I Spent A Month Listening To Louisianians. Here’s What I Learned.

During the last month, I’ve taken The Bayou Brief on the road. For lack of a better term and at the risk of sounding like a clueless politician, I was on a “listening tour.” Deliberately. The Bayou Brief is a statewide publication, and from the very beginning, I understood that in order to be statewide I’d have to actually be statewide. I’ve heard from hundreds of people, and I’ve collected enough field notes to keep things interesting for several months. I’ve met with numerous elected officials and candidates, dozens of Democratic and progressive activists and advocates, several Republican and conservative activists and advocates, business leaders and economic development specialists, historic preservationists, environmentalists, three people who plan on challenging Clay Higgins for Congress, and, most importantly, working-class Louisianians with a story to tell. Thus far, I’ve been to Shreveport, Alexandria, Lake Charles, Lafayette, and New Orleans, and in August and September, I plan on either hosting or participating in events in Baton Rouge, Monroe, and Abita Springs (with additional stops back in Shreveport and Alexandria). It has already been an incredible experience, and I am immensely thankful to all of the people who have shown up and participated in these events.

Part One: Shreveport and Alexandria

I began in Shreveport on June 14th, six days before the website’s launch, at an event sponsored by the New Leaders Council of Louisiana. Eight years ago, I helped found Louisiana’s chapter of the NLC, though my friend Matt Bailey deserves all of the credit. Their very first meeting occurred in the breakfast room of my mother’s old home in Alexandria, and since then, the NLC has provided, for free, nearly 150 young, progressive Louisianians an $8,000 crash course about the mechanics behind community leadership. It’s an extraordinary organization, and I was honored to be invited to speak to the Shreveport group by Jesse Gilmore, the chapter’s director and the newest member of The Bayou Brief‘s Board of Directors. Three dozen people showed up on a weekday night in Downtown Shreveport, including Steven Jackson, President of the Caddo Parish Commission, and former City Councilman Calvin Ben Lester, and for more than an hour and a half, we all had an engaging conversation about local politics, the media, messaging, and race relations, among other things.
Caddo Parish Commission President Steven Jackson Addresses the New Leaders Council in Downtown Shreveport. Photo credit: Calvin Ben Lester.
Shreveport’s progressive community may be small, but they are an incredibly well-informed, civic-minded, and passionate group of people. I learned, for example, that the anti-tax sentiment that swept across the country during the last five years has imperiled the parish’s ability to provide for essential services. In late April, Caddo Parish voters narrowly rejected four tax renewals and one sales tax re-dedication. Importantly, these were not new taxes; they were merely renewals of existing streams of revenue, a fact that many believe was intentionally misrepresented to voters. As a result, the Caddo Parish Commission will likely be forced to close parks and other public facilities. After the discussion, I met Clay Walker, the administrator of Caddo Juvenile Services, who told me that the failure of one of the renewals coupled with last year’s passage of a statewide law that raises the age of criminal jurisdiction from 17 to 18 means that next year, when the law goes into effect, their facilities will likely be inundated with hundreds of 17 year olds without any way to pay for additional beds or staff. It’s simply untenable, which is both alarming and dispiriting to Walker, whose program produces the best outcomes in the entire state. The situation unfolding in Caddo Parish is a stark reminder of the real-life consequences that can occur when public sentiment is guided by reflexively anti-tax ideologues instead of those promoting actual fiscal responsibility, something that Louisianians should have already learned during the eight years of the Jindal administration. It is also symptomatic of the decline of local media institutions in Louisiana (more on that later). There is, however, a reason to be optimistic about Shreveport’s future: Nearly every single person who attended the event in June was a leader who truly believes in their community. On July 6th, I hosted the very first official launch party for The Bayou Brief at the Mirror Room in the historic and recently-reopened Hotel Bentley in my hometown of Alexandria. It was a particular honor to be able to be back home and to be joined by Mayor Jacques Roy and Jim Clinton, the President and CEO of the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, for a wide-ranging panel discussion that covered everything from Greek philosophy to the emerging opioid epidemic. More than 60 people attended, including State Sen. Jay Luneau and nearly two dozen members (from six different parishes) of the newly-created organization Indivisible Cenla.
A panel discussion with Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy and Jim Clinton, President and CEO of CLEDA.
But before we got started with the panel discussion, I wanted to say a few words about my friend and former boss, Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy, which I think is relevant to the larger statewide discussion. Quoting an excerpt (emphasis added):

Other than being named after my late father, the second greatest privilege of my life was being able to work for this man right here, Jacques Roy. Your mayor.

