By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
MANDEVILLE – Warren Montgomery did his best to recall the names of the hundreds of people he greeted at the front door of the Castine Center in Mandeville on Sunday night.
Three years after being elected the new district attorney for the 22nd Judicial Court the new D.A. is still learning the names of many who now call themselves “supporters.”
There were very few “supporter” names to learn in the fall of 2014 when the very unfamiliar Montgomery announced he was joining the race for district attorney. It was a critically important election for St. Tammany voters since it would put in office the first new district attorney here in the past 30 years.
At the time, former D.A. Walter Reed was under federal investigation and would soon go to court, getting convicted on a multitude of charges that led him to decline a re-election bid.
When Montgomery became the fourth candidate in the field he had little to no support—something that has clearly changed in three years as he met several hundred supporters on Sunday night who paid $150 a seat to be a part of the fundraiser organized by assistant D.A. Tony LeMon, the man who originally came to Montgomery in 2014 and urged him to run.
“I knew Warren and his family for 15 years and knew he was an ethical, Christian man,” LeMon said. “I knew we needed a fresh change and he would be a person to bring what we really needed.”
Montgomery was a former federal prosecutor who had over 30 years of experience as a lawyer, but when it came time to finding financial support for an election run that was expected to cost at least $250,000, the list of supporters was not a long one.
“Let’s see, who was supporting me three years ago after I announced?” Montgomery retorted when asked that question. “My mom and dad supported me, and my wife did too—but she might have felt obligated to!”
When it came to asking for money to help fund his campaign the list was practically non-existent.
“There were a few who said I should run and said they would support me,” he said. “But only a very few were willing to give me any money.”
Montgomery, a devout Catholic who says he is guided in all he does by his relationship with God, said he felt led to make the attempt for the high-profile public seat. So intent on running, his funding came from his own bank account and a pair of personal loans he made for $100,000 each.
“At first I put up $40,000 of my own money and I made a loan for $100,000,” he said. “Then when I made the runoff I made a second loan for $100,000.”
In the end, Montgomery shocked much of the political community by finishing second in the primary, getting 25 percent of the vote while front-runner Brian Trainer got 38 percent of the vote.
Then in the runoff, Montgomery stunned even more people when he won the district attorney’s job by beating Trainer, 52 percent to 48 percent.
On Sunday night, LeMon created a western theme for the “Round Up for Warren Montgomery,” all highlighted by baby goats in a farm scene by the front door, and miniature ponies paraded around the inside of the assembly hall. Compared to three years earlier the difference in support for the D.A. was like night and day. As Montgomery greeted the people at the front door and thanked them for coming it seemed the huge Castine Center might not hold the hundreds who showed up.
LeMon said that when he began asking for those who would support Montgomery in 2017 for his first re-election fundraiser—a vote that won’t come until 2020—he was flooded with positive response.
LeMon said he sold 60 tables for $4,000 each, had dozens of other supporters in many other ways, and had 117 auction items donated for the evening. All told, the fundraiser should raise several hundred thousand dollars considering there was $240,000 simply from the initial purchase of tables.
Montgomery is still owed $50,000 to pay off his debt from the original $200,000 he loaned the campaign and that will be taken care of with this new campaign money—something that is allowed in state law and commonplace for political candidates.
Does Montgomery believe every person who showed up on Sunday is a “supporter,” or do they actually now understand it is a smart thing for business owners and public officials to be friendly with the local district attorney.
“I think many people now believe in what I represent,” he said. “But I understand that people are here for different reasons.
“Some are supporting me because they like what we have done to change the image of the district attorney’s office,” he said. “But I also accept that some people believe it is good to be friends with the D.A.”
Montgomery likened the situation to a teaching from Aristotle.
“Aristotle taught that the definition of friendship comes in several forms—some friendships are because you are brothers, but some are because of what you can do for the other person,” he said. “I can accept that.”
LeMon said he believes the vast majority of support for Montgomery today is because of the changes he has brought to the D.A.’s office.
“Warren has changed the image of the district attorney’s office and has restored integrity to it,” he said. “The core values and the demeanor in this office have changed 180 percent since he took over.”
LeMon said that Montgomery has three key points to all he does in the office and reiterates that in staff meetings on a consistent basis.
“Warren is striving for this department to always have high professionalism, a high level of integrity and high level of competence,” he said. “I believe he has sent a message to the community about how much things have changed and the turnout tonight proves that.”
Montgomery noted in a welcome letter for the night that his goals are to have the best DA’s office in Louisiana by the end of his first term and to have the best DA’s office in the United States by the end of a second term—should he win another six-year stay in the job.
“In three short years we have shortened the time from arrest to trial, reduced the size of the criminal dockets and increased transparency and communication,” he said. “We have made a good start, but we have far to go.
“We are all in this together. Public officials need to work together. We are a team—to serve the public,” he added.
Montgomery said his ultimate guiding motivation is rooted in his Christianity.
“When I won this job I told the Lord to let me be your instrument. I was driving over here today and listening to Christian music and thought that I want my words to be His words. The most important thing I am doing is to give God glory—that is the whole reason I am doing this. To serve Him and serve others. I don’t claim to be perfect, but ultimately that is my motivation in all I do,” he added.