20110119-cover-0101Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Can anyone knock out frontrunner Fred Mills in the District 22 state Senate race? By Nathan Stubbs

After Troy Hebert announced in June that he would not seek re-election to the District 22 state Senate seat this fall, the three state reps from Hebert’s Iberia and St. Martin Parish district — Taylor Barras, Simone Champagne and Fred Mills — got together to discuss which of them might run for the open seat. Politicians discussing upcoming elections is hardly uncommon, and Mills says the small delegation of three enjoys a good relationship and is generally supportive of the others’ efforts. “We were maybe trying to avoid a situation where all three of us would run,” he says. At that meeting none of the three declared any definite intentions, according to Mills and Champagne. (Barras did not return a call for comment for this story.) “We all said, maybe when October comes by we’ll just talk about it and see who has a desire to serve in the Senate,” says Mills. He adds the group never assumed there wouldn’t be competition for the seat. “We knew there would be a race.”

In November, however, Hebert announced he was stepping down from his Senate seat to take a job as commissioner of the state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Board. A special election was promptly scheduled for Jan. 22 — this Saturday — by Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, leaving only a two-month window for anyone to mount a campaign before the election. Unlike state or local offices, the speaker of the House and the Senate president have sole discretion in scheduling the dates of special elections for their respective branches of the Legislature.

To the surprise of many, there was no shortage of candidates willing to sign up for the short race, including both Mills and Champagne. Mills says when it got close to qualifying, he and Champagne both decided to run and vowed to each other to run a clean campaign. One of the advantages for them running in a special election, as opposed to a regular election, is that they don’t have to relinquish their House seats in order to run for the Senate. That way, even if they lose the Senate race — and at least one of them will — they remain state representatives.

“I told her,” Mills recalls, “‘You know what, in a case like this, I don’t see any problem with both of us running and seeing what we can do.’”

Mills has raised more money than all the other candidates combined, comes in first in every poll that’s been done on the race, and his face is everywhere — on TV and along the interstate in his native St. Martin Parish. He’s also allegedly bought up next to all of the available billboards in Iberia Parish.

Every indication is that even with six candidates in the race, Mills is angling to win the election outright in the primary. A favorite son of St. Martin Parish, where he runs his Cashway Pharmacy and Farmers-Merchants Bank, Mills is expected to win the towns of Breaux Bridge, St. Martinville and Parks in a landslide. He’s also working hard to extend his reach into Iberia Parish, where a slight majority of the District 22 population resides. Iberia Parish represents approximately 58 percent of the voters in District 22, compared to the 42 percent in St. Martin.

A former director of the state board of pharmacy and current chair of the Seafood Safety Task Force Commission, Mills has been very successful in tapping those industries for campaign funds and connections in Iberia. “I started my career in New Iberia,” Mills says. “I worked for Eckerd Drugs when I first got out of school and I did relief work around Iberia for a while, so I got to know the pharmacy community very well, and my wife worked in Loreauville so we have some connections there. Being a state rep right on the border of Iberia, I worked with the delegation and just like anything else when you meet new people you just start networking out and meeting folks and I tell you it really is the same area — it’s got the same assets and the same type of people.”

New Iberia attorney David Groner, one of the four other candidates in the race, says he and every other strategic candidate in the race is now angling to make the runoff with Mills. The runoff strategy would then involve consolidating the Iberia Parish vote against the popular St. Martin Parish candidate.

“There’s no question Fred Mills is the big gorilla in the race,” Groner says. “There’s no question he will be the guy in the runoff. He’s running by himself in St. Martin Parish and he’s backed by some powerful politicians. That’s a no-brainer. He’s got people in Baton Rouge that are making calls for him and getting him money. I don’t have that. So, he’s the guy to beat. The question is who’s going to be in the runoff with him.”

Tall and lean, with thin-framed glasses, a perpetual grin and neatly parted hair, Mills hardly appears threatening. An eager-to-please attitude and lively sense of humor have helped him win over many loyal supporters. Mills has also become a bit of a local YouTube sensation with commercials for both of his businesses, Farmers-Merchants Bank and Cashway Pharmacy. In the ads, you can see him emerge from the depths of a hot tub in a suit to assist a newlywed couple with their Internet banking needs, eavesdrop on a Middle Eastern plot to raise oil prices in order to thwart Cashway’s free parish-wide delivery program, and frequently don a dress, wig and lipstick to play the character of Tante (French for aunt) Pills, the star of many of Cashway’s commercials.

