Fight for Donaldsonville seat on Ascension Council is essentially a rubber match

2 months ago The Advocate 0

DONALDSONVILLE — It will just about be a rubber match when voters decide between two men who have alternately held a west bank Ascension Parish Council seat for nearly 24 years.

Ascension Parish Councilman Oliver Joseph, a four-term incumbent in District 1, is facing a challenge from the only man to beat him in an election, Alvin W. “Coach” Thomas Jr.

Joseph replaced the former three-term parish councilman in late 2006 after Thomas’ resignation following a federal bribery conviction months earlier that year.

Joseph had lost to Thomas in an unsuccessful run in 2003 when Thomas still held the seat, but won a three-person special election to fill the remainder of Thomas’ term in the fall of 2006 and ran unopposed for the full term the following year, holding the seat ever since.

Now the two Democrats are facing off again Oct. 12 for what nearly amounts to an election for the best two out of three. Early voting starts Saturday.

Thomas, in his early 60s, is a former LSU football player and Baptist minister and a retired coach and public school disciplinarian, according to candidacy papers and friends.

Thomas has refused to provide any comment for this story, offering repeated “no comment” to questions about his federal conviction, his current election platform or his personal biography. He did not return additional requests for comment made Thursday.

In November 2005, Thomas signed a guilty plea under seal to a federal charge of accepting $900 in bribes earlier that year to support an unidentified businessman’s existing sewer contracts with parish government. In the plea, Thomas admitted he told the businessman he had just gotten “a crash course in politics” after he paid Thomas $500 following an introduction and dinner meeting with another councilman. The plea was not accepted until June 2006.

In December 2006, now deceased U.S. District Judge Ralph E. Tyson sentenced Thomas to 21 months in prison with two years of supervised release after his prison time and a $3,500 fine.

Under Louisiana law, convicted felons can run for office more than five years after they have completed their sentence.

Thomas’ campaign signs around Donaldsonville feature the word “redeemed” and are often seen next to signs for former state Sen. Troy Brown. Brown is another Democrat who is seeking to restore his political fortunes after pleading no contest to misdemeanor domestic charges and resigning in early 2017 as the state Senate was poised to remove him. Brown is running for Senate District 2, his old seat, against incumbent Ed Price, a Democrat who won a special election to fill the seat.

Brown has not returned phone messages for comment.

Thomas’ supporters say they are willing to give him another chance and that he has served his time and turned his life around. The Rev. Melvin Williams, pastor of First Baptist Church of Smoke Bend, where Thomas serves as a minister, said Thomas remains a popular person.

“I think he learned his lesson,” Williams, 80, said.

“Whether he’ll win or not, I don’t know. It’s going to be a good race, but there are people who are still out here who still like him,” Williams said.

Reavon Gasper, 36, a mother of two, had Brown and Thomas signs in front of her trailer home on La. 1 recently in Donaldsonville. She said both men have done things to help the city. She said she knew about both men’s past, saying Thomas has had to get the community’s trust back.

“So far everything he’s said he’s done, he’s doing, so that’s a start to try to get the community’s trust back,” she said. 

Joseph, one of 11 votes on the council who often battles the criticism that he isn’t doing enough to garner parish funding for the west bank, has easily defeated multiple challengers in two of his last three reelection bids, winning in the primary both times, and running unopposed in his other reelection effort.

Joseph, 59, who is a retired Marine, is running on his platform of adding infrastructure to the west bank and promoting more economic development. He has been an important backer of the parish’s purchase of the Peoples Water system, which won a $17.5 million federal grant and loan to upgrade the aging system. He has also promoted a large industrial site near rural Modeste to bring jobs to the west bank.

Joseph has steered clear of making Thomas’ conviction an election issue, saying he believes Thomas has completed the legal time frame to run again.

Patrick Smith, deputy chief of the Middle District of Louisiana’s U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services office, said his agency is barred from saying whether a former federal inmate has completed probation requirements, citing privacy restrictions, but any failure to do so would lead to revocation proceedings. Thomas has faced none, federal court records show. 

Thomas, who had his voter registration suspended on April 20, 2007, had it reinstated on Aug. 23, 2010, according to the parish registrar of voters.

Observers of the Donaldsonville political scene and some of Joseph’s own supporters say the councilman may be in for a tougher race than usual this time. He may be paying a price for his attempt last year to convince voters to rededicate a half of a half-cent sales tax for Prevost Memorial Hospital and use it for west bank recreation, these observers said.

In the face of a campaign by hospital backers to shoot down the proposed tax plan amid fears it could undermine the hospital’s long-term financial health, voters in western Ascension rejected the proposal on Nov. 6, 2018. 

Michael McKinney, 70, who is a Joseph campaign backer, said he believes opponents of the tax plan portrayed it incorrectly, saying it would close the hospital, even though he says that was never the idea. That campaign has had lingering effects politically, he said. 

“I think it did stir things up. I just don’t think the total truth was told about the hospital (tax plan),” McKinney said.

The hospital’s top officials say they aren’t involved in the race, but Vince Cataldo, the hospital administrator who opposed the tax plan, agreed it is having repercussions for Joseph and for Bill Dawson, the other councilman who represents part of the west bank. Dawson is facing a challenge from Joel Robert. Both are Republicans. 

“It’s going to be an interesting election,” Cataldo said.

Joseph said all he was trying to do was give voters in Donaldsonville a choice to fund recreation and they made their choice and that’s fine with him. 

City Councilman Reginald Francis, who is backing Joseph, said he believes his candidate remains the man to beat.

“I think Alvin is going to get some votes, but I don’t believe it’s enough to get him over,” Francis said.