Slidell at-large candidates stress meat-and-potatoes issues

Four years ago, Slidell’s two at-large City Council members were elected without opposition, as were several district council members, but this year it’s the mayor and police chief who have cruised to second terms without drawing opponents, and the action in the April 5 election is in the council races.

Four candidates are vying for the two at-large seats.

Three of them are familiar faces. Incumbents Kim Harbison and Landon Cusimano are seeking second terms, while Lionel Hicks, who is term-limited in his District A seat, is looking to move to an at-large position. The fourth candidate is Brad Rummel, a former St. Tammany Parish sheriff’s deputy who is making his first run for public office.

Rummel, Harbison and Cusimano are Republicans. Hicks is a Democrat.

Cusimano and Harbison have followed similar political trajectories: Both are former district council members — from districts C and F, respectively — who moved to at-large seats when an incumbent died in office. They’ve also faced each other as opponents before: Both ran in the October 2007 special election to fill the rest of Pearl Williams’ term. Cusimano won, but Harbison ran at-large again in April 2009, defeating fellow district council member Ray Canada to fill the remaining term of at-large Councilman Kevin Kingston, who died in July 2008.

Hicks and Rummel also have something in common: a career in law enforcement as ranking officers. Both men point to that experience as part of their record of public service. Hicks said he had not initially planned to run again after his second term in District A but decided to do so when several people approached him. Rummel said his decision to seek the citywide seat as a first-time candidate follows his track record of striving to serve at a higher level.

Despite the crowded field, there’s been little drama in the at-large race, with candidates touting their résumés and meat-and-potatoes issues like updating city utilities and encouraging economic growth.

Cusimano, the grandson of former Slidell Mayor Frank Cusimano, points to his efforts to improve Slidell’s aesthetics after Hurricane Katrina. He said he worked for two years on an ordinance that limits the use of vinyl siding and requires new metal buildings to use more attractive material for their façades. That has prevented the city from being dominated by barnlike structures, he said.

He said he also helped shorten the time frame for dealing with property owners who walked away from damaged and debris-strewn properties following the storm. His action helped people get their neighborhoods back, he said.

Now, Cusimano said, he wants to focus on economic redevelopment to make sure the city government is properly funded. He said that as a council member after Katrina, he had to make tough decisions to make the size of city government fit the post-storm city, with 56 positions eliminated, mostly through attrition.

Harbison, who also served on the council during Katrina and its aftermath, points to her role in the city’s recovery, which she describes as ongoing. As City Council president, she said, she went with Mayor Freddy Drennan to Washington, D.C., in 2012 to plead for forgiveness of federal loans and “look people in the eye and ask why? Why were we skipped over, especially when the hurricane came in — they can’t deny that — it came in right over Slidell?’’

That effort was successful, she said.

In a second term, Harbison — who is a small-business owner — said she wants to push economic development and attracting new businesses. She also thinks the city should support the St. Tammany Parish public school system in its opposition to the Common Core standards. Schools are critical to attracting residents and businesses to the city, she said.

Slidell also needs to replace aging terra-cotta sewage pipes that were further damaged by the weight of Katrina’s floodwaters, Harbison said, and the City Council will have to figure out the best way to pay for that work.

Hicks, the other veteran in the race, also points to rainwater infiltration and intrusion in the city’s aging terra-cotta pipes, saying Slidell needs to act before it’s forced to do so by the state.

He stresses his post-Katrina work, including the rebuilding of the Rufus Viner Center. He also fought to help residents of mobile homes who had to deal after the storm with the city’s long-standing ban on new mobile homes, he said. Hicks said he wanted to allow those 11 homeowners to replace their lost housing. Many were elderly and would not have been able to afford anything else, he said, but he had to overcome a veto by then-Mayor Ben Morris.

Hicks touts his accessibility, saying he treats his council position as a full-time job: “I love public service. I love solving problems and keeping people happy.’’ Even as a district councilman, he said, he was often approached by residents outside District A for help with their problems, and if their councilman was amenable, he would handle it.

Rummel is also stressing his public service background: 121/2 years with the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, becoming a ranking officer early in his career, and 19 years as a reserve officer.

If he wins, Rummel would be a new face on the City Council. His goals are to make Slidell safe and economically stable, and he would focus on making sure public safety, city operations and public works are funded at the needed level despite tight budgets, he said.

Rummel wants Slidell to get a vo-tech college, something it has not had since Katrina, and a satellite college campus, which it once had with the University of New Orleans. An educated workforce is a key to attracting new business, he said, and he said he also would be a strong partner to existing businesses.