Charles Preston wins St. Tammany coroner’s race

Charles Preston, buoyed by a personal fortune and an aggressive media strategy, defeated Leanne Truehart on Saturday to become St. Tammany Parish’s next coroner, according to complete but unofficial results.

Preston won 10,007 of the 17,325 votes cast, or 58 percent.

The 57-year-old retired emergency care doctor will become the parish’s first elected coroner since Peter Galvan, who resigned last year before being indicted and is currently serving a 24-month federal prison term. Cardiologist Pramod Menon has served as the interim coroner since being appointed by the Parish Council in early November.

Saturday night, a glowing Preston thanked his wife and the voters for sticking with him.

Preston will take office after the results are certified May 13. Beginning next week, he said, he plans to meet with the office’s staff in an effort to assess the operations and see what his first steps will be.

Preston won a race in which he and Truehart ran very different campaigns. He got into the race late and couldn’t match the fundraising prowess of Truehart, who raised more than $100,000, some of it from parish political heavyweights like Parish President Pat Brister. As a result, Preston loaned his campaign more than $100,000 and spent much of it on media, filming and producing nine commercials during the primary and runoff elections.

In winning, he overcame a three-point deficit in the April 5 primary, despite Truehart’s garnering the endorsement of Adrian Talbot, who finished third —just 400 votes behind Preston.

On the stump, Preston painted himself as the only candidate with experience in both medicine and administration. He also extolled his retired status, saying he would have as much time as needed to devote to the job and saying that his cellphone number would be public record.

He also tried to paint Truehart as a holdover from the Galvan era and said that during her time as the coroner’s mental health director, the metrics on mental health in St. Tammany Parish had not improved.

Preston’s first task will be to show the public that he’s not Galvan, whose resignation capped a tumultuous year in which media reports of lavish spending on meals and personal items, and investigations by state and federal authorities mounted, culminating in Galvan’s October indictment.

Though Galvan was indicted on a count of conspiracy, and the bill of information referred to two Coroner’s Office employees who aided him in taking public money, the two employees were never named, and neither has been indicted. The federal indictment accused Galvan of paying himself leave time to which he was not entitled and of using Coroner’s Office funds to purchase items for his boat and plane.

As the pressure ratcheted up, Galvan became increasingly reclusive and combative, refusing to appear before the Parish Council and mounting a legal challenge to Act 181 of the Louisiana Legislature, which robbed the Coroner’s Office of much of its financial independence and placed it in the hands of the council.

Though his name was rarely heard in the campaign’s early stages, it often seemed as if the four candidates in the primary were running against Galvan as much as they were one another. Each stressed time and time again their willingness to work with the council and open the office’s books and buildings to public scrutiny.

The Galvan factor certainly drove the intense public interest in the race during the early stages, evidenced when several hundred people packed the John Davis Center in Lacombe for a candidate forum featuring the four primary election candidates.

But as the runoff drew near, public interest in the race appeared to wane, and only a few dozen people showed up for a April 28 forum between Preston and Truehart.

Preston will earn far less than Galvan, who had raised his own salary to approximately $200,000. The Parish Council has set the coroner’s salary at $84,000 per year.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter @faimon.