In the lobby of the Manship Theatre, an usher fiddles with his cell phone as concert-goers file in and fill the hall with noise, and around the lobby bar a scrum of thirsty Zydeco fans swarms as a single server works to keep pace.
Inside the theater, Terrance Simien, Lafayette’s Zydeco master and a Grammy Award winner, packs up his accordion. Despite international acclaim, Simien is unable to fill a majority of the theater’s seats, although those in attendance don’t seem to care. They’re dancing in the aisles, throwing Mardi Gras beads, and shouting the occasional Et toi!
Mayor Kip Holden is among the sparse crowd and doing a little dancing and yelling of his own, even when sitting alone.
The popular Democrat found his way to the lobby during the intermission and after the show to the bar when things weren’t quite so crowded. Holden is a social mayor, always willing to throw back a few drinks or share a joke.
“What can I get ya’, mayor?” I ask as I’m about to order. “Let me buy you a drink.”
The mayor slaps me on the back and dishes his trademark smile—all teeth, seemingly on the verge of laughter. “I’ll take a beer,” he says, pausing. “Actually, I’ll take two.”
I pay for the drinks and throw a single in the tip jar. “Thanks,” Holden says, and walks away with his brew, one for each hand.
It’s classic Kip, true to form in every way. Go for the gusto. Make the extra push. He was guaranteed at least one drink from my wallet, but he went for two.
With the campaign barely off the ground in early August, someone planted the election’s first bombshell, although it largely blew up in the hands of those behind it.
A slick, venomous flyer accusing the mayor of, among other things, infidelity and abusing the privilege of police protection was mailed to thousands of homes. It featured a digitally altered portrait of Holden with a swollen eye and busted lip.
The flyer was obviously designed to focus attention on the mayor’s personal life, but as of press time “Kipgate” seemed to have stirred more curiosity about who was behind it rather than its salacious allegations. Immediately taking the offensive, Holden promised to report the incident to the FBI and categorically denied the allegations, a savvy reaction by a savvy politician.
He’ll need that kind of political moxie if his $989 million bond issue is to prevail this fall.
And moxie is one thing Holden seems to have plenty of. The same year he’s asking voters to re-elect him, Holden also is asking them to incur the largest property and sales tax hike in recent history. To be certain, it’s a risk, high approval ratings notwithstanding. Some might even call it political suicide.
Members of the Metro Council tried to carve Holden’s multi-layered proposal into smaller components, but in the end voted overwhelmingly to place the omnibus package on the Nov. 4 ballot. Councilman Wayne Carter, who is challenging Holden for mayor this fall, attended a July meeting on the bond issue, but curiously didn’t cast a vote one way or the other. He says the people of East Baton Rouge Parish do not want to pay more taxes when basic city services like drainage and police protection are already lacking. “Don’t expect it to pass,” says Carter, a Republican. “People are not ready to support economic development.”
The crown jewel of Holden’s proposal is a $248 million allotment for a nature-themed riverfront tourism attraction called Audubon Alive, to be located downtown alongside a planned aquarium, indoor swamp, and 4-D theater. The bond issue also would fund expanding the River Center, increasing downtown parking, and upgrading the Governmental Building. A new police station, new prison, new traffic lights and an upgraded drainage system also are part of the initiative.
For the most part, business interests are siding with Holden.
In particular, Jim Ellis, chairman of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s board of directors, says the bond issue presents a rare opportunity to create new jobs and spur large-scale development. “What truly makes this proposal great is that it takes care of our failures of the past, addresses our challenges of today, and moves the Baton Rouge area forward into the future,” Ellis says.
To the contrary, Dan Kyle, Holden’s other Republican opponent, says the bond issue contains a wealth of bad investments. He says it’s all part of Holden’s “tax-and-spend philosophy,” something Kyle became adept at targeting as the state’s former legislative auditor. In his under-funded campaign, Kyle has clung to free media opportunities as his venue to attack Holden’s plan. For example, he told listeners of The Jim Engster Show on WRKF recently there are better ways to generate revenue. “You could cut the budget by 2% and have enough money left over to put 100 new policemen on the streets,” Kyle said.
The bond issue defines this year’s race for mayor, and to a large extent Holden’s incumbency. But his over-the-top personality could be enough to save Holden from the onslaught of tax-and-spend attacks, according to Dr. Kirby Goidel, director of LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab. That likeability, however, may not carry over to the bond issue.
“It’s definitely gutsy. You have to respect that,” Goidel says. “On the other hand, conventional wisdom says a huge tax issue isn’t the smart thing to do. But he’s laying it out there and not hiding from it. That, coupled with his personal popularity, may result in voters voting down his tax package and re-electing him.”
For Holden, that’s a far better payoff than free drinks, even if they are two-for-one.