From 1972 to 1976, he was Louisiana’s Secretary of Revenue under Gov. Edwin Edwards. He is close friends and was once a business partner of Gov. Buddy Roemer. He was the president of American Bank, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Capital Area United Way, president of a movie production company, the leader of the One Baton Rouge initiative, and the co-founder of Capital City Alliance and Equality Louisiana. He was a frequent guest on the Jim Engster Show, the region’s most popular talk radio program. For more than forty years, he was a fixture in his hometown of Baton Rouge and one of the city’s most prominent and respected civic leaders.
But in 2015, after living and working in Baton Rouge for most of his adult life, Joe Traigle decided he had to leave, permanently. He finally “gave up” on Baton Rouge and Louisiana, he says. There is a reason.
A man who once seemed to be everywhere in Baton Rouge suddenly vanished and, until now, hasn’t spoken to anyone in the Louisiana media. Last weekend, Traigle agreed to an interview with The Bayou Brief, which was conducted via e-mail.
His story is one likely shared by tens of thousands of Louisianians; it is one of frustration and hope, rejection and redemption, empowerment and grace. But primarily, it’s a story about how the politics of bigotry have poisoned Baton Rouge. When a city loses someone like Joe Traigle, there’s a problem.
“I, like many hundreds of thousands of good taxpaying people who wanted to contribute to a better Louisiana, was told, ‘there is no place in Louisiana for you,'” he said. “And we have moved on.” For the last two and a half years, Traigle and his partner of 24 years, Carey Long, have been living in Charlotte, North Carolina.
To understand his story, you must first know this: For the first two decades of his life in Baton Rouge, Traigle had a wife, and together, they raised two daughters. But when their marriage fell apart, he sought counseling, and as a result, he was able to accept the fact that he was gay. Over the course of the next two decades, he became a leader in Baton Rouge’s nascent community of gay rights advocates. He spent years championing the causes of tolerance and inclusion, and he used his platform as a respected civic and business leader to promote policies and causes that sought to protect people from discrimination, whether it was based on gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.
In 2000, he co-founded Capital City Alliance, the city’s first organization specifically dedicated “to improve the quality of life for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) people and our allies in greater Baton Rouge through education, community advocacy, and community building.” He also co-founded Equality Louisiana, an organization that “advocates for policy and legislative change to achieve full lived and legal equality for all LGBT people.”
In 2007, he also helped to launch the One Baton Rouge initiative, whose mission statement reads, “One Baton Rouge means the acceptance and integration of people of all colors, religions, sexual orientations, nationalities and people of all abilities and all walks of life into every aspect of Baton Rouge community life so that we all will be enriched by each other.”
And Joe Traigle fought for several years in support of a resolution expressing tolerance for the LGBT community. It failed, both in 2007 and in 2010, and similar attempts for a Fairness Ordinance also failed, repeatedly. To Traigle, it seems unfathomable that Shreveport in ruby-red Caddo Parish had easily passed a non-discrimination ordinance four years ago, while the capitol of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, still cannot pass one.
The religious right, led by Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum, poisoned their pulpits with lies and bizarre conspiracies about the consequences of passing a simple ordinance that prevented workforce and housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Mills was aggressive in his campaign, arguing that homosexuality is “voluntary” and that the ordinance would be economically disastrous. “Far from being a means to promote economic development, the ordinance does not encourage progress, but instead restricts economic freedom by punishing those with deeply held religious beliefs,” he wrote in a letter to The Advocate, referencing Christian bookstores as a sector of the economy likely to suffer the most.
His strategy worked, but, according to Traigle, someone else deserves the real credit for creating a climate in which hatred and discrimination against the LGBT community was not only accepted but was allowed to masquerade as a Christian value- Gene Mills’s friend and close political ally, Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Joe Traigle had actually voted for Bobby Jindal in 2007. “It was the one vote I regret the most in my entire life,” he says. His criticism of Jindal is not limited to the way in which the former governor cynically courted the religious right.
Traigle is passionate and direct, and instead of excerpting his responses to my questions, I think they deserve to be read in full. (Note: I have made minor edits for clarity, spelling, and syntax).
