The unannounced candidate: Will the public antics of Mike Walker propel him to the highest office in East Baton Rouge Parish or simply undermine progress?
Mike Walker’s frequent battles with his former ally, Mayor Kip Holden, have become an unwritten agenda item at Metro Council meetings.
Walker voted in favor of funding a sculptural stage canopy for the North Boulevard Town Square. Months later, he deemed the whole idea “atrocious.”
He told the American Council of Engineering Companies Baton Rouge Chapter that he supported a bond issue for infrastructure, including bridge replacements. But he fought the mayor’s capital improvements package at just about every turn.
Insiders say Walker privately expressed support for a new River Center library if a branch were built in his district, an allegation that he denies. Now that ground has been broken on the Fairwood branch, he’s convinced that a renovation is more appropriate for the downtown location.
The political makeover of the term-limited councilman has given rise to questions regarding his motivations—and his plans. Is he running for mayor or isn’t he?
There is mounting concern on the part of some of Walker’s colleagues on the council, as well as community leaders and political analysts, that he could be using the position of mayor pro tem as a springboard for an undeclared mayoral campaign, regardless of the wreckage he leaves in his political wake.
The typically media-friendly Walker, who in addition to being a frequent source for newspaper and television interviews is also a regular on Twitter and Facebook, declined to be interviewed at length.
“I know I rarely turn down an interview,” he says. “But I’m not ready to answer those questions” about the future.
As for whether Walker is flirting with a higher office, he insists he’s undecided, though he has publicly said he’s been encouraged to do so and is mulling over the idea. His website, mikewalker.net, and Facebook page include links to make a donation.
“It’s too early to make that decision. At the appropriate time, I will make whatever decision is necessary,” he says. “The decisions I make on a daily basis are made because I am a councilman and because I represent the views of the people in District 8. I’m making the same decisions and doing the same things I would do whether I were running for office or not.”
In 2009, his fellow members on the Metro Council unanimously elected a much different Walker to his current leadership position.
He and Holden were allies until the mayor’s first bond package failed. Not long after that, Walker publicly criticized the administration’s crime-fighting efforts and suggested the Metro Council take a more active role by rescinding $900,000 in funding for downtown roads.
A few months later, Walker declined to allow the mayor to speak on the budget before the Metro Council unless invited to do so, prompting Holden to storm out of the meeting. Walker also led the opposition against putting a bond package before voters a third time. Through a spokesman, Holden declined to be interviewed for this story.
District 10 representative Tara Wicker says she supported Walker for mayor pro tem because she believed he had a good relationship with the administration.
“He and the mayor have had their struggles, and it was very shocking to me,” she says. “I know initially they were very, very close, and they shared a really good relationship with one another.
“That was one of the things that made me comfortable about having Mike in the seat of mayor pro tem. I just believe all of us have to be able to work as a team in order for the city to move forward. And so when the relationship started to dissolve and the way that it started to dissolve was a bit of a shock for me.”
District 3 representative Chandler Loupe politely describes Walker as being “definitely more proactive” than he was in 2009. But he says in part because of the mayor pro tem’s public antics, the Metro Council is “almost to the point where we are being perceived as a council of no.”
“I haven’t spoken with Mike about this, but if he is a declared candidate, he probably needs to step down as mayor pro tem and let somebody else run the council,” Loupe says. “That would probably help the parish as a whole and the council and mayor’s relationship.”
Wicker has no problem with Walker campaigning while continuing to serve as mayor pro tem, as long as one role doesn’t interfere with the other.
“I’m the kind of person who tends not to focus on another person’s negative to further enhance my position,” she says. “If I’m a good candidate, then I need to be able to stand on my own merits and not come down on another person in order to do that. I would hope that would be the tone taken if Mike is deciding to run for mayor. I hope he’ll be able to step away from his campaign for mayor and do his job as mayor pro tem.”
But as it stands now, Loupe and Wicker say certain proposals from the administration are being rejected solely for political reasons. The recent hullabaloo over the Town Square stage canopy—a project financed by dedicated funds that garnered the council’s approval in May but which Walker has since turned against—is the most recent example.