Jim Clinton and Jacques Roy at The Bayou Brief launch event in Alexandria.

After I finished college, I moved back here, just like my dad had done, and I plunged head-first into this community: Unlike my dad, though, I found a way to make absolutely no money: I became a blogger. Jacques somehow read something I had written, and he reached out to me, on his AOL e-mail address, which continues to be absurd to this day.

I joined his first campaign for Mayor. And then his administration, for nearly five years, as his special assistant or publicist or, frankly, I never knew what my actual title was.

But I know this: We, the whole team, kicked ass. Mainly, it has been Jacques, but for the purposes of this event, I want to share a little credit.

Jacques believes in this city. This region. It was inspiring to work for him. Truly. Alexandria currently has one of the best mayors in the entire country.

And though he may not describe it the same way I do, what we did- what he is still doing- is progressive policy in action.

One of the very first things we realized about Alexandria was that the city had expanded more than three times its geographical size since the 1960s, yet its population remained stagnant. So, we all became acolytes of smart growth policies.

Jacques launched the largest infrastructure redevelopment project in the city’s history. We sent out all of these RFPs- Requests for Proposals- and we were stunned to hear back from internationally award-winning architects and engineers. One of them told us that he had only responded because he assumed we were Alexandria, Virginia.

That felt good, actually.

We did two different summits on smart growth and sustainability, right down the street at Coughlin-Saunders, and all told, more than 400 people here in Alexandria were there, voluntarily, to listen to a series of lectures and watch a bunch of PowerPoint presentations on best practices in city planning. No lie.

We won the largest grant in the state for resiliency planning. We launched an innovative crime prevention program that empowers neighborhood leaders.

Alexandria, we’re the real deal.

Sen. Landrieu called Jacques a national leader in smart growth policy. And she wasn’t exaggerating.

It is astonishing to me to be back here, after nearly six years away, and see what has been accomplished. This hotel, for one.

A spectacular view of the lobby of the Hotel Bentley.

And the hotel across the street. And the restaurants across the street. And Bolton Avenue. And North MacArthur Drive. And even the waste of money spent out at the Coliseum. If you’ve been here the entire time, it may be difficult to see the dramatic difference, but I see it. There is a sense of pride and a spirit of advocacy in this community that we haven’t had in a long time. Look at River Fete and Winter Fete.

There are lessons to be learned from Alexandria and from what Mayor Roy and his team and all of the other stakeholders here have accomplished.

Again, it is progressive policies in action, on the street.

We need more of that in Louisiana. People who champion good government and community pride and smart, data-driven, and compassionate policies.

Alexandria recently won an international award in best practices in city budgeting. I bet most of you didn’t know that. It also won an award for best new festival, Winter Fete. But let’s consider the international award for the city’s budget.

Remember, your chief executive here is a Democrat. A real Democrat.

State Sen. Jay Luneau and Lamar White, Jr., Publisher of The Bayou Brief.

And while Bobby Jindal was running for President from the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge, while Bobby Jindal was leaving Louisiana with a structural deficit of over $1.3 billion and a downgraded credit rating, here in Alexandria, there was a Democrat winning an international award in budget practices.

You see, Democrats, as it turns out, actually believe in fiscal responsibility. When you meet a self-identified Republican who says they are “socially liberal but fiscally conservative,” tell them that they’re a Democrat. Tell them that they are a progressive.

