Louisiana Sheriffs Have a Great Election Night

ICE cooperation and detention conditions were on the line, but sheriff races struggled for salience and drew bipartisan consensus

Daniel Nichanian

Sid Gautreaux, the Republican sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish, easily won re-election on Saturday. He received 70 percent against two Democratic challengers in this blue-leaning parish, which is Louisiana’s largest jurisdiction.

Gautreaux, who has been in office since 2007, oversees a jail that has had a string of deaths, and last month reports revealed a higher death toll than previously known.

He is also one of only three Louisiana sheriffs, out of 64, who have joined ICE’s prized 287(g) program, which deputizes local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents within local jails. His opponents had vowed to end this agreement amid local organizing against it.

In Ascension Parish, Sheriff Bobby Webre easily won a full term. His office faces a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Louisiana after Webre’s predecessor held a U.S. citizen for days to review his immigration status. The ACLU alleges a systematic policy of detaining Latinx residents, and one of Webre’s challengers told the Political Report last month that this is part of an “all-out war on Hispanics.” Webre has said he would defend his department.

“My big take-away is that sheriffs and local law enforcement are still not a salient issue in Louisiana, compared to other places [that voted] in 2018,” said Mirya Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University (in New Orleans) who studies sheriffs. 

In 2018, numerous longtime sheriffs lost their re-election bids in campaigns that centered on their ties with ICE. 

But the 2019 elections for sheriff have indeed been quieter affairs. Even when issues that sheriffs control (like immigration policy) resonate in national politics and structure its partisan fault lines, that has not translated this year in local arenas, in Louisiana or elsewhere

Case in point: U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond, Louisiana’s only Democratic congressmember, sent a mailer “paid for by the Richmond campaign,” and obtained by the Political Report, that endorsed Gautreaux. State Representative Ted James, a fellow Democrat, released a similar flyer in support of Gautreaux. Neither Democrat’s offices replied to numerous requests for comment.

Gautreaux won as a Republican among the same pool of voters that gave Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards 61 percent of the vote in the governor’s race. (Edwards received 47 percent of the vote statewide, and will be on a Nov. 16 runoff against Eddie Rispone, a businessman.)

“There’s growing evidence that partisanship is a very different creature among sheriffs,” said Holman, who pointed to the strong role that “incumbency effects” play in anchoring sheriffs as key local players. The bipartisan endorsements Gautreaux received in East Baton Rouge mirror the 2018 election in Florida’s Hillsborough County (Tampa), for instance, when a GOP sheriff with close ties to ICE won re-election with the support of local Democratic elected officials.

Bruce Reilly, the deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, a Louisiana group that champions criminal justice reform, told me in August that the emergent bipartisan consensus for lowering Louisiana’s record prison populations had flipped in favor of a rush to detain immigrants. He blamed financial incentives; ICE pays local governments to detain immigrants.

“People who didn’t want to be the number one incarcerator in the country have shifted their tune now that there are federal dollars behind it,” Reilly said.

A rare Louisiana parish that may still buck the trend is St. Tammany (Covington). Randy Smith, a Republican sheriff who has signed a detention contract with ICE, was forced into a runoff with Tim Lentz, a Republican police chief who told me last month that the local jail has “become a for-profit prison.” He added that if elected he would cut the jail population in half and that the ICE agreement would be “closely reviewed.” 

Elsewhere in the state, though, Election Night did not belong to candidates open to changing immigration policies. Many sheriffs at the forefront of Louisiana’s increasingly tight ties with ICE won re-election alongside Gautreaux and Webre.

Sheriffs who are supervising detention contracts secured new terms in Allen (independent Doug Hebert), Bossier (Julian Whittington, a Republican), Jackson (Andy Brown, a Republican), and Tensas (Rickey Jones, a Democrat) parishes.

Sheriff Jay Russell ran unopposed in Ouachita, the second of the three parishes with a 287(g) contract (alongside East Baton Rouge). In the third, Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter did not seek re-election; Republicans Bubba Bergeron and Tim Soignet moved on to a runoff. Bergeron told me he would maintain the parish’s 287(g) contract; Soignet did not respond.

Meanwhile, in East Baton Rouge, detention conditions loomed large over the sheriff’s race as well. More than 40 people have died in jail since 2012; 16 have died since 2017. 

Local activists fault systemic issues including overcrowding, aggressive policing, and inadequate health services. Last week, the jail’s warden told the Appeal that the sheriff’s office “has no authority over decisions made by the medical department.” A private company, CorrectHealth, has provided healthcare in the jail since 2017. CorrectHealth gave Gautreaux’s campaign $1,000 days before the election, The Advocate reported on Saturday.

“I don’t think these issues got sufficient attention” in the sheriff’s race, said Sherrilyn Sabo, an organizer with the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. She also called on all local officials to confront the jail conditions together. “They’re all culprits, they’re all responsible for this,” she said, noting for instance that decisions are made about excessive pretrial detention by prosecutors, police officers, and judges.

On Tuesday, three days after Gautreaux’s re-election, East Baton Rouge Parish DA Hillar Moore announced a new plan to arraign people within three days of arrest, rather than an average of 55 days as in the past. 

Sabo attributes the announcement to the organizing pressure. But it only throws into sharp relief how bad the jail situation has been, she notes. “It lets me know that they recognize that they have to address the problem because we’re not going away,” she said. She added, “They’re going to arrange 72-hour arraignment, but isn’t that part of our constitutional rights?”