Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement, fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission because victory for Louisiana requires you.
On this week's episode, my guest is former State Senator Jean-Paul or JP Morell, who joined me to discuss his role in ending the discriminatory practice of nonunanimous juries in Louisiana. As JP tells it, it's a pretty wild tale that underscores how absolutely critical it is that we get our messaging correct. Because the Unanimous Jury Coalition has been mentioned on so many Louisiana Lefty episodes, and because I believe the effort created a network and a model that shows how we can win on progressive issues in our state, I wanted to devote a few episodes detailing how victory was achieved. A little background for this week's material: JP authored Senate Bill 243 in the 2018 regular legislative session that proposed to put an amendment on a statewide ballot that would alter Louisiana's Constitution. It required a two-thirds vote from both the house and the senate and passed on June 7, 2018. The simple text of Constitutional Amendment 2 that appeared on the November 6, 2018 ballot read, "Do you support an amendment to require a unanimous jury verdict in all non-capital felony cases for offenses that are committed on or after January 1, 2019?" A majority of Louisiana voters voted yes on 2. If you're wondering what happened to defendants who were convicted by nonunanimous juries prior to January 1, 2019, that was addressed by the Supreme Court on April 20, 2020 in Ramos vs. Louisiana. Organizing efforts continue to correct the wrongs done to people locked up unconstitutionally in Louisiana. And we'll address that on a future episode.
JP Morrell! Thank you for joining me on Louisiana Lefty today.
Thank you for having me. I'm super excited to be here.
Well, I always start each episode with how I met my guest. And we've known one another since you were in the senate, in the state senate, and I feel confident we met through the Independent Women's Organization because you used to come speak to us all the time about legislative--
I honestly would say, I think we probably met through Felicia.
Because Felicia was, she was the center of the universe for feminism in the city for so long, and you are one of the people that was constantly around Felicia. So I'm pretty sure that's how we met because she was, what I say is she was a fearless, tiny little woman, who would always engage legislators on any issue, including the most progressive, difficult to pass, whatever bill. She was there and you were always kind of there with her.
You're talking about Felicia Kahn. Yeah. You're not even the first person to mention that they met me through Felicia Kahn. But you were also a frequent flyer on the conference calls I did during legislative session when we would inform volunteers for the Louisiana Democratic Party.
So, I appreciate that you came on and spoke to us, and I believe you spoke on the town hall we put together for John Bel Edward's reelection...
Yes, I did.
... 14,000 voters from across the state on a call with y'all. So, thank you for all you've done to help inform Louisianans over the years.
It's hard, but every politician loves the opportunity to talk, but I can certainly say that I always felt like I was talking about substantive things whenever you tapped me. So, I really appreciate the opportunity. And I was so glad we got John Bel over the hump and got him back in office because many of the things we've accomplished in the state would not have happened without John Bel being there.
Hundred percent. Well, before we get too far ahead of ourselves here, I would like for you to give us your political origin story. And I would know what it is, but there may be multiple listeners who wouldn't know how you got involved in politics.
Well, it's funny because my father was a legislator for 24 years, and my mom was a city councilor for 10 years. My entire trajectory as a young person was to be a doctor. So, I did not want anything to do with politics. I wanted to be a doctor. I went and did pre-med stuff in high school, went to college, and did very poorly in every science class, and I passed out the first time I saw blood, passed out on the floor, fell over. Like passed out in the middle of the lab. So, my teacher at the time, a guy named Dr. Dean, took me aside was like, "This is not going to work, son. You are never going to be a doctor." And I was like, "Well, I've only been trying to be George Clooney from ER my whole life, and you just destroyed it." He's like, "Well, I talked to your other professors. You're really good in all of the pre-law casework. Isn't your dad a lawyer?" I was like, "I don't want to be a lawyer. My dad's a lawyer." So, I ended up switching to pre-law and becoming a lawyer. Which, yeah, so I'm a lawyer. So then I graduated law school. I went to work for the public defender's office, and my dad got elected clerk of criminal court. And everyone was like, "Are you going to run for state representative?" And I was like, "No, I don't want to be a state representative." And I remember Brian Egana, who was Oliver Thomas's chief of staff, decided to run. And at the time, I did not like Oliver. I did not like Brian. And I was like, this is my dad's legacy. This is such an important seat? I want to run now. So, everybody's like, "You're running?" I'm like, "I'm running." So, it really became more of a legacy issue of I was like, my dad did so much great stuff. He went to the Supreme Court over drug testing politicians. I remember getting the death threats on him being pro-choice. We used to get calls from right-wingers telling us that they were going to burn our house down. We're all going to hell. And that was transformative for a 12-year-old kid to hear some random person from podunk Louisiana praying for your demise or whatever. But it hit me that my dad had done all these things and that I was really concerned at the time that the person running would not be a continuation of that. So then I got in the race, and it was probably the nastiest campaign I've ever been involved in. It was really personal. The ads were ridiculously personal. And to end that origin story, at the end of that campaign, it was really nasty. I trailed in the runoff, pulled it off in the runoff. And after it was over, Oliver Thomas put me and Brian Egana in a room and was like, "You are two bright, young African American men. You agree on 99% of things. You cannot hate each other forever." And he's like, "Politics is about addition, not subtraction. You two are better together." And we made up, and Brian is one of my best friends now. So that's kind of my political origin story of how I got to become a representative and that led to other things. But that was my first race. And that's kind of how I got into politics.
Well, I love that story. I love how it ends. And how many years were you in the legislature?
In total, I was in for 14 years.
