Voters repeal term limits; Ourso announces for 2011

Deidre Cruse

Iberville Parish voters repealed term limits on the Iberville Parish president and council members by a slim 165-vote margin, fueled mainly by a strong early vote in favor of the proposition, according to returns made official Tuesday by Clerk of Court J. G. “Bubbie” Dupont Jr.

The proposition carried by 4,208 to 4,043 votes.

“A win is a win,” Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. said in an interview at his Courthouse office, surrounded by well-wishers, after the unofficial returns came in Saturday night.

He pushed for the repeal so he could seek a fourth full term in his office he has held since October 1997. Five term-limited parish councilmen also would be affected, including three who opposed the repeal.

“This is the first time in the State of Louisiana that term limits have been turned around,” Ourso said, describing himself as “full of gratitude” over the result.

Early and mail-in ballots gave the proposition a 1,854 to 358-vote lead as the vote count began, a record for early voting here in any election.

By the end of Election Day voting, the proposition had carried in only 11 of the parish's 44 precincts and tied in one other. Only 40 percent of the parish's some 21,000 voters cast ballots on the issue, in the range that Clerk of Court Dupont had predicted.

Ourso said he felt a sense of relief when he saw the early vote returns.

“I didn't know I'd be subtracting the whole time,” he said of the rest of the vote count.

His opponents saw something else in the heavy early vote for the repeal.

“It was David and Goliath, and I was David,” said former clerk of court J. G. “Gert” Dupont Sr., who ran ads against the proposition.

“They had everybody on the second floor, practically, out hustling votes...The election was won on absentees, and something's got to be done about it,” he said. “They saw a political machine in operation. Watch out, they're going to run over you.”

In part, he said, he blamed Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, a probable candidate for lieutenant governor, for extending early voting hours.

“He opened the dadgum thing for a week. He wants to run for everything,” the senior Dupont said. “It wouldn't have gotten that many without that much time.”

St. Gabriel Mayor George L. Grace put out a flyer charging that some members of the African American community were among several groups “targeted” during absentee voting.

“The bottom line is a disproportionate number of African Americans were enticed to vote absentee,” Grace said, declining to expand on the enticements. “I'm telling them to stop being a target for that kind of thing now and in the future.”

The flyer said it was paid for by the George Grace Campaign, but carried the post office box for city hall, a possible ethics violation.

“It was a mistake,” Grace said of the address, “but it was paid for by me. The printer had been doing other things for us and automatically assumed it was the post office box.”

“In 1997, voters approved Iberville's Home Rule Charter along with a second proposition which restricted the powerful position of parish president and parish council members to two consecutive, four-year terms,” the flyer read. “They did not approve one without the other in order to prevent political dynasties!”

Grace is serving his fourth term as mayor and said he plans to run for a fifth at the city's elections next spring.

“I'm not part of a home rule charter that was sold on the premise of three consecutive terms,” he said. “When I was elected it was not part of the deal.”

He said he also had put out a letter to his constituents opposing the repeal because of a dispute over parish sales tax collections in St. Gabriel

(See separate story, Page 1A)

“Get us on an equal footing with the rest of the parish, my dynasty will be over because I'm really, really tired,” Grace said.

Publisher Pat Bergeron, who ran ads against the proposition and promoted a Louisiana Tea Party demonstration against it, commented on that the early voting results were “a patently ridiculous result for anyone who pays close attention to elections.

“What that means is the political machine in Iberville Parish is still alive and well...The smoke is still thick in the back rooms of Iberville politics. Now that term limits have been repealed its [sic] likely to stay that way until someone bothers to keep a closer eye on the situation.”

His advertisements titled “The Arrogance of Power” featured a cigar and spoke of “powerful politicians...trying to pull a fast one.”

“To them I want to give this message, close, but no cigar,” Ourso said.

Ourso said he ran a clean campaign for term limits repeal, and said he thought voters who opposed it did so not because they opposed him, but because they believed in term limits.

Nevertheless, he said he thought the negative advertisements   against the proposition had done some good for the opposition. The cigars featured in some of the ads, he noted, were expensive and illegal Cuban cigars.

“For the man across the street, I go home every night and pray for that man that he would have a good heart,” he said, referring to Gert Dupont and real estate office. Ourso said Gert Dupont's three children and their families have been supporters of his.

“I always did believe that if you do the right thing, it finds its own kind of way to keep the momentum going,” Ourso said.

He said his first priority continues to be the reopening of the parish's only hospital, the former River West Medical Center, which the parish is looking to acquire and lease to an operator.

Plaquemine attorney F. Barry Marionneaux, who headed the Home Rule Charter Commission and supported the repeal of the term limits his commission proposed, declared the election results “a positive step for our parish.”

“This administration and this council had too much unfinished business that's crucial for our parish, including the hospital,” Marionneaux said.

The work also includes $48 million to $49 million in federally funded hurricane relief Community Development Block Grant projects that will be in place over the next few years, Marionneaux said. His current legal work for the parish includes work on the grants.

Ourso declared his candidacy in the 2011 parish elections, and said he hoped to regain the respect of voters who voted against term limits repeal.

“I'm running again if God says the same,” he said.

He said he expected three parish councilmen who campaigned against the proposition would stand by their beliefs and not seek re-election.

Parish councilmen Howard Oubre Jr. of Plaquemine, Salaris Butler of Seymourville and Leonard “Buck” Jackson of St. Gabriel ran ads against the repeal.

“Let's see if they're going to live up to their word,” the parish president said.

Ourso was scheduled to leave Sunday for the national hurricane conference in Orlando, Florida, and planned to return home through Riceboro, Georgia, where he planned to visit an SNF plant similar to one going under construction south of Plaquemine.

“I'm riding my motorbike up there. I need a break after all this,” he said. “I need some wind in my face.”