- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - After a turbulent summer of bloodshed, racial tensions and catastrophic flooding, Louisiana’s capital will elect a new mayor to lead a city emerging from some of its darkest days.

The turmoil in Baton Rouge has shaped the race and raised its stakes, yet the mayoral election remains an afterthought for many voters on the cusp of the Tuesday primary.

Twelve candidates, including four Democrats and four Republicans, are on the primary ballot to replace Kip Holden as mayor and parish president. Two candidates will advance to a Dec. 10 runoff if none get a majority of primary votes.

Scattered residents are still struggling to return to homes wrecked by August’s historic floods. A pair of deadly shootings in July also forced candidates to take prolonged breaks from the campaign trail.

Protesters rallied for days after a white police officer fatally shot a black man during a struggle outside a convenience store. Twelve days after Alton Sterling’s videotaped shooting, the city mourned for three law-enforcement officers who died in a shootout with a lone gunman. A month later, floodwaters damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes in the region.

Those gut punches created a daunting list of challenges for Baton Rouge’s next mayor - from bridging racial divides to guiding the storm-ravaged community on a path to recovery.

The tumultuous times also have made it tougher for the crowded field of candidates to capture voters’ attention.

“What race?” said Roy Fletcher, a Baton Rouge-based political consultant. “There’s not much going on. It’s just a very, very low-profile race.”

Some political analysts say the candidates are to blame for running uninspiring campaigns. Robert Mann, a political columnist and mass communication professor at Louisiana State University, said they seem unwilling or unable to articulate an ambitious blueprint for the future of the city and the rest of East Baton Rouge Parish, the state’s largest by population.

“No one has inspired anyone to see a larger vision of where this parish could go or painted a picture of what this parish could be,” Mann said.

Holden, a term-limited Democrat who became its first black mayor 12 years ago, has been criticized for not taking a more visible leadership role in the aftermath of the shootings and flooding. Leaders of protests over Sterling’s July 5 shooting called for his resignation.

During an Oct. 18 mayoral forum, six leading contenders shared a stage to answer questions about the city’s traffic problems, police department, education and economic growth. The moderator’s first question asked candidates how they would unify the city after the shootings.

There have been longstanding economic and racial divisions between predominantly black neighborhoods in north Baton Rouge, where Sterling was killed, and its largely white southern sections, where a movement grew to carve out a new city called St. George.

Inside the city limits of Baton Rouge, blacks account for more than half of the nearly 230,000 residents. The parish has about 440,000 residents, with whites narrowly outnumbering blacks, according to 2010 census figures.

Two of the Democratic candidates, state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle and former state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, are both vying to become the first black woman to be mayor of the majority-black city. Marcelle was at the forefront of the protests after Sterling’s death, which occurred in her district.

“I didn’t run. I didn’t hide. I faced it, and I tried to bring calm in the middle of a storm,” said Marcelle, whose activism didn’t impress everyone. A police union official criticized her for wearing T-shirts printed with blood spatters and the names of Sterling and the three officers killed on July 17.

State Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, who was endorsed by the Republican Party of Louisiana, was a sheriff’s deputy and detective for six years in the 1980s. White said his law enforcement experience would help him improve police and community relations.

“I’ve walked in their shoes,” he said. “We have to close the divide. You have to be able to community police.”

Broome, whose home was flooded by about 16 inches of water, has been living with a daughter. Her campaign’s first television ad features images of her flood-damaged home.

Some traditional methods for reaching voters, such as direct mail and phone calls, have been more difficult since the floods displaced thousands of residents.

“There has been no playbook for a campaign during this kind of season,” Broome said. “A couple of times we had to put things on pause because of what was going on.”

One recent Friday evening, Broome campaigned at a high school where dozens of people were tailgating before a football game. Smoke from barbecue grills wafted over the parking lot as Broome greeted supporters over blaring music.

Politics hasn’t been a priority for one of those tailgaters, Alfreda Smith, since floodwaters damaged her family’s home about a mile from where Sterling was shot. Smith, 58, said she has been too busy dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and her insurance company to follow the mayor’s race.

“I’ve been like a ping pong, back and forth, and you get frustrated,” she said.

Even some political mainstays are sitting out the race. Lane Grigsby, a wealthy Baton Rouge businessman and prominent campaign donor, said he met with at least four of the mayoral candidates before deciding against contributing money to anyone in the race.

“No one came back with anything other than, ‘I love the American flag, motherhood and apple pie,’” he said. “I haven’t seen any spectacular leadership moves on the part of anybody.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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