Okay. Well, I really wanted to have you on as a guest because we've talked on several podcasts about unanimous juries and Constitutional Amendment 2 that got rid of the nonunanimous juries we had in Louisiana. When people ask me about doing the work here that's been done in Georgia and some other states, I say, we've started that kind of work here already. I really see the unanimous juries story as a model for what we need to do to bring more progressive change to the state. I've argued that it's a really big part of the story of John Bel's reelection as well. But this should be a case study for anyone wishing to make progress in our state. Louisiana Lefty is really centered on the nuts and bolts of campaigns. So, I want to walk folks through this campaign from the beginning over several episodes. While I served as the statewide field director for the campaign, you were there well before I was involved. For folks who aren't aware of what we're talking about, what was the problem that needed to be fixed by this unanimous juries amendment?
So, Louisiana was one of two states that allowed for an individual to be convicted of a felony without a unanimous jury. Basically, it allowed that if two people did not agree with a guilty verdict, you could disregard them and convict someone on a 10-2 decision. The origins of this date back to the end of the 19th century beginning of the 20th. It was post-Reconstruction after the Yankees and the Union had been chased out of Louisiana. There was a convention convened by quite a few very bad people, very racist people, and the basis of that convention was to reassert the supremacy of the Anglo Saxons over the African peoples. That was actually in the text and the debate of that convention. And one of the things that they agreed to was they did not want the uppity Black people that had just been given all these rights to get out of being put in jail. So, in that convention, they first passed a statute narrowly that changed the jury verdicts from 12-0 to 9-3, where if three people felt that you were not guilty, or they did not meet the burden, you would still be convicted. And that number was specific because they basically estimated you could at max get three black people on a jury. They wanted to nullify them. They then followed it up at the end of that century by putting it in the constitution. And it was there, but people don't realize in post-reconstruction in the south, prisons were the replacement for plantations and that the same Black people who used to work the plantations, they would put them in prisons where they would make similar products for lower free labor and sell those products. So, I mean, the prison industrial complex in the south was the continuation of slavery. And the fear that they were addressing in doing nonunanimous verdicts was that they wanted to make sure they were still able to put Black people on the plantation to do the work and to punish and be able to cow black people to make sure that they knew that they were but a day away from being locked up and there was nothing they could do about it. In 1974, there was another constitutional convention, and there was a guy from Alexandria, who was Chris Roy, the representative's dad, Chris Roy Sr. He brought up the nonunanimous jury verdicts and tried to fight it getting into the 1974 constitution. In a typical kind of like egalitarian, pseudo--it was racist, white, where they are like, "You know what, you're right. Shouldn't be 9-3. We'll make it 10-2. Look, we gave you something." So it went from 9-3 to 10-2 in the '74 constitution. It was that way until we changed it. So that's the origins of it. That was the problem. Oregon had a similar split jury allowance. The origins of that are very different. Where ours was built around racism, theirs was centered around anti-Semitism. There was a series of very high-profile cases where Jewish Americans were being charged with heinous crimes. And there was a tremendous anti-Semitic base in Oregon that hated Jewish people. And they were so offended that they couldn't lock these Jewish people up on these trumped-up crimes, they changed their constitution to allow for split juries. So, it was insidious, but it was not nearly as well thought out and planned out as our awful version. So, they're both bad. And they're both gone now because of the Supreme Court.
But you were not only instrumental in this effort, you took the first leg of the relay really. Did someone reach out to you specifically about this? Or was this something you wanted to do? Was there a debate about whether or not it should be on a ballot? Was there another way to go about doing this?
It was in the constitution, so you had to do a constitutional amendment to change it. You can't do it any other way. The Louisiana Association of Defense Lawyers approached me about it and said, "Hey, we have this bill. Do you have a bill? Can you do this constitutional amendment?" And I looked at them, and I said--well, first off, admittedly, I was a public defender in Orleans Parish, but I was only there for about a year and a half. And I did processing and magistrates for bails, so I didn't deal with jury trials. And really, when they gave me the bill, I started to kind of research the issue because I hadn't really looked into it. Most of Louisiana, when we have crazy stuff on the books, we just think everyone has crazy stuff on the books. When I dug into it, I was like, this is really awful. I remember when I got the bill, I said, "Okay, guys, I'll do it. I don't think we can pass this." And they were like, "We agree." So, the whole idea was to get the bill as far as we could to get record votes to build momentum for later passage. And we met with several different groups. And this is kind of getting into the messaging conversation. So, they said, "We want you to spearhead it. I'm like, "I will spearhead it, but I control the messaging." And they said, "What do you mean?" I said, "This is a really controversial topic." And I said, "Your temptation as a group, because there were other groups kind of tangentially involved." I said, "What you want to do is these groups are going to tell you we're going to card in a bunch of families that have people convicted on nonunanimous jury verdicts. How egregious and awful it is to people in New Orleans and African Americans." And it was right around the same time the Advocate was doing their story researching how bad it is. Two things were happening separately but on the same track. And I said, "I'm going to tell you something having been here--" At that point, I think I was there for 11, 12 years. I said, "That will not pass this bill." They're like, "What do you mean?" I'm like, "The average legislator is an old, white guy. If you are challenging them to see how egregious this issue is from the perspective of an African American family or wrongly incarcerated African American man, you will never pass this bill because they can't make that leap. They are not going to be able, in their own heads, to process it as an egregious affront to the African American community." And they were kind of like, "Well, how do we tackle this, then?" I said, "Because it's unconstitutional, and it's wrong. Full stop, period." They're like, "What do you mean?" I'm like, "Even the most non-engaged non civil-rights oriented Republican legislator worships the Bill of Rights." They worship the Bill of Rights. They worship the rule of law. And there are organizations out there, at that time, like the Pelican Institute and Libertarian leaning ones who hate government overreach. And they hate the idea of the government being able to easily incarcerate people on a whim. I said, "This needs to be about: this is unconstitutional, it's awful. It makes us different than every other state, including other southern states. And really, it needs to be, the messaging has to be as inclusive as possible. And then furthermore, in order to get the two-thirds vote in two houses that are almost two-thirds Republican, you have to have Republican messaging. They're like, "Well, what do you mean?" I said, "I researched this. Antonin Scalia was a dissenting opinion when this issue last went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He hated nonunanimous juries. He thought it was awful. He thought it was terrible. He thought it was another reason why Louisiana was backwards as hell. He wrote a scathing dissent on this. That is what you bring to Republican legislators because the more you make