The Republican Party is not fiscally conservative, whatever that term actually means, but right now, they are morally bankrupt.

Progressives, on the other hand, understand that a rising tide lifts all ships.

We understand that it is impossible to cut our way to prosperity; that social programs are not extravagances, they’re investments in human capital; so are public schools and health care.

We recognize that the success of places like England Air Park and the Lakes District, for example, were not a direct result of the private-sector alone, that they are a consequence of tens- if not hundreds- of millions of dollars in public money. And that the plight of those who live in our most economically-depressed and vulnerable neighborhoods can be dramatically improved with simple fixes: Better roads, brighter lighting, vibrant parks, community centers, public schools, the basics of government.

The progressive model must be guided by pragmatism, and when it is, we see massive returns on investment.      

Louisiana cannot afford any more of the Republican Party’s failed experiment. We cannot be a laboratory for disaster capitalism.   

I am here to ask for your help. Our media- the Fourth Estate- is failing Louisiana. And it has nothing to do with Donald Trump’s definition of “fake news.” It’s simply failing as an institution.

We need to reclaim the narrative. We need to take the plot-line away from merchants of propaganda and hate. We need to tell our stories. 

Arguably, no other city in Louisiana has been more affected by media consolidation and the decline of local news more than my hometown. Only a decade ago, The Town Talk was the dominant media force in Central Louisiana, employing dozens of reporters, editors, and photographers from its sprawling campus in Downtown Alexandria. Today, The Town Talk is a shell of its former self. Its publishing and distribution warehouse sits empty, and currently, it operates out of a second-floor office in a building it had once owned and occupied entirely. After more than a century of publishing a daily newspaper, The Town Talk now rents its former headquarters and prints only three issues a week. As a direct consequence, the local news media is now dominated by KALB-TV, an affiliate of both NBC and CBS, which means a market that includes more than 300,000 people largely receives their daily local news from a 22 minute nightly television show, half of which is dedicated to sports and weather. For Mayor Roy and other elected officials, this means it has become increasingly challenging to provide the public with pertinent information and more complete stories about policy decisions, which, as I learned in Shreveport, can result in a poorly-informed electorate voting against the community’s best interest and imperiling essential services. To the mayor’s credit, he has attempted to mitigate against this by hosting a weekly and often robust press briefing, which is then broadcasted repeatedly on government access television. Although many believe that the Internet has dramatically increased the public’s ability to instantly become informed on almost any issue under the sun, we are still ultimately reliant on the credibility of journalistic institutions. When those institutions fail or scale back, the vacuum is too often filled by organizations that care more about clicks than ethical reporting. The solution is for local entrepreneurs to invest in an innovative 21st century model of community-based journalism, according to Jim Clinton. “People don’t read the sports section of the local paper to find out the score of the last Astros game,” Clinton said, as an example. “They read it to find out the scores of the last Little League games.” His hope, which I share, is that locals reclaim their local news institutions from national corporate conglomerates not merely out of civic pride but because they realize, when it’s done right, the local news can be an enormously profitable business.
The Bayou Brief’s launch at the Mirror Room in the Hotel Bentley.

