Lionel Johnson Jr. 'humbled' by mayoral election victory

Deidre Cruse

St. Gabriel voters on Saturday elected the Rev. Lionel Johnson Jr. as their new mayor, unseating incumbent George L. Grace, the only man who has held the office since the city was incorporated in 1994 but who currently is facing 11 federal indictments.

Voters re-elected all five incumbent city council members over six challengers, and returned Police Chief Kevin “Butchie” Ambeau Sr. to a third term in office with nearly 62 percent of the vote to 38 percent for former chief Patrick Nelson Sr.

Voter interest was highest in the mayor's race, with 64 percent of the city's 2,173 voters casting ballots. Sixty-three percent voted in the police chief's election, and only 54 percent cast ballots in the City Council election.

Johnson, Ambeau and city council members Deborah “Debbie” Alexander, Flora Jean Danielfield, Freddie Carl Frazier Sr., Melvin Hasten Sr. and Ralph “Big Guy” Johnson Sr. will take office for the new term on July 1.

Ambeau now is eying the sheriff's race scheduled for this fall. He said he would make a decision by May 1.

Johnson won with 53 percent of the vote to 47 percent for Grace, a mirror opposite of the vote four years ago when Grace defeated Johnson's father in the mayor's race.

“I don't know what made the difference,” Mayor-elect Johnson said in a telephone interview Monday. “I knew it would be a close race...I'm just happy for the 97 votes that put us over.”

He said he wants to focus on the transition and on unifying the city.

“”Local politics are taken personally, and sometimes hard,” Johnson said. “I want us to be a united city.”

Mayor Grace said he was sure the difference was his indictment on federal charges of racketeering, bribery, extortion and obstruction is set for trial on January 23, of justice in connection with an FBI sting operation called “Operation Blighted Officials” that has already resulted in the conviction of former White Castle Mayor Maurice “Big Moe” Brown. Grace is scheduled for trial January 23, 2012.

“I couldn't overcome that,” Grace told the POST/SOUTH, even with a strong record of accomplishment in the office.

Grace said he holds no animosity towards Johnson or anyone else in the city, and that he would do his best to assure a smooth transition.

“I'm confident I will leave St. Gabriel in a posture where the mayor-elect can do even better than I've done,” the incumbent said. “I want to be clear in wishing him well and wishing the city to grow and prosper. I will do everything I can to help him.”

Relations between the mayoral contestants was not as friendly last week when Grace tried to have an ordinance against political rallies in city parks enforced to shut down a Johnson event last Wednesday at Amanda Grace Park, named for the mayor's mother. Johnson said he had reserved the use of the park “through normal channels.”

Police Chief Ambeau said he was advised that the city ordinance did not trump the U. S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble peaceably, and refused to break up the gathering unless participants vandalized the park or broke some other law.

“There were about 200 people,” the chief said. “Nobody caused any problem at all.”

Grace called Johnson not long after the polls closed Saturday night to congratulate him on the win and offer assistance.

Johnson said he had a “variety of emotions” when he heard he won the race.

“There were people gathered at the house,” he said. Some were screaming, some were crying. I use the word humble.”

Johnson said he would ask Mayor Grace to assist him with a budget for a transition team. He wants to set up an office, staffed by both volunteer and paid employees, so that he can meet with members of the community.

He said he also would like to have access to city records “to get an idea of where we're going,” and to have some input on the city budget that will be adopted before the start of his term.

Johnson said he wanted to look at the staffing patterns and pay of City Hall personnel, as well as any evaluations that are available, before making any decisions on changes.

“Obviously, I want to work with people I can trust and who are competent,” he said. I have not made official decisions about staffing...During the campaign; the charge was that I was going to fire everybody. That's not true.”

Headed back to private life, Grace said he already has been offered opportunities to do government consulting work, but said he also would look at re-entering private enterprise (he had a successful trucking business before becoming mayor), as well as non-profit activities. He said he is “very interested in helping poor and un-served people.”

“The bottom line is I've still got to be mayor for the next three months,” Grace said. “I intend to invite Mayor-elect Johnson to come sit with me, and we'll go over some things that I'm doing, so the transition will not be imperiled in any way.”

Grace, along with the Rev. Lionel Johnson Sr. and others, worked to incorporate St. Gabriel in the early 1990s. Grace was appointed as then town's first mayor, and then elected to four terms in the office.

Ambeau, who was appointed as St. Gabriel's first police chief, lost the first elections to the job to Nelson, but now has gained a third term in the office.

“I think people are pleased with the job I'm doing,” Ambeau said, noting a low crime rate, officers on constant patrol and being “visible and active.”

Ambeau said he had run for re-election against both Nelson and Mayor Grace, whom he said had supported the former chief in the past two elections.

“People are pleased with the police department, but in the mayor's office, they wanted more of a people's government, rather than just a one-man government. They wanted a public office, not a private industry...not like it belonged to one individual. That's what I'm hearing,” the police chief said.

He added that Grace had “did a lot of good while he was mayor.”

Ambeau said he has been getting calls from around the parish from people asking him to run for sheriff.

He said he plans to “get a month of rest and talk it over” before making a decision. Ambeau was a sheriff's detective before becoming St. Gabriel's police chief.

On Monday, Nelson said he was back on the job as a city maintenance supervisor.

“I ran a clean campaign,” the former chief said. “The people selected who they wanted to select, and life goes on.”

He said he's happy to be alive and living in St. Gabriel.