In St. Martin Parish, Mills’ antics come despite an established political pedigree. His father, Fred Mills Sr., was a longtime mayor of Breaux Bridge. The elder Mills’ good friend, state Rep. Burton Angelle, lived just down the street. Burton’s son, Scott Angelle, the current head of the state Department of Natural Resources who has also served as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s legislative liaison and as interim lieutenant governor, is a lifelong friend of the junior Mills.

“I don’t know anyone who’s more capable,” Scott Angelle told The Independent for a 2008 profile on Mills (“Dress for Success,” Sept. 17, 2008). “God didn’t bless him with children, so he’s taken the time to do for others.” In 2007, Mills, then a St. Martin Parish councilman, easily won election to the state House with 84 percent of the vote. He has proven a natural in the Legislature, passing an impressive 38 pieces of legislation in three years in the House. Angelle is viewed as one of the influential Baton Rouge officials who may be quietly working behind the scenes on behalf of Mills. The state rep also has support of almost all of the local officials from St. Martin Parish.

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An early frontrunner, state Rep. Simone Champagne is now one of three candidates fighting to force a runoff against Fred Mills for the District 22 state Senate seat.

Simone Champagne also has friends in high places. She is said to enjoy the support of Iberia Parish President Ernest Freyou, and recently U.S. Sen. David Vitter made robocalls on her behalf. Republican leaders in the Legislature, who have targeted the seat as an easy pickup for their party, are rumored to have recruited and then pushed Champagne into the race early on.

“The Republican Party didn’t push me to get in this race,” Champagne asserts. “Very good constituents of mine and supporters encouraged me to run for the office, and naturally I gave it thought and consideration, spoke to my family and I really wanted to run for the Senate. It’s an open seat; it’s an opportunity for me to be able to broaden the constituency base that I represent, and I truly enjoy that aspect of elected office, the constituent work. I believe that the Legislature needs good conservative values, especially at a time right now when we have a $1.6 billion deficit. I sit on the appropriations and joint budget committee, and I know I can make those hard votes.”
Despite never having faced political opposition before — she was unopposed when she succeeded Troy Hebert in the state House — Champagne still went door to door prior to her 2007 election and knows her district well. In her Senate campaign, she’s branded herself a budget hawk, touting the stand she took last year with a group of House members who opposed the state’s final budget because of its reliance on the federal stimulus and other one-time funds. “We have got to take a hold of what we’re doing in this state,” she says.

Prior to qualifying, few expected three other Republican candidates to sign up for the race  — all of them have been touting their conservative bona fides. Candidates Armond Schwing and Ken Squires are both longtime Republicans. And in a move many read as a shrewd bid to undercut Champagne and her GOP financial support, Mills, who had been a lifelong Democrat, switched to the Republican Party just days before qualifying for the race. Mills insists his party switch was ideological.

“I guess the major issue that just got tougher and tougher and why I made the switch was the moratorium,” he says. “I know you’ve kind of heard it statewide from several of the elected guys, especially around these parishes. And then the issue became the health care reform issue, you know that’s the issue that the more I worked on at a state level and as this election got closer it just became the move I really needed to make philosophically.” In his ads, Mills is touting his credentials as a conservative small businessman and his opposition to abortion and the Obama moratorium.

Champagne also is a former Democrat and recent convert to the GOP. She made the switch in June of last year, just after the 2010 legislative session wrapped up. “Over the course of the last three years,” Champagne says, “being in the Legislature and just working through the district that I represent, I realized that my vote leaned more toward conservative Republican. I voted that way in the Legislature over the past three years because I vote the voice of my constituents so I feel that most of Louisiana, including the district that I represent, has become more conservative.” She also says Obama’s unpopular health care bill and moratorium cemented her disenfranchisement with Democrats, adding, “I don’t feel that I left the Democratic Party. I feel the Democratic Party left conservative values behind a long time ago.”

The political party switching has helped provide some ammunition for the other candidates in the race. Both Ruben LeBlanc and Ken Squires, the two unfunded candidates in the race with the longest odds of winning, have echoed the phrase “five-minute Republicans” when describing Champange and Mills.

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David Groner

Groner says the two state reps are being disingenuous with voters. “Voters don’t like the party switching,” he says. “They really don’t. And they don’t like the acrimony that’s obviously going on in Washington, D.C., and when they see people joining a political party just for this race, it leads them to believe that they intend to abandon one set of friends to go with another, and therefore it’s going to create some dissension and some acrimony and problems out in the community.”