Lamar White (LW): You moved away from Louisiana in 2015, just as the state was on the verge of electing the only Democratic governor in the American South, and as I understand it, one of your main frustrations was with Gov. Jindal, his administration, and his policy agenda. Now, I know you are currently observing from afar, but what do you make of Gov. Edwards?
Joe Traigle (JT): My observation from afar is that Gov. Edwards is a breath of fresh air. Gov. Edwards is intelligent, articulate, and most importantly, his heart and soul are committed to Louisiana. Observing from afar and listening to friends of mine, it appears that John Bel Edwards’s plans are so far ahead of the Louisiana legislature’s ability to process, he has had to pull back considerably, so as not to cause the legislators’ heads to explode.
I would add that if I- and many other in Louisiana citizens- had a say in the matter, Bobby Jindal would be indicted and forced to stand trial for what he did to poor Louisiana, all in the name of being an uncontrollable, narcissistic egomaniac. The damage he did to higher education, for example, in my opinion, was criminal.
Poor Louisiana was already at the top of most of the bad lists and bottom of most of the good lists, and then along came Jindal to push Louisiana in the dirt.
LW: One of the very first things that John Bel Edwards did upon taking office was sign an executive order that prohibited the government from paying contractors who discriminate against LGBT employees. His decision to protect transgender employees, in particular, was nationally praised. Yet Jeff Landry, whose brother is gay, is spending taxpayer dollars to fight a culture war that, increasingly, the people of Louisiana no longer support. You’ve praised North Carolina, but they are just as guilty as Louisiana is in electing politicians who advance hateful legislation. Is the South really changing? Or has it always been this way?
JT: You are correct; the state of North Carolina has its share of wackos just like most states have. The city of Charlotte has a population of 2.2 million, almost half the population of Louisiana, and is very open, welcoming, and progressive.
John Bel Edwards’s executive order “only” covered the 75,000 or so state of Louisiana employees and contractors.
What Louisiana needs is what economically thriving and growing states have: A statewide non-discrimination statute that applies to employment, housing, credit, etc. Twenty progressive and strongly growing states (along with Washington D.C.) have statewide non-discrimination laws that attract large automobile manufacturing facilities, for example.
But unfortunately, what we have as a face of Louisiana- Jeff Landry, the Attorney General- is a clone of Roy Moore from Alabama (minus the sexual harassment issues).
The Jeff Landry types in Louisiana politics are what is driving many good and productive people to leave Louisiana, and it will continue until the Jeff Landry types are told by the good people of Louisiana, “Enough Landry. Please go back and live in the 19th century somewhere else.”
A specific reference point about what has happened to Louisiana during the past 45 years: When I was Secretary of Revenue for Louisiana, 1972-1976, the population of Louisiana was 4.2 million. 45 years later in 2017, the population of Louisiana is 4.6 million. That is a 9.5% increase in population in 45 years. The population increase for the United States was 56% during that 45 year period. I rest my case, your honor!
LW: When is the last time you spoke with Edwin Edwards? Albeit you were much younger at the time, you also kind of had a second act in your life. Edwin is probably on Act 8 or 9 by now. How should we view his legacy? Do you think, eventually, we will be naming government buildings after him? And do you think that in the future Republicans and Democrats will be able to recognize his natural talents? On balance, was he better or worse for Louisiana?
JT: About four years ago, Edwin Edwards and I shared a great lunch on the LSU campus at one of Dean Jim Richardson’s events and had a great catch up visit.
Edwin Edwards and John Bel Edwards share something very significant in common: Their hearts are both with Louisiana. Unfortunately, Edwin Edwards had some wrong wiring that caused some severe damage to himself and beautiful Louisiana. I can honestly say that I have never met, or seen, a more capable politician in my lifetime than Edwin.
Edwards did a tremendous amount of great things for Louisiana, and there is no question that when you put it all in the bag and shake it up, Louisiana is better off because Edwin Edwards loved beautiful Louisiana.
LW: What would have to happen in Louisiana to convince you to move back? Or at least to buy another home here?
JT: Nothing, Louisiana is in the “rear view mirror” for me. I am looking forward to many, many amazing years of life in the beautiful, open, welcoming, and progressive city of Charlotte, North Carolina.
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