DSA New Orleans 2021 March 20 Special Election

Voter Guide

St. Charles Parish Races

Councilman at Large

Division A

4-year term, limit 2 consecutive terms

Recent elections for St. Charles Parish At-Large Council Div. A, representing the parish’s entire east bank, have been rather uncompetitive. The seat was held easily through two elections by 12-year council veteran and real estate agent Wendy Benedetto (R), who was re-elected unopposed in 2019 before she stepped down in August 2020 to attend to “family and business demands.” The seat is currently held by interim council appointee Bobby Donaldson, who never intended to run to hold the seat permanently, and was only appointed after a long Parish Council stalemate to avoid ceding the nomination to Gov. John Bel Edwards at the end of a 30-day appointment deadline.

St. Charles Parish was an early battleground against the petrochemical buildout in Cancer Alley, with Shell as a major combatant after the Shell refinery explosion in 1973, when a 16-year old mowing his elderly neighbor’s lawn ignited volatile gasses released from a poorly-maintained Shell pipeline buried beneath the neighborhood, killing him and his neighbor. This explosion, along with neighbors’ realization of the frequency of cancer and other serious ailments in their community and yet another explosion in 1988, kickstarted the Diamond relocation movement. Residents, almost all Black and low-income, finally secured a relocation in 2002, but were forced to decide between keeping homes many owned outright and further risking their health, or moving to a safer area where they were less likely to be able to purchase a home. Diamond, once a thriving and tight-knit Black community a stone’s throw from the birthplace (long occupied by Shell itself) of the 1811 rebellion and its ill-fated march to New Orleans, is today mostly empty lots, with a smattering of holdouts.

Like many candidates in rural and small town elections in this region, Beth Billings (R) is eager to tout her chops as a conservative small business owner, having owned and operated several boutique shops throughout south Louisiana, as well as her husband David Billings’ work as an operations manager for Shell — one of several corporations responsible for turning what was once known as the German Coast into “Cancer Alley.”

A veteran in the Louisiana Republican Party organization, Billings has served on the Republican State Central Committee for three terms, as chair of the St. Charles Republican Parish Executive Committee, as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and as president of the Republican Women of St. Charles. She was one of two initial candidates for the interim appointment to this seat when it was vacated by Benedetto, but the Parish Council was unable to find a majority for either candidate after several votes, and settled on Donaldson as a compromise. Billings currently serves on the St. Charles Parish Board of Elections Supervisors, and is sure to tell her Facebook audience that she is “working to ensure our election integrity.” Donald Trump makes several appearances on her personal Facebook, including pictures of him at the RNC and a boomer meme indicating that he apparently wants you to wash your hands; meanwhile Billings has expressed skepticism of the efficacy of quarantine lockdowns, but concedes cancelling Mardi Gras was probably a good idea.

On official campaign platforms, she focuses primarily on the drainage issues which have plagued the parish with increasing frequency, and expresses support for current Parish President Matthew Jewell. Billings is endorsed by the St. Charles Republican Executive Parish Committee and St. Charles Sheriff Greg Champagne. Her campaign finance reporting reveals she is the best-funded candidate; her primary donors are extended family members in Tennessee, with smaller donations from the Committee to Re-Elect Sheriff Greg Champagne and other local business owners.

“Dick” Gibbs (R) is the incumbent councilman for District 3, a seat he has held since 2015, with one classic re-election without opposition under his belt. He has been unanimously elected to chair the Parish Council twice. With most residents of St. Charles Parish dealing with the impacts of more frequent torrential rains and flooding, two of Gibbs’s “three pillars important to sustaining a great quality of life” are drainage and levees. The third is recreation. His campaign seems to be self-funded, with little in the way of campaign finance records available, and conducted primarily through his personal Facebook page.

“Joe” Larre (R) is an attorney who also considers flooding and drainage the top issues in St. Charles Parish, and specifically proposes funding drainage improvements by upgrading municipal ballparks for use in state tournaments and earmarking the proceeds for drainage infrastructure. This proposal is just one part of his expansive vision of improved recreational and athletic facilities as a sure-fire solution to the myriad problems facing an underfunded rural parish government in a region on the front lines of climate change. Larre is also eager to accelerate the process of “re-opening” businesses restricted during the pandemic, deliver vaccines “for people who want it,” and promises to “sue the state” if necessary. He appears to be almost entirely self-funded, with only one reported contribution. Like the other candidates, his main campaign outlet is on Facebook.