Part Two: Lake Charles and Lafayette

The day after the event in Alexandria, July 7th, I headed down to Lake Charles for a smaller and more intimate discussion at Sloppy’s, a newly-opened restaurant downtown. I was joined by Michael McHale, the Vice Chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, and more than a dozen of Calcasieu Parish’s brightest and best progressive leaders, including John O’Donnell, the leader of Healthier Southwest Louisiana, Carl Murphy Ambrose, the publisher of EverythingLakeCharles.com, and Janet Allured, a history and women and gender studies professor at McNeese University who has edited several books about Louisiana, including Louisiana Legacies, which, by pure serendipity, I happened to be reading that very day. (I also recommend Prof. Allured’s book Louisiana Women. Amazon says it’s currently unavailable, but I found several copies at the Lafayette Barnes and Noble).
Carl Murphy Ambrose, Jr., publisher of Everything Lake Charles, and Lamar White, Jr., publisher of The Bayou Brief.
Because the event was smaller than any of the others, we were all able to have a really extensive and in-depth conversation about the past, present, and future of Lake Charles. Much like Shreveport, I learned that voters in the Lake Charles metro region had also recently rejected two tax renewal initiatives, which would have funded more than $3.3 million in school construction projects and paid for the operation and maintenance of several parks and public buildings. I also learned there are widespread and legitimate concerns that the local economy is currently a bubble just waiting to burst. The tens of thousands of new, high-paying jobs promised by Big Oil are almost entirely temporary. These workers are not settling in Lake Charles with their families. They are renting homes they share with colleagues. The expectation of thousands of new children enrolling in local schools has yet to materialize. Last month, according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, Lake Charles is currently the “fastest-growing city” in the state. That may sound great, especially if you’re in the business of promoting the region’s tourism and economic development, but I was told it almost certainly belies the truth: The Census is counting workers who have absolutely no intention of making Lake Charles their permanent home. Several people said that, for all of the hype, they have yet to meet a single person from Lake Charles who has actually gotten rich off of the $45 billion in projects the local Chamber of Commerce claims is currently underway. Meanwhile, the industry continues to sell its grandiose projections as gospel truth, and local elected officials and, to a certain extent, members of the local media have been more than willing to sell that message to the public. Sue Lincoln of WRKF, the Baton Rouge affiliate of NPR, is a notable exception. Three weeks ago, she filed a report titled “Where Are The Jobs? And Who Is Filling Them?,” which revealed that several thousand of these newly-arrived workers are living in so-called “man camps,” large dormitories built near the construction sites. The next morning, July 8th, I headed over to Lafayette for an event co-hosted by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Blue Acadiana, and the Lady Dems of Acadiana. I joined Kelly Garrett of Louisiana Prison Alternatives, Julie Schwam Harris, the award-winning progressive activist from New Orleans, Amy Irvin, the executive director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, and Camille Moran, the Louisiana Pay Equity lobbying director, for a nearly two hour long panel discussion about criminal justice reform, health care, equal pay, and messaging strategies.
Hot Topics and Spicy Jambalaya panel discussion. Photo credit: Melissa Gilbert.
All told, throughout the course of the afternoon, more than 100 people attended, including State Sen. Gerald Boudreaux and State Rep. Vince Pierre, an impressive turn-out for a Saturday in Lafayette during an off-cycle year. I’ve always had a special affinity for the people of Acadiana, particularly those who count themselves as members of its progressive community. They may be outnumbered, but almost universally, they are relentlessly dedicated and fiercely smart. And despite the odds, they have won a number of important policy battles that should serve as a template for organizers across the state. I learned several things at the event in Lafayette, but my main takeaway is that people are largely satisfied with the work being done by Gov. John Bel Edwards and completely mortified by the man who currently represents them in Congress, the viral video star who continues to refer to himself as “Captain” Clay Higgins. As I mentioned earlier, I met at least three Democrats who intend on running against Clay Higgins, and I am friends with a fourth challenger, who, believe it or not, is a Republican. (I spoke with the three Democrats off-the-record, and I will respect their decision to roll-out announcements in due time). Higgins may be a national celebrity and the very first Trumpian member of Congress, but back in his district, he is increasingly viewed as an embarrassment. The