One of the more interesting subtexts of the St. George saga came earlier this month in the final days of the petition certification process, when the Metro Council began looking for a replacement for now-retired Registrar of Voters Elaine Lamb.
Lamb had announced her retirement several weeks earlier, and presumably she had hoped that by the time she stepped down in midsummer, the certification process would be a piece of Baton Rouge history.
As it turned out, however, the issue of Lamb’s replacement came at one of the most crucial and politically charged moments of the 18-month quest to bring the St. George issue to a vote. Perhaps the timing was mere coincidence. The way the situation played out, however, raises questions about politics, race and the machinations of the Metro Council in Baton Rouge.
By now, most everyone knows the sequence of events surrounding the certification process. In early April, the Registrar’s Office determined some 2,000 signatures on the original petition submitted last fall were invalid and gave organizers of the effort until May 27 to make up the difference. When the group submitted the additional signatures in the final moments of deadline day, the Registrar’s Office said validating the signatures would take at least two weeks.
Meanwhile, opponents of incorporation, led by the group Better Together, were furiously collecting signature withdrawal forms from those who had second thoughts about supporting the new city. By a curious twist of state law, the group was allowed to continue soliciting and submitting those forms, even though the petition had been turned in and the process—for supporters—was over.
Amid all this drama, the Metro Council began vetting the resumes of more than two dozen hopefuls who applied for Lamb’s position. The list included at least two candidates with considerable experience in elections, as well as former Metro Councilman Ulysses “Bones” Addison, a colorful and often politically polarizing figure who served on the council in the mid-2000s and has no experience in the field.
Addison was rumored to have the inside track for the job—and those rumors came from credible sources. Several council members called journalists on the QT to say as much, and council member John Delgado even went public with the allegation, telling The Advocate, “The fix is in.”
For his part, Addison said at the time he wanted the job and was working the phones but that he didn’t have all seven votes he needed.
Still, rumors spread through downtown political circles that Addison was a shoo-in, and concern grew as the day of the vote approached. Fueling the panic was the alleged reason for Addison’s supposed position on the inside track: He’d cut a deal with the St. George supporters on the council to certify the petition in return for the lifetime appointment.
That Addison, a liberal, Democrat, African-American would be in cahoots with the mostly conservative, white Republican supporters of St. George seems a stretch for even the most diehard conspiracy theorist. But politics makes strange bedfellows, and there are those who will tell you a faction of the African-American community would be happy to see southeast Baton Rouge become its own city.
That such rumors would circulate is almost as troubling as the possibility they might be true. In either case, as negative publicity about Addison’s potential appointment grew, those who’d committed to support him had adequate political cover to back down. In the end, the council appointed a politically neutral candidate for the job—Stephen Raborn, a former elections official from Texas—and three days later, Raborn declared the St. George petition 71 signatures short.
St. George opponents declared victory. Supporters cried foul, refusing to concede defeat. The issue remains unresolved as of press time. As for Addison, it’s interesting to hear his take on the way events transpired.
On the rumored quid pro quo, not surprisingly, Addison denies any such deal ever was in the making. As proof, he points to the fact he didn’t get the job, saying, “Clearly, I was not the odds-on favorite.”
But had he been appointed, Addison says he would have done everything possible to certify the petition, provided the signatures were there. He agrees with St. George supporters that it wasn’t fair for opponents to hustle signature withdrawal forms after the petition was submitted, and he believes the issue should go before voters.
“I think the voters should have a right to make a decision,” he says. “That is the democratic process.”
Addison says he recognizes that St. George could pose a real financial hardship on the Baton Rouge city budget, which would most likely hurt low-income, inner-city residents the most, but he doubts it is as bad as the Better Together crowd has suggested. What’s more, he disagrees that the creation of St. George would polarize the parish along racial or economic lines. In fact, he says the African American community in inner-city Baton Rouge doesn’t much think about the issue.
“The people in north Baton Rouge and Old South Baton Rouge and Eden Park—it’s not an issue for them,” he says.
Some would strongly disagree with Addison on most everything. But on one point, he makes a salient observation—one that is worth mulling as the community tries to figure out how to move beyond the St. George saga.
“The mayor says one Baton Rouge is better,” Addison says. “But if it is a divided Baton Rouge, it’s not better, and if people do not feel they got a legitimate shake, they will remain divided.”