“When the relationship with the mayor started to dissolve, council members basically wanted to send a message to the mayor that you have to include us, that you have to give us correct information,” Wicker says. “And to be honest with you, I thought that message had been sent loud and clear a while ago, during the initial bond issue. In city government, you can’t get people in the middle of a project and all of a sudden decide that you’re going to change your mind.”
Baton Rouge political analysts have a theory, which goes like this: Despite his years of government service, Mike Walker isn’t that well-known outside of his district, which encompasses all or parts of such established subdivisions as Lake Sherwood Acres, Parkview Oaks, River Oaks, Sherwood Forest, Wedgewood and Woodland Ridge.
Walker’s high-profile criticism of Holden—and the corresponding media coverage—helps make a name for Walker himself.
“Everybody thinks they’re known very well, but he’s not known that well,” political consultant Roy Fletcher says. “He has his base, but when it’s the Metro Council—even if you’re mayor pro tem—people go, ‘Huh?’ He has a name-recognition problem. It all comes down to the polls. If Kip is doing badly in the polls, Mike Walker may want to define himself as the anti-Kip candidate.”
The key to beating Holden, political analysts say, is getting bloc-vote support from Baker, Central and Zachary, plus a significant percentage of the south Baton Rouge vote. Tackling Holden on issues like crime and spending, particularly on downtown development, speak to that constituency.
“Out there in the ‘burbs, their interests are a lot different than downtown,” Fletcher says. “They’re interested in crime, whether their garbage is picked up on time, jobs and roads. People in Zachary and Central don’t know and don’t care about a sculptural canopy. That’s not a broad issue that tickles anybody.”
Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University, sees a deep philosophical rift in city-parish government—even beyond the Walker vs. Holden smackdown—as to the best way to bring East Baton Rouge Parish forward.
He suspects the Tea Party movement is exerting significant influence on Walker, pressuring him to hold the line on taxes.
“Baton Rouge has always had a strong anti-tax constituency,” Samuels says. “Fred Dent was the Tea Party before the Tea Party was cool. If you’re a big spender, you’re not seen as a true conservative.”
But Fletcher and Samuels agree that in the next 14 months, Walker will have to prove he’s about more than just bashing the mayor.
“Clearly Mayor Holden is not going to get 71% of the vote next time. He’s not going to carry every precinct. I think the man is going to have some serious opposition,” Samuels says. “But you can’t beat somebody with nobody. Mike Walker has to provide an alternative vision. We know what he’s against. What’s his vision to take this parish forward? How would the city be different under his leadership?”
Fletcher notes, too, that if there’s one thing East Baton Rouge residents don’t like, it’s controversy and conflict among their community leaders.
“If you look at the politicians this parish has produced, the ones who are popular are always the consensus politicians and not the confrontational politicians,” he says. “I think Kip and the council are doing themselves a disservice by doing that. It’s one thing to run against Kip. It’s another to be involved in all this controversy.”
Mike Walker on:
• Worked to increase patrols, radar use, ticketing and overall police presence
• Helped secure funding for “shot-spotter” cameras
• Worked with Entergy to upgrade street lighting
• Helped the East Side Fire Department secure funding for new equipment and a second station
• Helped create hundreds of jobs by luring the national headquarters of Amedisys to South Sherwood Forest Boulevard
• Created new jobs by replacing an old store with a new shopping center at Interstate 12 and Millerville Road
• Helped create new jobs at FedEx’s new facility on North Harrell’s Ferry Road
• Saved 150 jobs by helping to retain the Direct General Insurance headquarters off Florida Boulevard after the company was courted by Tennessee and Texas
• Intersection improvements at Coursey and South Sherwood Forest boulevards, Florida Boulevard and Flannery Road, and Millerville Road and Old Hammond Highway
• A continuous flow intersection against South Sherwood Forest Boulevard, Siegen Lane and Airline Highway
• New bridges on Flannery Road and Jones Creek Road
• More than 13 miles of new, expanded roads completed or under construction in District 8
Quality of life
• Helped bring a 1˝-acre BREC park and playground to the Eastgate Drive area
• Worked to have BREC’s Lafitte Street park refurbished and Forest Community Park updated and enhanced
• Brought a library branch to the former Fairwood Country Club site on Old Hammond Highway
• Sponsored a measure carrying stiffer penalties for owners of dangerous animals in East Baton Rouge Parish
• Sponsored a measure to prohibit the roadside or parking-lot sale of animals