buyer’s remorse is palpable. In Shreveport, there is a general recognition among progressives that their conservative Congressman, Mike Johnson, conducts himself professionally, even if the policies he promotes are too often informed by Christian dominionism and a brazenly anti-LGBT agenda. They understand that Rep. Johnson takes the job seriously, and therefore, any opposition to him must likewise be serious. It’s a lesson that the people of Acadiana should consider, because, despite the volumes of damaging opposition research against Higgins, he still won his seat in Congress against a well-funded, well-known, hometown boy who had already served for several years in the highest levels in state government and who would have faced John Bel Edwards in the 2015 run-off for governor if he had only peeled away 21,000 votes from David Vitter. Moreover, there is evidence that Higgins’s provocative antics on social media, in particular, could attract significant outside financial support from national Republicans who understand the importance of heavily investing in any district that could threaten their hold on the Speaker’s gavel. Turning back to Gov. Edwards’s agenda: Most of the people I spoke with during the last month, in all five cities so far, appreciate the governor’s incremental and pragmatic approach to policy-making, which is essential in passing commonsense reforms through the state’s majority Republican legislature. In other words, right now, we are not going to get the Creationism in the Classroom law repealed, but we may be able to negotiate a way to fund and build community college campuses. And if we are lucky, maybe we can convince President Trump to follow through on the promise made in the previous administration to expand I-10 in Baton Rouge. To be sure, there are legitimate criticisms about the governor’s willingness to endorse laws that create additional and, in some cases, punitive and potentially unconstitutional burdens against women who seek an abortion, which was a major topic of concern at the event in Lafayette among both panelists and audience members. I admire this governor and the vast majority of his policy agenda, and like everyone else in Louisiana, I knew he was a pro-life Catholic. Here’s how former Vice President Joe Biden, also a pro-life Catholic, described his policy position on the issue in 2012, which I think is a masterful way of framing the issue:
My religion defines who I am. And I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And it has particularly informed my social doctrine. Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help. With regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position that life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and–I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman. I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor, in my view. And the Supreme Court–I’m not going to interfere with that.
It’s the same basic message that former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards would give on the stump, but the numbers have changed since the heyday of EWE. According to an internal poll conducted on behalf of the Obama campaign in 2012 (and unfortunately, no longer available for download), there are approximately 225,000  pro-life Louisiana Democrats, or, said another way, 15% of Louisiana Democratic voters are pro-lifeThose numbers square pretty well with a 2013 Pew survey that revealed 52% of Louisianians oppose abortions in all cases, making our electorate one of the most extreme on the issue in the country. It is also a stark reminder of the need to reclaim and reframe the narrative. To paraphrase one of the panelists in Lafayette, “We have tried for many years to convince people with the language of ‘rights,’ and maybe we should have always focused on what this is ultimately about: Health care.” Despite the criticism about this issue, Gov. Edwards’s recent enactment of a comprehensive criminal justice reform package, his immediate decision to accept federal Medicaid expansion funding (which has already saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives and provided more than 470,000 Louisianians with health insurance for the first time), his commitment to increasing the minimum wage and ensuring equal pay for women, and his support for protections of members of the LGBT community against discrimination in the workplace are all hallmarks of a progressive agenda and a breath of fresh air in a state that had been smothered by Bobby Jindal’s failed audition for the White House. One final note about the event in Acadiana: Even though Taylor Barras, the Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives, is from New Iberia and even though many consider him to be a very nice and personable man, most people in that particular audience (granted, they were primarily Democrats) believe he should be removed and replaced from the speakership and are incredibly disappointed by the dysfunction he has overseen as the leader of the state House. When I said that, based on my personal conversations with some of his colleagues, Barras could likely be removed in a voice vote next session, people cheered.

