteria.

Without question, Walker is incredibly exaggerating the problem by claiming the Capital City is essentially one dead body away from replacing New Orleans as the state’s murder capital. Still, it’s Holden’s position that’s drawing the scoffs and rebuke.

Much will be made of Holden’s support of downtown and the failure of his two massive tax-bond-and-spend proposals, but Holden’s greatest vulnerability is on the crime issue. The mayor can toss out all the statistics he wants regarding declining crime rates; the public isn’t buying what Holden’s selling.

Consequently, the question of the campaign will be: Do you feel safer than you did four years ago, or eight years ago?

Given the history of Holden’s four previous runs for mayor-president (he lost his first two bids before defeating Bobby Simpson in 2004), how south and southeast Baton Rouge answers that question will determine the election’s outcome. Holden will overwhelmingly carry the black vote, and Walker—if he raises the $500,000 he claims he can and no big-name, well-financed third candidate enters the race—should carry the Baker-Central-Zachary bloc. Meaning, as has been the case for three of the past four elections for mayor-president, the candidate who captures the southern part of the parish also captures the election.

Though Holden’s popularity has waned since he slam-dunked Wayne Carter four years ago, the power of incumbency has proven a tough obstacle to overcome. Walker’s hurdle might not be as high, however, if Holden continues to deny the public’s view on crime.

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