The loudest voices A fight for control of the Lafayette Republican Party

RPEC's Jeremiah Supple, standing, and Citizens for a New Louisiana's Michael Lunsford, seated left, at one of the 2018 town hall meetings on the charter amendments. RPEC member Joyce Linde is in the background holding up her phone. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Just a week into his first term, Mayor-President Josh Guillory pushed out his chief administrative officer, Beth Guidry. A lack of experience was the official explanation, but according to Guidry, the mayor thought she had the wrong friends. 

Several moderate candidates are vying for leadership positions in the local Republican Party, and Guidry says her former boss and longtime friend sees that as a threat. Recent statements from the mayor-president corroborate that view. 

My concern was those individuals running for [the Lafayette Republican Parish Executive Committee] are liberal Democrats running as Republicans,” Guillory told The Acadiana Advocate of the issue, shortly after announcing Guidry’s exit. Nevertheless, he has maintained that the decision had nothing to do with politics and everything to with Guidry’s lack of experience. 

The “liberal Democrats” in question are a group of unexpected and late entrants for the Lafayette Republican Parish Executive Committee. They are seeking seats on a political body they believe has been “hijacked,” in the words of one insider, by extremists who have poisoned local political discourse.

Significantly, most of the newcomers jumped in the RPEC race on Jan. 10, the last day to qualify for the April 4 ballot, and the day that Guidry received a phone call from Guillory and his wife, questioning her loyalties. Those late qualifiers set Guillory off on a rant, according to Guidry, and the mayor-president laid into her about her friendships with candidates like Erick Knezek, asking why she was aligning herself with “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only) who he said would put a candidate up to challenge him in four years.

Both Knezek and Guidry say they hadn’t spoken in nearly a year and are but casual acquaintances. 

Former school board member Erick Knezek is seeking an at-large seat on the RPEC in the April 4 election.

Knezek is a lifelong Republican, successful businessman and former congressional candidate. He tells me he has thick skin, but he’s had enough of what he sees as fringe groups, some of whom he characterizes as Tea Partiers; he believes they’re just the loudest voices co-opting the local Republican Party. For example, he says moderate Republicans and young Republicans who are supportive of LGBTQ rights don’t feel like they have a seat at the table.

“I do not think they are generally representative of conservative Republicans in Louisiana,” he says of RPEC and conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana, pointing to the tone of social media posts and the comments they provoked in this last election cycle. When Knezek endorsed no-party candidate Carlee Alm-LaBar for mayor-president, Facebook commenters called him “party jumping trash,” “#jackassinanelephantsuit” and told him he should change his party affiliation to “socialist Democrat.” 

Citizens has pounded even fellow Republicans over a lack of conservative values. The day after the challengers qualified, the activist org took to its Facebook page to tease out the number of votes it would take to launch recall petitions on councilwomen Nanette Cook and Liz Hebert for supporting five new economic development districts. Hebert’s father-in-law, CPA and businessman Alan Hebert, is running for one of five RPEC at-large seats. 

Candidates interviewed for this story, including one RPEC member who asked not to be identified, say they want to see the committee focus on solutions to local issues, which means working through their differences and ending the personal attacks. In other words, the divide isn’t just philosophical; it’s about temperament and tactics. 

School board member Tommy Angelle says current RPEC member Denice Skinner asked him to qualify for an at-large seat rather than challenge her in District 1. Angelle decided to stay put.

Current school board member Tommy Angelle says he’s running for the committee in part because of attacks against people like Knezek. “He’s a [Navy] veteran,” Angelle says, calling such mean-spirited comments about fellow Republicans “over the top.” Angelle, a former Democrat who calls himself a moderate Republican, also qualified on Jan. 10, challenging Denice Skinner in District 1. (Skinner is already serving on the committee, but because the committee districts follow the new parish council districts, all of the seats are technically new and thus “open.”)

His entry into the race didn’t go over well with Skinner, according to Angelle. “Before I was out of the courthouse, I received a call from Denice asking me to drop out of the race. Actually she asked me to drop out and run at large,” Angelle recalls. He describes her demeanor as “upset but cordial.” Angelle told her he would think about it. “I thought about it and decided to stay where I’m at,” he says.

Skinner did not return a text message and voicemail seeking comment for this story.

Justin Centanni, another school board member, is seeking a seat on the committee as well, running in District 4 against Betsy Arabie, who is on the committee, and challenger Homer Fouquier Jr.

Centanni — who like some committee members and challengers is in D.C. this week for Washington Mardi Gras — was not available for comment.

Businesswoman Jaci Russo, who registered as a Republican when she turned 18 in 1988, says she’s a fiscal conservative who often isn’t in step with the local party leadership on social issues. Russo says it’s the “tone and rhetoric, absolutely” that played a role in her decision to seek an at-large seat. “I’ve thought for years about how to get more involved,” she says.

RPEC’s official Facebook page only posted images of a few qualifiers, like current member Denice Skinner.

What the candidates have in common is a view that the tone and tactics employed by RPEC and Citizens for a New Louisiana don’t represent the attitudes of most Republicans in the area. 

“People aren’t that angry,” Knezek says.

But some current RPEC members are. Committee member Jeremiah Supple calls the new slate of candidates “Republicans in sheep’s clothing.” Supple groups them together as political insiders responsible for “corporate welfare” in the community, citing LUS Fiber, the Unified Development Code (which Guillory has promised to “repeal and replace”), tax exemptions associated with the Costco development and others as “a financial drain, favoring political insiders at the expense of our community.” 