Part Three: New Orleans

The last and final stop of this leg of The Bayou Brief‘s statewide launch and listening tour was in the City That Care Forgot, my newly-adopted home, New Orleans. (On a personal note, I will be moving from Baton Rouge to a home in Gert Town, in the center of the city, in less than two weeks). I hosted the event last Saturday night, July 15th. The launch was from the Boat House at the Mid City Yacht Club, mainly because I have a weakness for cheesy puns. This time, I was joined by Lynda Woolard, the President of the Independent Women’s Organization and the former state director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, Westley Bayas III, the chairman of the Young Democrats of New Orleans, among other things, and Matt Bailey, who, as I previously mentioned, was the original founder of the New Leaders Council-Louisiana and is currently serving as the regional director of Leadership for Educational Equity. We were also joined by four other members of The Bayou Brief team: Editor-in-Chief Katie Weaver, Contributing Editor Zack Kopplin (he’s moving into this position instead of the Board), Board member Dorian Alexander, and Board member Cayman Clevenger.
The Bayou Brief’s launch party in New Orleans.
It was a spectacular event that attracted nearly 100 people throughout the course of the night, including two candidates for New Orleans City Council, Drew Ward and Aylin Maklansky, former candidate for U.S. Senate Charles Marsala, Steve May, the legendary publisher of The Gris-GrisThe Times of Acadiana, and, most recently, The Independent of Lafayette, Kevin Allman of Gambit, Edward Branley of YatPundit and the author of numerous books about New Orleans history, and last but certainly not least, my favorite blogger in the entire state, Jeff Bostick, whose commentary on Twitter about Louisiana politics, under the pseudonym “skooks,” has won him thousands of fans and followers and multiple awards and whose blog Library Chronicles has continuously offered some of the best and most hilarious insight and analysis about Louisiana, New Orleans, and, of course, the Saints for more than fourteen years.
Lamar White, Jr. and Lynda Woolard address the audience as panelists at The Bayou Brief’s launch party in New Orleans.
Saturday was Jeff’s birthday, so I began by asking the audience to sing him “Happy Birthday.” Half sang the song to Jeff; the other half to “skooks,” which seemed perfectly appropriate.
Matt Bailey
New Orleans, to borrow from Dancing With The Stars contestant and current U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, is similar, in a few key ways, to how Austin fits in the cultural and political landscape of Texas. “Austin is kind of the blueberry in the tomato soup of the state,” Perry is fond of saying. To a large extent, the same metaphor can apply to New Orleans. Hillary Clinton carried Orleans Parish with 80.8% of the vote last year; Donald Trump won the state, however, with a resounding 58%.
Westley Bayas speaks about upcoming local elections.
Despite the demise of The Times-Picayune, which, like The Town Talk, now only prints three days a week, the local media in New Orleans survived due to the types of entrepreneurial investments that Jim Clinton had outlined in Alexandria. When The Times-Picayune scaled down, John Georges of The Advocate scaled up, poaching many of the T-P‘s most talented writers and editors. And almost simultaneously, The Lens, the very first online-only, non-profit, and distinctively locally-focused publication opened its doors. Since then, they have published some tremendously important stories, including, recently, when it revealed that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office allowed prosecutors to issue false subpoenas to people with the hope that they could coerce incriminating testimony. The Lens does enormously important work, and my goal- *our goal*- with The Bayou Brief  statewide involves partnering on stories and research with local institutions like The Lens and Gambit in New Orleans and Heliopolis in Shreveport, for example.
New Orleans City Council District A candidate Drew Ward.  
During the last month, I learned from hundreds of people on all corners of this great state that the so-called progressive movement is stronger right now in Louisiana than it has been for decades. I met several people who had once declared that they were finished with political advocacy forever, and yet, here they are, re-enlisting. Progressives in Louisiana are organizing throughout the entire state. There’s even a small group in Lincoln Parish that meets once a month. Once a week, more than a dozen of these leaders, from all parts of the state, conduct conference calls to discuss messaging, public policy, and outreach. It’s an effort that is being coordinated statewide, and it will make a difference. Last November, volunteers at Hillary Clinton’s headquarters in New Orleans on election day made more calls than almost any other office in the country, nearly 100,000 calls in a single day. Unfortunately, they were instructed to call voters in Florida. But imagine, in 2018, if these same volunteers and activists decide, instead, to call voters here in Louisiana. That could be a game-changer in so many local and district and statewide elections. During the last month, I rarely encountered people who were willing to give up. Instead, I met hundreds of Louisianians who are more ready than ever to reclaim our great state from the corporatists and the disaster capitalists who care more about turning a profit than improving quality of life and expanding opportunities for all people.

Well, if you want to sing out, sing out And if you want to be free, be free ‘Cause there’s a million things to be You know that there are. – Cat Stevens