But Groner has changed party affiliation himself. A former Republican and member of the Iberia Parish Republican Executive Committee, he became an independent about five years ago because of national Republicans’ out-of-control spending practices. “I just felt that I couldn’t identify with the Republicans and their excess spending, didn’t want to go Democrat. I felt like the weight of the world came off my shoulders when I changed parties to independent.”

Groner got involved in politics at a young age when he began working as an aide to former District 22 state senator and then Secretary of State Paul Hardy. Groner ran for the District 22 seat himself in 1992, finishing sixth in a wild eight-person primary won by Craig Romero. Like several others in the race, Groner was banking on a residency challenge that would have kept Romero out of the race, but days before the election, a court ruled in Romero’s favor.

This time, Groner says his polling confirms that an independent New Iberia candidate like himself can make a runoff with and then defeat Mills. Groner has ponied up $20,000 of his own money for the campaign, and raised another $16,000. While still having raised far less than Champagne and Mills, Groner is also banking on his well-established name. He is a former head of the Industrial Development Foundation, which helped land the big Arco project at the Port of Iberia in the late 1980s. He’s also a prolific personal injury and business attorney in New Iberia, appearing on billboards with his old dalmatian, Max. “A lot of people just know me as the guy on the billboard with the dalmatian,” Groner admits. A portrait of Max, dressed as Napoleon, also hangs behind Groner’s desk at his downtown office. Admittedly sentimental, Groner’s also prone to schmaltzy lines like the one he used to wrap up his introduction at last week’s debate, reminding the audience he was “No. 2 on the ballot, No. 1 in your heart.”

Groner’s pre-election calculus didn’t factor in political newcomer Armond Schwing, the other contender likely to land in a runoff against Mills. Hailing from a prominent New Iberia family, whose third generation insurance agency he has helped run for the past 18 years, Schwing describes himself as an independent-minded, fiscally conservative Republican. Popular in New Iberia social circles, and active with both the Kiwanis and Optimist clubs, Schwing’s other credentials include serving as the current chair of the state’s White Lake Property Advisory Board and as a past state chairman of Ducks Unlimited. He decided to run for the District 22 Senate seat “to give another option to everyone.”

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Armond Schwing

“Looking at the list of candidates,” he says, “I felt that I brought something different to the table and a different mind set and a different approach to what I think should be done in Baton Rouge. And it’s that simple.”
Schwing has latched on to state Treasurer John Kennedy’s 16-point plan to cut state spending to balance the budget without severely impacting higher education and health care. In a jab at his opponents, Schwing’s also advocating that politicians be required to step down from one office in order to run for another in a special election. If either Champagne or Mills wins the race, he notes, it will cost the state an extra $80,000 to hold another special election for their vacated state representative seat.

Whoever wins the special election for District 22 will only then serve the remaining year on Hebert’s term in the Senate, meaning the victor will immediately be up for reelection this October. In this situation, any narrow victory may encourage more competition for the seat in the fall. Rumored to be waiting in the wings is former District 22 state Sen. Craig Romero, who was term limited out of office in 2008 but, after having sat out for a full term, will be free to run again this October. Reached on his cell phone last week, Romero denied any interest in reclaiming his old job. “I’m not running for the Senate again,” he says, declining further comment on the District 22 race.

In addition, while Champagne and Mills may retain their current legislative offices in the event they lose the District 22 race, a poor showing could invite a challenger for their House seat this fall. Unlike Mills, Champagne is not viewed as a lock for the runoff, and many see her as having the most to lose in this race. A straw poll taken last Wednesday night following a forum for the candidates confirmed some of the speculation that her campaign was struggling to catch on, at least in the all-important town of New Iberia. The poll, taken after a Sliman Theatre event hosted by the Tea Party of South Louisiana, consisted of 135 confidential ballots. Champagne finished a disappointing fourth with only 13 votes, well behind the two New Iberia candidates, Schwing (28 votes) and Groner (25 votes).

Champagne is expected to have a better showing this Saturday, when she will have her established get-out-the-vote organization and Jeanerette base represented. And while the other candidates aren’t speculating ahead at this time, they are certainly aware that an impressive second place finish in this special election may put them in a prime position to run again in the fall. (Both Groner and Schwing live in state House District 48, represented by Taylor Barras.)

Schwing says he hasn’t considered qualifying to run again for the state Senate or House if he comes up short in this race, but he wouldn’t rule it out. “I guess my decision process is the person who is elected, how are they doing and how do they grade on my scale?”

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