Disclosure: Jeremiah Supple donated to The Current in 2019. View our donor list here

Supple believes one of their main motivations for running is the recently passed economic development districts, controversial for their introduction late last term and passage without a public election. 

“The RINO ‘Progressive’ Republicans’ interest in running for the Republican PEC stems partially from the existing PEC’s position against the recently passed five special tax districts,” he writes in a comment for this story. “These insiders now want inside the PEC.”

Russo, who runs a business Downtown, did support the taxing district passed for that area. 

“There are infrastructure needs, and LCG does not have the money in the budget to fix them,” Russo says, citing as an example Pop’s Poboys, which she says has flooded eight times in three years. “Rather than a parishwide tax that would charge people who never visit Downtown, this is a way for the people who spend time and money Downtown to take care of the problem Downtown,” she continues. “I don’t like taxes, but to see the damage that flooding is causing across the parish every time it rains is heartbreaking.”

“I thought once Josh was in office all that crazy rhetoric would go away,” former CAO Beth Guidry says. “But somehow this whole RPEC thing has resurrected the crazy in everybody.” (Photo by Travis Gauthier)

One RPEC member interviewed for this story says the situation on the committee has deteriorated to the point that a handful of elected members no longer attend the meetings (meetings are the first Monday of the month at 11:30 a.m. and are open to the public, according to the RPEC chairman). 

The current member, who asked not to be identified fearing retaliation from some of the more outspoken representatives on the committee, claims committee members pounce on fellow members who disagree with them in meetings, quickly labeling them as RINOs. The member contends the ugliness has gotten much worse on social media since controversial political operative Joe Castille was hired during last year’s local elections.

The state’s Republican and Democratic parish executive committees are generally tasked with responsibility for party affairs at the local level and fall under the jurisdiction of the state central committee and national committee. Throughout the state, these committees endorse candidates in local elections and work to build party infrastructure in their respective communities. 

It’s unusual for incumbents to draw any opposition in these races in Lafayette Parish. The public is largely unaware of the Republican committee’s meetings and does not attend them. This cycle all but one current member, Dustin Arnaud who is running in District 2, have challengers, and there are 12 people running for the five at-large seats. View the full roster of 23 candidates here. By contrast, the Democratic Parish Executive Committee has four of its five district seats unopposed and seven candidates running for the five at-large positions.

“We have some heated discussions, but for good reasons,” acknowledges Tim Breaux, the committee’s chairman, in a phone interview from D.C. “No one’s come to me to say they’re upset.” Breaux attributes more people running for the seats to the committee’s higher profile — and the fact that it raised $70,000 for local Republican candidates in the most recent election cycle. “Things are going in the right direction. They want to be a part of it,” he says. “That’s the way I’m looking at it,” Breaux continues, noting that he hopes the new candidates aren’t running “just to be obstructionists.”

Breaux wasn’t aware that only a handful of qualifiers — including him, Skinner, Arnaud, Arabie, and newcomer Jason Cullins, who is running in District 5 against first-time candidate John Bienvenu — were promoted on the Facebook page. “Everybody gets equal posting,” he says. 

Until recently the page was run by Castille — with Skinner overseeing his work, Breaux says. He says all committee members send in information to post to the page. “Denice pretty much rode on that pretty tight. [Castille] had to have some type of oversight,” Breaux says. 

Castille is not currently engaged with the group because there is no election going on, Breaux explains. “He’s not doing any media work, no fundraising at all,” the chairman says. “There’s nothing for him to do.”

Breaux says he doesn’t know what set Guillory off on the last day of qualifying, prompting that phone call to Guidry. “I have not talked to Josh,” the chairman notes, also making clear he knows of no one on the committee who did. 

Guidry’s replacement as CAO, Cydra Wingerter, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. 

But the ousted CAO believes it was Castille in Guillory’s ear. The political consultant who orchestrated a bizarre 2015 press conference that led to multiple felony convictions of City Marshal Brian Pope, Castille also manages Guillory’s social media and worked on his campaign for mayor-president. Castille was former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s consultant and headed up his crypto currency initiative. (Pope is on the RPEC and is running for re-election.)

Former CAO Beth Guidry believes political consultant Joe Castille (above, at Guillory’s inauguration) has convinced her former boss that people running for RPEC seats will put someone up to challenge him in four years. (Photo by Travis Gauthier)

“It was Joe Castille said this, and Joe Castille said that,” Guidry recalls of the Friday night conversation, which her husband also overheard. She says Castille led Guillory to believe the insurgent candidates at RPEC were a threat to his political ambitions, warning that the takeover would produce a candidate against him in four years. Several of the candidates involved supported Carlee Alm-LaBar. 

“I thought once Josh was in office all that crazy rhetoric would go away,” Guidry says. “But somehow this whole RPEC thing has resurrected the crazy in everybody.”

The infighting within the Republican Party reflects a growing political unrest in Lafayette Parish generally. Several people interviewed for this story say there is increasing concern that the division and accompanying rhetoric will impede the region’s ability to progress. At heart, the challengers are raising the question of Lafayette’s political identity, namely whether one of the reddest counties in the nation is truly represented by what they view is an extreme version of the Republican Party. It’s a question of purity and compromise. 

“We have big problems in Lafayette,” Knezek says, “that are never going to be fixed with either far right or far left rhetoric and policies.”