this an affront to the Bill of Rights, an afront to process, and an ability for the government to lock people up in the easiest, most convenient way, that is how you pass this bill." And that was the messaging when we went in the committee the first time to talk about it. And I would argue that there were probably more angry people in that first committee on this bill than there were on Nelson's marijuana bill. The sheriffs were there. The DAs were there. DAs more than sheriffs. DAs freaking hated this bill because it was an affront to the empirical demigods that are the District Attorneys of Louisiana. They pride themselves on the ability that if you cross them, they can put your ass in jail. That is just kind of how they operate. I always tell people that aren't from here, if you've ever seen Cool Hand Luke, that is Louisiana still. We can and will lock you up for no reason if we choose to do so. And I remember that as we were beginning that process, as we got up there, it was so hilarious because the DAs had been reading John Simerman and Gordon Russell's expose on nonunanimous juries, and they had written a whole playbook to argue against the racial implications of nonunanimous juries. They got there, and their whole messaging was there's no proof we're targeting Black people. And they weren't listening to what I was saying, which I didn't mention any of that. I said, "Man, this is about: this is unconstitutional. It violates the Bill of Rights. It allows for governmental overreach." And they didn't address it. And then when we closed on it, I went on my tirade about Antonin Scalia and about how we're being laughed at by every other state. Look who's here. You've got the ACLU, but you've got the Pelican Institute. You've got Soros people, but you've got the Koch brothers. This is something we can all agree on that no one should be locked up when 1/6 of the jury thinks that they shouldn't be. It is really an issue of it is a governmental overreach. And when it got out of committee, they lost their minds. They really thought it was going to die. And I was like, "Huh, it got out of committee. I wasn't really expecting that. Okay, let's see what the next step is." So, then we got it on the floor of the legislature, of the senate, and we started vote counting. And we were like, we're going to run the bill when we have the best vote count and try and pass it. And we waited I want to say two or three weeks, and we kept ticking it, and we kept being three or four votes short. We could not get within the two-thirds. And they're like, "What do we do? We don't want to go up and lose." And I was like, "Listen, this bill was always about pushing the envelope to try and get things done. This bill was about exposing people to the idea, bringing light to the injustice, and really breaking this whole thing, and even if I'm not the person to pass it, I want to lay the path for someone to do it because it's that kind of saying: legacy is not about eating the fruits of your labor, it's about planting the tree." So, I was planting the tree on this. So, we got down there and we start doing debate. And it was like the surrogates on the floor took the same playbook from the committee meeting and used it again. They were arguing points that we weren't making and not responding to the points that we were making. And I saw people start to start paying attention. In the legislature, every vote is pretty much pre-decided. When you go to the floor of the senate or the house, you have the votes before the vote or you don't, and we did not have the votes. But I saw people starting to close their laptops, to close their books, to put down their phone, and they started listening to us. And I was like, okay, wait a second. I'm beginning to feel we got a chance. Then Dan Claitor got up, who's a Republican from Baton Rouge, a former ADA, and he just, it was like a Vice episode. He got up there and basically laid out, because Dan had, I think he had voted for or was silent in committee. He would tell no one where he was at on it. He was like completely keeping it to the vest. He swept down there, and I was like, I don't know if he's going down for or against. I don't even know. He spelled it out as an ADA; it was like somebody confessing to their priest. He was like, "This is horrible. Let me tell you how we abuse this as DAs." And he went into how if you are charged with a misdemeanor, they have to convict you on a unanimous verdict. But if you're charged with a felony, they can beat you on a nonunanimous verdict. And he was like, "At the Orleans Parish DAs office when I worked for Harry Connick [Sr]., we would routinely overcharge people for crimes to force a nonunanimous jury trial. And the defense lawyers knew what we were doing, and they knew their clients were screwed, so we would extort plea agreements out of them because they knew that they probably couldn't get a unanimous jury to acquit them." And he laid out the awfulness of it. He laid out, I'm against it because I saw this happen. Everything you've heard from these advocates is true. This is wrong. And at that point, everyone was engaged. And that is when I started getting senators calling me over, and they'd say, "Listen, I was a no. I just called my DA. I'm a yes now." And it just started snowballing. "I was a no. I called my DA. I'm a yes now." And I was like, holy shit, we just-- And so, I went down there. Danny Martini gave me advice years ago. You would think he was a no vote on this, but he gave great advice. He said, "Never come up. Never go down to that well and come back with less than you started with." So, I had a very powerful closing, but it was very neutral in its presentation because we were on the line of passing this bill. And then we passed it. And at that point, all hell broke loose with the DAs. They were freaking the hell out at that point. They were just like, what is happening? The sky is purple. Our entire power base is being attacked. And that got us to the infamous house committee hearing where we had the DA DeRosier from Calcasieu Parish come in. DAs pulled the same playbook out from floor, from senate committee. This is about these guys talking about racism, and there's no racism. The difference was that people like Ted James were on that committee. He's like, "Oh, no, this shit is racist. I'm going to talk about how racist this is." We stayed on message saying, "Nope. Apple Pie. America. Bill of Rights." And I remember one interaction I had with John Stefanski where he said, "I'm going to ask you one question, Senator Morrell. Where was Antonin Scalia on this?" I quoted Scalia, and I remember Stefanski looking at me and going, "If it's good enough for Scalia, it's good enough for me. I'm okay." And then DeRosier got up there after Ted had his rant and said, "Okay, let's just admit this. This thing came from a racist place. It was racist." And he gave this whole rant about how Volvo and Volkswagen built planes for the Nazis, but people still drive them. And even though the technology came from Nazis, it was okay. And just like that nonunanimous juries, yeah, they were born of racism, but they're a tool for prosecutors to get the bad guys. And he ended it by saying, "It is what it is." And then after he spoke, there was this DA from some like North Shore jurisdiction who was like, "Listen, talk about how racist this is, I once prosecuted a white man for killing a Black man. And Ted looked at the guy from the north shore and said, "You did your job? Do you want a cookie? You prosecuted someone for murder? You want a cookie? Why are you telling me it was a Black guy versus a white guy? That's ridiculous. That's like saying you got a Black friend, you're not racist. It is what it is? It is what is? That should be on a billboard where you live that you're okay with locking people up because that's just the way it's been." And it was funny because going into that committee, it was on a razor's edge of getting it out the committee. And I can't for the life of me remember the vote. The vote wasn't close. Those DAs literally passed that bill going down there saying crazy crap. I thought I had the votes, but it was like overwhelming how it got out of there. And the chair of that committee was Sherman Mack, who is about the most hang-em, pro DA person you've ever met. He came to me after that was over, and he goes, "JP, you know where I'm at?" I was like, "Yeah I know, Sherman." He was like, "I want to carry this bill on the floor of the house."
I was like, "Sherman, you're asking me to give you my child when I know you've murdered similar children." And he was like, "I know, but you gotta trust me. I want to pass this. Give it to me." And I was like, "Okay, I'm giving you my child even though you are a murderer of criminal justice babies." And he did an amazing job. He actually had this great quote where he said, "It's time. We have to move past this time." And it passed. And I'm sure you've covered--that is when I handed this issue over to the advocates across the state and the networks. But I want to tell you one story about when y'all were passing it, and we were working together statewide. I was doing an interview with a radio station in New Orleans, and I got a call from Blake Miguez. And Blake Miguez, if you're a lefty, he's like the antichrist. I mean, he is like the I hate everything progressive. And he called me. He said, "Hey, JP." I'm like, "Hey, what's up, Blake?" He's like, "I want to talk to you about something." I was like, "What?" He goes, "I just cut an ad for nonunanimous juries like to get rid of it." And I was like, "Okay, that's great." "But listen, I know you don't like guns. In the ad, I want to tell you what I did." And I'm like, "Okay, Blake tell me what wait you did." He goes, "I've got an AK-47, and I'm shooting a target. And then I look in the camera and say, 'If you don't vote to get rid of nonunanimous juries, they may come and take your guns." "I'm not proud. If that gets me the votes to pass this thing, you go ahead and do it, Blake." And I'm sure that ad might still be on the internet somewhere, but he really is just shooting targets talking about don't let them take your guns. Vote to repeal nonunanimous juries. But strange bedfellows. That's my story and my anecdote of nonunanimous juries.
That is a wild story, and it's unique in the legislature because we know, those of us who follow the legislature, things don't normally go that way. And it sounds like there was a little bit of magic.
To your point, and you said in previous podcasts, it's all about messaging.
And there was a moment where had I not aggressively taken over messaging and made it in a way that was inclusive and allowed everybody to have some ownership of the issue regardless of their partisan or conservative or liberal leanings, that thing was DOA. It was dead. I think what I always tell nonprofit groups on whatever issue they're dealing with is that you need to make your issue about the issue and not about the partisan lean. Because some issues are inherently kind of Democratic issues. Some issues are kind of inherently Republican issues. And if you allow yourself to get pigeonholed as a Democrat or Republican issue, it's like you're giving up some votes to begin with. When we did Raise the Age, we did the bill, which we fought with DAs and sheriffs again, honestly, I think those guys, they're happy I'm not in the legislature anymore. But those guys were not big fans of mine at times, and basically in Louisiana, we were one of I want to say might have been the only state left where we automatically prosecuted 17-year-olds as adults. So, if a kid commits a heinous crime, a DA in any state can choose to charge that kid as an adult, but there is a process they have to go through to get authorized to do it. In Louisiana, there was no process. 17-year-old, you're an adult. You're going to adult prison. You're an adult. No state does that. We were the last one. It was stupid. I had a bill called Raise the Age, which was about raising the age of juvenile prosecution. And that was one where there was a lot of intellectual argument about why it was important and why it wasn't important. And that was a time where the messaging went the opposite way, where when I was talking with the advocates, I said, "You know what? All these professors and sociologists about brain development, let's not use them." They were like, "Why?" I was like, "Aren't y'all bussing up kids?" And they were like, "Yeah." I was like, "Let the kids talk." When we were in committee, and I'm going to try not to get teary-eyed talking about it, when we were in committee, and we're doing that bill, and there was a bunch of kids from inner-city high schools in New Orleans, and they were literally talking about how their friends would get picked up for like minor felonies like they were in the car while someone was joyriding, and they would go to OPP for like three months, four months. And they were like, "My friend Jacob came back, and he was broken. He was never Jacob again. He was a broken, damaged person. He stopped coming to school. He stopped talking to his friends. He started hanging out with a different crowd who understood what he had gone through." When testimony after testimony of that came out, there were grown legislators, Black and white, Republican and Democrat, who were crying. They were like, "You can't do this to kids." And I was like, "17-year-olds are children. And it doesn't matter what this DA says or sheriff says. You have a 17-year-old child, or you have a 17-year-old nephew, do you think they're an adult?" I mean, no one's going to say, yeah, I think Jimmy who plays Xbox too much and doesn't know-- everyone, when you make it about the humanity of kids and of relating to the idea of children, that's what passed that bill, but the messaging was different because that bill was about being able to find an issue that presented a perspective that everyone can relate to. That did not exist with nonunanimous juries, but on Raise the Age, it did and that is why the messaging was different. It wasn't partisan, it was, you know a 17-year-old kid. Do you think 17-year-olds are adults? And that is what passed that bill. So, it's just the messaging is so key because it will differ by the subject and there is no universal messaging silver bullet that you have of, say it's progressive, say it's conservative, say it's for Democrats, say it's for Republicans. It's the issue, the issue, it's all about the issue.
When we got to the point of working to pass the constitutional amendment, your point is well made, they really did practice a lot of message discipline on that campaign. They really pushed, for instance, that it was discriminatory while telling us, you know, please don't bring up Jim Crow. Please don't start talking about Jim Crow to the voters. That's going to kill this. So there was a very strict messaging discipline on that campaign. And you wrote the actual amendment, right? And that was part of what made the job easier because it was very simple to understand.
I guess, to give kind of the background, so when you pass a constitutional amendment, they don't print the amendment when you walk in the ballot box. They print like a three-sentence description of what the amendment does. And people, it is amazing how if you write the wrong three sentences, something will pass or fail. A good example is with nonunanimous juries, we kept that completely dry, which basically, and I'm paraphrasing, we said, this constitutional amendment holds that people can only be convicted with a unanimous jury, not with a jury that is a split jury. And when you read that, as someone who watches I mean, there are many people, the average person had no idea we had non unanimous juries. They watch Law and Order and see hung juries all the time. So, for a lot of them, they would be like, "Wait a second, we don't already have that?" And because the messaging was so ridiculously dry, it worked. I'll give you an example of when the messaging doesn't work. Matthew Willard had a bill that dealt with giving New Orleans the ability to give varying degrees of relief to people on property taxes. And he passed the constitutional amendment through the legislature. The messaging said, do you believe, essentially in paraphrase, do you believe the city of New Orleans should have the flexibility to lower property taxes? If you know how the rest of the state feels about the city of New Orleans, the moment you mentioned giving New Orleans the ability to have lower taxes, that thing was DOA as hell. Like it was never going to pass. And when I saw that messaging, I was in the legislature. I was like, "Oh, that's not passing." It doesn't matter, they had a press tour over it. The mayor went across the state talking to people and like, doesn't matter. The voters are going to walk in a booth in Shreveport and be like, "Well, why am I not getting property taxes lowered? Hell no." And that's what happened. It got obliterated. But that messaging, to your point, carries through not just on the political messaging. It's like everything that touches that issue has to be carefully written, and there has to be complete discipline to make sure that all the front-facing things do not alienate the voters you need to pass it.
Ed Tarpley eventually got on board with the unanimous juries. Did you have other DAs or former DAs?
No, Ed Tarpley, and Ed Tarpley was a former DA. He was a former parish DA for Grant Parish. He was essential. Ed Tarpley and Rob Maness were both essential in getting support for that bill. And people now watch Rob Maness on Twitter, and he's like a caricature of a Trumpian. Republican, but on this issue, he was on point. He fought at the state level because the DAs tried to lobby the Republican Party to come out against it. And Rob Maness fought the Republican Party to make them not come out against it. So, Ed Tarpley was essential because he really, Ed Tarpley is a much better criminal lawyer than I am, and he was able to give much more meat to anecdotal stories and to give a lot of more clear answers when there was a lot of mechanical argument against it. And he was great. He's a Republican. He was tremendous and helped pass the bill. But no, the DA from Shreveport, the one that Soros helped elect, whose name escapes me right now, he argued the DA's Association shouldn't come out against it, but he's not Jason. Jason would have been up there arguing for it. He kind of made his overture at it and took a backseat and didn't really get involved. But no, other than a former DA, we didn't really get much help from any DAs, former or current at that time.
What makes the right so interested in criminal justice reform?
I guess it's, I'm often accused of being too moderate. And I mean, I think sometimes that's a fair criticism on kind of my political philosophy on how to be successful because my political career before I became a politician before I became a lawyer, I worked for John Breaux before I went to law school. So, I saw how he navigated congress. And the challenge you have is that it's easy to find when you're dealing with political issues ways to disagree. On any issue, you could find a conservative and liberal position and argue those points. With criminal justice reform, it's really easy to find commonalities where both sides have buy-in. About the only thing that's still really difficult with CJR is gun reform. But for most other issues, whether it's incarceration, with incarceration, even under Jindal, we had success at lowering incarceration and increasing the opportunities for reentry because the business community got involved because they said, "Listen, we've got a workforce problem. There are too many people going to jail. And they come out, and we have to hire people from other states because they can't pass background checks because they get arrested for BS like marijuana." And it's a scarlet letter because, depending on what industry you're in, if you're in the boat building or shipping industry, and people have to get port clearance, there are instances in which the federal government won't give you a clearance because you've got a felony conviction. So, it became an economic development issue for them. When it came to other issues regarding criminal justice reform, when you crunch the numbers of how much money we spent out of budgets on incarcerating people, for true fiscal conservatives, they're like, this is dumb. I'm being taxed for bad policy. So those were the kind of commonalities that got conservatives to get heavily engaged on reform efforts and why they leaned into it. It wasn't because they woke up one day and were like, I'm a liberal. It was someone came to them with a different perspective and said, "You should not like this because of x." The Pelican Institute, though they have some wackadoodle kind of leanings and so does AFP on some criminal justice stuff, they are very much on the reform side because it's against sound tax policy to dump money into a black hole that lasts forever. And for Louisiana, the amount of money we spend on prisons, both public and private, it's like you're throwing money in a fireplace because you get no return on this. It's not an investment. The people you lock up, you're paying for their healthcare. You're paying for everything. That's all wasted state money. And those people never reenter society, never become taxpayers. From a fiscal perspective for conservatives, it makes sense we should break that system. That's kind of their perspective.
Okay. You mentioned Jason. You meant Jason Williams by that, who is the newly elected DA here in New Orleans. Are there other cities you know of in Louisiana where we could replicate his kind of campaign and the work his team is now doing?
All the major cities are certainly capable of replication. Baton Rouge is a great example. Baton Rouge, Shreveport. Shreveport is where you had some success with George Soros. We had success in kind of moving progressive messages. It's not exactly the same because there is no city, for the most part, that is as progressive as New Orleans. There's nuance to it, but for the most part, it can be replicated those areas. What's very surprising is people really underestimate how many small towns across the state have majority African American populations, have majority African American council members and executives, and have African Americans as police chiefs. DAs is a little harder because, when you go to these towns, if they're small, you have DAs that represent multiple parishes. It's harder to get that leverage on a DA, but there's no reason why you couldn't replicate that kind of progressive movement on a small, easier scale and reform these small townships where they're not locking up their own citizens for BS to fund the parish. It's certainly something that can be replicated. The challenge is really building the organized infrastructure to do so. From my perspective, the reason, part of what helped Biden is people like Stacey Abrams running for governor and Beto O'Rourke running for senate in Texas because even though those races were not successful, they were unapologetically progressive. And they took all the money that they raised to build an infrastructure that they knew would outlast their campaigns. What happened in Georgia is possible in Louisiana. 33% of our population is African American. We have a greater percentage of African Americans in Louisiana than Georgia has in Georgia. It's just, they're a group that's never been engaged in any kind of holistic way to turn them into permanent voters. Because think about it, that would be transformative. If you knew 30% of the electorate was African American voters who would vote every cycle, the lift to win statewide offices becomes a lot more manageable at that point.
Well, I often make the argument that there are groups building infrastructure here. And again, the Unanimous Jury Coalition, to me, is one of the networks of groups that I do believe is building infrastructure here. To your point, and people didn't see me nodding furiously when you were talking about Stacey Abrams and Beto O'Rourke, but neither of those infrastructures were built through the party. You know Beto had the Powered by the People. Stacey has a couple of different groups like the New Georgia Project, that she's passed on, then Fair Fight Georgia. There are infrastructures built there that can work with the party but aren't in the party themselves. So, I think that that can be done here also.
Well, to that point, it's almost like if we had the right progressive candidate to run for national office across the state, that would be the mechanism to do it. It would be really interesting. Kennedy's seat's coming up. If we got a progressive person to legitimately take a shot at that on a progressive platform, especially with the senate being so razor-thin. The only problem you have with Louisiana is that if we, Stacey Abrams really had created through all the work she did in building the grassroot network, she had proof positive for people to give money for her gubernatorial race to be a credible candidate. It's almost like you'd need to have enough of a network to build faith on a national level that that race could be competitive. But if you could get that done, and obviously, you said people are already doing the work. And the Senate majority is so razor-thin, it's more about just convincing the national donors to fund the infrastructure for that senatorial candidate, which could potentially outlast them. Now, finding the right candidates is also key because people like Stacey and Beto had really impressive records leading up to it and were very inspirational candidates. They had great messages and presented very well. We have to find someone on that level to do that. And one of our biggest problems politically as Democrats is that we have no reputable farm system at all. Republicans, the good news about the terrible Trumpers is they kind of broke the Republican farm system in itself because there used to be a system where Republicans did a really robust job of farming up their own candidates through their own process where they were trained, kind of fed their talking points, working staffers worked their way up traditionally to be elected. And that's kind of like where you get a Luke Letlow from. Luke Letlow was like the traditional farmed Republican candidate up through the ranks person. Now, the crazy guy in Lafayette, the John Wayne guy. What's his name? Terrible--
Clay Higgins is an example of what happens when you don't farm a candidate up. He's a Republican. He got elected. He's cuckoo crazy. But he's a Trumper. We as Democrats don't do enough to take people who want to be engaged in the process, Emerge is a great example of someone trying to do that, but we really need to do a better effort of identifying people that really want to be elected, training them, and making them run for competitive offices. Now, I say that in that I don't begrudge Democrats running against Democrats. But it's not where the training is. That happens organically. In places like New Orleans, it's all Democrats running against Democrats, but we should be targeting seats that are even remotely competitive and farming candidates up locally to run for those seats. We don't do any of that. And I mean, that is a deficiency in the party that we either need to correct on a party level or correct, like you said, on a grassroots level of someone like Emerge is the one that comes to mind because they're actively doing it. But there are other groups that could just as easily be doing the same thing. I mean, it's just, that's a missed opportunity. I always joke that whenever you give a Republican a pass in the state they are running for reelection in a competitive seat, you're just freeing up Republican money to steal over the Democratic seat. When they're not competitive races, those donors don't put that money back in their pockets. They go spend it in a more competitive race to give more resources to someone who's in another competitive race. You have to attack on multiple fronts.
Would you run for statewide office?
No. No. And I'll tell you why. Two things. One, my kids could not handle it. I've got a 12-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter, and a 4-year-old son, and they struggle with me being in Baton Rouge. They struggled with it. I did not realize till later when I was near leaving how bad it had been for them. They really struggled with my time in Baton Rouge. And I don't have it in me, I love my kids, to be away from them that much. And a statewide office, with few exceptions, requires you to be in Baton Rouge pretty much constantly. You have to uproot your family and move there for the most part. And I don't think they have it in them. Maybe 20 years from now, I might look at it when my kids are old, and they're out from under me. Alex is 14. In 14 years, I might look at it but right now, no I like being a dad. That's kind of my primary thing. The other thing is that there was a time when I was younger where I looked at it really hard, and the Don Cravins Jr. race kind of broke me of that for a couple of years. Don Cravins Jr. ran for congress against Charles Boustany years ago. I was still in the house, and he was in the senate. And his voting record, he had carefully curated his voting record. He was pro-life, pro-gun, pro everything you need to be. All these groups that are, they're all ridiculous. They all tell you as a Democrat if you vote for pro-life, Jean Mills, the Family Forum, they're with you too. He did all that stuff. And Charles Boustany was, at that time, I don't know now, but at the time, there was no comparison between the two of them. And all those groups turned on him. And they started attacking the super conservative, moderate Democrat. And basically took all the national Democratic messaging and just pasted it on his face, and he got obliterated by Charles Boustany. And the Democratic Party didn't help him. No one really helped them. He just ran his race. And the inherent institutional racism towards the party on supporting African American candidates for statewide office, that is where it really hit me. This is a guy who is a super impressive state senator running for a competitive seat. And because he was a Black guy running, they gave him no resources, no defense, the people of all the groups that he had carefully curated to support him all deserted him. And I was just like, it just, it broke me for a couple of years of even looking at statewide office. I was like, if that guy can't be successful, he was like, he was to me at that time, just generally, I really like Don Cravins Jr. We bonded over the fact that both our dads are old and crazy and were elected. We're good friends, but I was like, if you can't be successful, how the hell am I going to be successful? I was like, Nope, I'm just going to be a legislator. I just took that idea of statewide office and threw it in the back. And things have changed to some degree with the party. I think Karen's time there sort of changed that too, but there is an institutional racism in the Democratic Party statewide where you have white Democrats in rural areas where they'll vote for John Bel and then the same breath, there could be a Black John Bel right under them, and they'll go, "Nope." And until you prove to credible Black candidates that the state's in a different perspective or that we've engaged the African American electorate throughout the state to a point we can be competitive, it's going to be hard to get any credible Black elected official to run statewide without that infrastructure because otherwise, they're kind of sacrificial lambs to the altar of getting other white democrats elected.
JP, besides being a dad now, you've had a podcast since before podcasts were cool: Ask JP. So, you still have that?
Yeah. And I really enjoy doing it. It began, the idea of Ask JP was that I used to get a lot of questions from people like emails, like, I want to ask you about this. And I was kind of like, huh, 10 people are asking the same question. Maybe people would care enough if I just went on there and got people who knew more than me to discuss the issue. So, the original Ask JP was mostly people asking questions about Medicare. So, I got someone from the Louisiana State Government Department of Health to come in and talk about Medicare and stuff like that. And it was a real rewarding experience. I really enjoyed it. I was really into it right until the governor got elected and made me the chair of revenue and fiscal affairs, and we had to solve the $2 billion budget shortfall. And then all of my private time, other than "dadding," just evaporated immediately. My last four years in the legislature were the hardest years of my life as a legislator just because the needs were so, the fate of the state being solvent was on my shoulders with the governor, so I couldn't do it anymore for a while. And then once I left, I started kicking it around, and recently, it started with the huge slate of criminal justice reform races tied to the DA and tied to the judges. I brought it back up. And it had a good response. I pick no horses, even the races where I endorsed, I invited everybody, and everybody got a platform to kind of sell themselves. And I'd like to think that for people like, for example, Angel Harris, who was running for judge. That Ask JP interview was really helpful to her insofar as she was a really impressive candidate with zero money, zero money compared to the incumbent. And it gave her a platform with someone who kind of knew the issues to say what our ideas were. And it was funny because none of the media was covering any of the judicial races. There were not debates where people could see people argue the issues. And by default, my podcast kind of became like the platform of if you want to see someone tell you what kind of judge they'd be, go watch the Ask JP. And it was very helpful. And it was very gratifying. We did one episode on Amendment 1. I did one with Michelle Erenberg over at Lift. And I did an interview with Morgan Lamandre recently on the LSU sexual assault stuff, and we have some other stuff we're getting planned. But it's turned more into this issue seems like something I'm interested in, I will occasionally do a podcast on it. And I don't have the discipline you have, Lynda, to build a podcast, a real podcast. This is more like I'm going to spitball over this issue because I really want to talk to someone and have an intelligent conversation about it. I could probably do it over coffee, but maybe other people might be interested in that issue. So, let's just record it kind of thing.
Well, I'm going to link to it in the podcast notes, so if folks have not already discovered it they--
It's super interesting. Just don't expect you're like Lynda, you're going to get an episode every week or two. Me, you'll get an episode when I feel like it. So that's the difference. Yeah.
It's all the pieces of the puzzle that come together. Right?
Is there other work you're doing right now that folks should know about that they might want to plug into?
Not really. I've got a big presence on Instagram, on Twitter, on Facebook for whatever Facebook's worth. All of those things are the same. They're @JPMorrell. So, I was an early adopter of technology, so I got my actual name as opposed to some weird acronym like goJ4JP or whatever. Just JP Morrell everywhere. And I'm pretty active, and I engage with people on that. I have a lot of fun with that because people, especially on Twitter, people really make poignant comments like, I've got this bromance with Skooks that goes back for years where he trolls me over my love of Hamilton on a regular basis. And I troll him by linking new Hamilton things. So I mean, I enjoy Twitter because you can have these kind of weird relationships with strangers. But no, I mean, I do that stuff. I still get tapped occasionally to work with legislators on stuff. Like they'll ask me for advice. I've done a lot of work with people on stuff like the trying to repair, like I said, the sexual assault college campus legislation and stuff like that. I enjoy pinching on that. I don't want to go back to Baton Rouge, but I like to still be engaged. Occasionally, I get tapped by nonprofits to come in and to help educate people on that stuff. I serve on a lot of boards that I enjoy. I'm on the board of the Children's Museum, City Park, and on the board of STAR, Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response. So those are all very gratifying. I'm kind of all over the place.
Well, I've got my lightning round: last three questions for you.
What is the biggest obstacle for progressives in Louisiana in your opinion?
I think that progressives burn out because they want progress to happen immediately. And when you're in a state as entrenched in conservatism, you have to really have reasonable expectations of where you want to go and build towards that. I think people who just get engaged in politics, who are progressive, they're like, I want to change the world tomorrow. And I think that they forget people like Elijah Cummings and people who've been before them who realize that you don't change the world tomorrow, you change the world over your lifetime, or you lay the groundwork for the next people to change the world. So, the biggest challenge is I'm afraid people are going to burn out because when I see people after the last congressional race who are very disappointed their person didn't win, and they're like, I'm just done, I'm checking out. I'm like, you can't do that. Like, you have to get up the next day. You have to put your progressive boots and gloves back on and go back to work. Because at the end of the day, what people who don't support progressive values do is they count on you getting burnt out.
So, what's the progressive's biggest opportunity?
Oh, I think CJR is the biggest opportunity. If we can create a state where everyone is not locked up for nothing, prosecuted for nothing, that their interactions with law enforcement don't result in death, bullshit charges, or arrests, and people are able to live their lives without fear of sudden incarceration, I think it creates an environment where people just take the time to breathe and really study issues and hopefully take another look at progressive platforms. Plus with moderate Republicans, people don't realize that moderate Republicans and Independents, Republicans, conservatives do a really good job of vilifying Democrats as like socialist and Marxist. I think the Hayride recently called me the greatest threat to patriotism. I'm a Marxist from a family of Marxists. As much as the Hayride likes me, which you're defined by your enemies, I love the fact that the Hayride is so terrified of me. But the more you interact with people over issues across the state that there's general consensus on, the more that Independents, in particular, see progressives as people who have reasonable goals and reasonable ideals, the more likely they are to listen to your other ideas. Because really, it's about once you get past preconceptions, and you see right now Ted Cruz talking about the radical left, the Republicans are really good at defining what progressives are. It's our job to defy those definitions and to define ourselves, and CJR gives progressives the opportunity to define themselves and to have success in a collaborative way, and I think that's where the opportunity is. That's where progressives should be.
Solid points, JP. Well, I've been excited to ask you the last question because I know you're a big comic book guy.
Pre-question. Since how old? When did you get into comic books?
Oh, I've been reading comic books since I could read. Honestly, and my son Jude is also the same way, I learned how to read from comics. My parents, obviously I wasn't chewing on a comic book when I was a toddler or anything, but I got engaged by comic books. My third and fourth-grade teacher, Miss Sabrina Mays, who many people know. She is like a cultural icon in the city. She has known me longest, and she knew me when I like ate my boogers and stuff. She was so great in that she would see what interests you, and she would encourage it. I loved comic books. I loved cartoons, and she was like, here's the comic books. Read some comic books. My voracious reading habit, my immense vocabulary comes from reading comic books. I read other books now obviously, too, but when I was a kid, I was always reading comics. And then as I got older, I really began to understand the depth to which comic books tackle huge social justice issues. It's funny because, this is just a lead-in to whatever the question is, but people don't understand how important it was when Stan Lee created Black Panther. When Stan Lee created Black Panther, it was the middle of the civil rights movement. And the term Black Panther in itself was incendiary. And Stan Lee created a character who was an African superhero from the most advanced tech country in the world in Africa. And I mean, it was a way for people, before they even knew about civil rights as children, they were normalized the fact that you can have an African person be ridiculously intelligent from a super technological space who's a leader of people. Comic books are tremendously subversive when it comes to progressive ideology. Right now, people are losing their minds over the fact that Coates is writing Captain America right now. And it's because Captain America, in the current run, he's vilifying internet memes in internet groups in parallels to like the Proud Boys and how they're the new Red Skull to the point where you have conservative pundits who are complaining to Marvel that he's calling Proud Boys Nazis. And it's like, they are the new Nazis that Captain America is going to punch in the face. But that's, I was into comics before I understood them. But after I understood them, I was like, wow, these are great. Like this was my place.
So, who is your favorite superhero?
This is a hard one because I love a lot of superheroes for a lot of different reasons. But my favorite, and if you watch the preview, you saw it in the background, I love Daredevil. And I love Daredevil because on a basic level, he is a differently-abled superhero, probably one of the first, he's a blind person who is a superhero. So, on that level, he's very interesting. That's like one level, then you go a level above it. He is a personification of the idea of justice. The whole idea behind his creation, when Stan Lee created Daredevil, he was literally inspired by the idea that justice is blind, so he created a blind lawyer who is a superhero. And it's really part of like the center core of who Daredevil is. He is constantly concerned with justice. He is one of the few superheroes where he is just as committed to finding the bad guy as to proving the wrongly accused of being innocent because he's a defense lawyer. He's not even a prosecutor. He's a defense lawyer, criminal defense lawyer. So, he's so nuanced. I encourage people, two things: one, if you want to read Daredevil, read the Mark Waid run. It's one of the most recent ones. It was the best-nuanced one. It's easy to get into. It's great. But if you're going to watch Daredevil, do not watch the movie. It is bad. Just full stop bad. Do not watch it. Watch the Netflix series. Everyone has Netflix. Watch the Netflix series. Daredevil is, