One of three candidates for a Court of Appeals post serving part of the East Baton Rouge community enjoys a large fundraising advantage over his opponents, and by the time he entered the primary’s stretch run he had almost enough on his hands to outperform its competitors 2 to 1 .
The race to open the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal drew three sitting members of the 19th Judicial District Court: Republicans Hunter Greene and Beau Higginbotham and Democrat Don Johnson. Early voting is ongoing and will close on Tuesday; Election day is November 8th.
Greene of Family Court; Higginbotham of the Criminal Court; or Johnson, the district chief justice, replaces appellate judge J. Michael McDonald, who is over 70 and ineligible for re-election. The 1st Circuit includes 16 parishes in central Louisiana. The winner receives a 10-year term in a subdistrict of East Baton Rouge Parish.
If no one gets more than 50 percent of the votes in the primary, there will be a runoff on December 10th.
Greene earns top dollar
Greene, 56, has support from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, the renowned New Orleans law firm Stone Pigman Walther Wittman, and the Louisiana State Farm Agents and Associates, a political action committee headed by East Baton Rouge School Board President David tatman, received . His donor list also includes several state legislatures.
“It’s about getting the message across to people about what I stand for,” Greene said. “If you look at the people who are contributing, these are people who mostly live in the district. And if they wrote a check, I feel pretty comfortable that they’re not just doing it because they’re going to give each candidate one.”
According to campaign finance reports, Greene raised about $232,000 in the first five months of the campaign, more than Higginbotham ($69,095) and Johnson ($129,071) combined. He entered the final month of the race with nearly $175,000 to spend, while Johnson and Higginbotham had less than $50,000 in their respective accounts as of Oct. 10, according to financial reports.
Greene, who served as a legislature for nearly 10 years, had a tough race before. His first run for state office in 2005 faced seven others, including a Republican Party leader and a well-known city councilman. Though Greene had no political clout at the time, he slipped past the primary and easily defeated the GOP party leader in the general election.
“It wasn’t because I was a better Republican, it was because I resonated with more people,” Greene recalled. “He identified as the Republican, and I had a crossover vote. I feel like I still have crossover voices. I don’t feel like only Republicans will vote for me.”
Some of Greene’s key recommendations include Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s FuturePAC and Rolfe McCollister, editor of the Baton Rouge Business Report.
“I think I’m a serious candidate. I won’t say money wins, I know it takes hard work,” he said. “But it takes money to get the signs out and get the message out. And the people pulling the lever for me will know they’re voting for a serious candidate.”
Johnson is in uncharted territory
A pickup truck turned the corner onto North Boulevard during an evening rush hour last month. Donald Johnson’s large campaign flag fluttered in the back of the truck. As the truck passed the 19th Circuit Courthouse, Johnson leaned out the window and waved to a group of people standing outside the downtown courthouse.
“Vote for Don Johnson,” he said with a smile.
The 1st Circuit race pulls Johnson out of his wheelhouse. He hasn’t faced political opposition in his inner-city district for 14 years and won unopposed in 2014 and 2020, but this year he’s seeking a seat in a much larger area. The Court of Appeals subdistrict includes Baker, Central, Zachary and a portion of Baton Rouge outside of Johnson’s home territory.
The Chief Justice has worked in nursing homes, libraries and homeless shelters, attending countless events, knocking on doors and taking positions on street corners shouting his message from megaphones.
“I needed to be more connected to the area because I’ve never run there,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been a candidate or had to run in areas outside of the district I was elected from.”
Johnson said he already enjoys a certain level of notoriety due to problems at the courthouse. Concerns have recently been raised about who can leave prison while awaiting trial. Amid a record-breaking spike in violence this year, there has been an outcry among Baton Rouge leaders to increase bail for some of the region’s most violent defendants.
Johnson said there was already a bail reform plan in place that district judges and law enforcement stakeholders had been working on for the past two years. It would streamline the process to get relevant information to judges more quickly so they are better able to make informed decisions when setting bail amounts for each offender.
“They might say, ‘Is that a reaction to recent events?’ Johnson said, hinting that the first phase of the reforms could be unveiled in the coming days. “No, not the plan. Urgency may have been compromised. We will likely be quicker to push to implement some of the recommendations rather than waiting for all of the comprehensive planning to be finalized and finalized.”
Higginbotham’s tough anti-crime message
Beau Higginbotham is the son of former 1st Circuit Judge Toni Higginbotham and former 19th JDC Judge Leo Higginbotham. He’s running as a former East Baton Rouge prosecutor and a veteran judge, but concedes that people know the family name.
“I think it might help a little bit,” he said. “But I think my reputation will help me the most. I was tough but fair. I was in the courtroom. I have the trial experience. I know the problems.”
Higginbotham has noted that crime has become increasingly serious in recent years, with more and more offenders becoming career criminals. “We need to get to a point where there are real consequences for these people to not continue the behavior,” he said.
“I didn’t come up with this rhetoric to address these uncertain times that we are dealing with now. I’ve been at it for almost 20 years,” added Higginbotham. “So it was my life’s work. And I think my record will show people that I’m the right candidate.”
His relatively tough stance on crime has made him a favorite for law enforcement agencies. Some of Higginbotham’s endorsements include Zachary Police Chief David McDavid, the Baton Rouge Association of Firefighters, the city’s police union, and former Baton Rouge Police Chief Greg Phares. It has also received positive reviews from the AFL-CIO trade association.
“It’s not just one sector of society; it’s a broad brush,” Higginbotham said. “I think my support really comes from people who are tired of seeing crime transform our community.”
One thing Higginbotham’s campaign was missing was donations. According to financial reports, he received no campaign funds for the first five months of his candidacy. He started his run with about $59,000 already available from previous campaigns and said finances would not be an issue for him in the final days of the campaign.
“We get money,” Higginbotham said. “We have enough money to do what we have to do.”