BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Former U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields and term-limited state Rep. Pat Smith traded subtle blows Monday, Sept. 30 at a Baton Rouge Press Club forum.
The two Democrats are running to replace term-limited Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb in Senate District 14, which covers most of northern Baton Rouge and of college town south of I-10.
Fields, who lost 1995′s gubernatorial runoff to Governor Mike Foster, vacated his state senate seat in 2007 after the Louisiana Supreme Court deemed a law allowing him to serve a third consecutive term unconstitutional. He slammed Dorsey-Colomb, whom he endorsed as his replacement 12 years ago.
“District 14 has not had a senator for 12 years," he said, surprising some members in the audience. "That’s wrong. I’m running because we need a senator. This is not a game. People’s lives are at risk here.”
Smith, a former East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member, served as a leading Democrat in the House for 12 years. Some political experts assumed she would run unopposed.
On policy, the two candidates are similar. Both tout their support of public education, and both stood opposed to a bill that would merge Southern University of New Orleans and the University of New Orleans.
Both said the legislature should redraw districts after the 2020 census instead of an independent commission, and both would push for new investment in early childhood education.
Smith noted her success in restoring voting rights for some former felons, and Fields noted that he founded the House Education Caucus in the U.S. Congress.
Fields spent considerable time fielding questions about an infamous FBI surveillance tape depicting him accepting money from Governor Edwin Edwards in 1997. The tape surfaced during Edwards’ bribery trial, though Fields was not indicted for any wrongdoing.
“Am I a perfect servant? No. I’m a public servant,” Fields pontificated. "Did I do anything illegal or wrong? Absolutely not. But don’t take my word for it, take the people who did the investigation, take the FBI’s word for it.”
Smith’s remarks about the incident were calculated.
“I’m not going to say whether he has a character flaw, whether he has an integrity flaw," she said. "But I think it’s important that he also determine whether or not deals that he makes with individuals are not going to impact the people we represent.”
Fields denied rumors that he does not live in the district he seeks to represent, noting Smith did not challenge his residence with a lawsuit. He offered his success in three prior elections as evidence that voters are confident in his integrity.
“People in this district have elected me three times and they have not questioned my character," he said. "If they did, they’ve concluded that I was of good and moral character.”
Smith said she has “integrity," subtly arguing she’s never “sold [her] people out.”
Fields said Smith sought and earned his support in three prior elections.
“My opponent takes a lot of shots at me all the time," Fields said. "You find me a man, woman, or child who hasn’t made a mistake, and you’ve found somebody who hasn’t done anything.”
Early voting is ongoing through Oct. 5. Election day is Oct. 12.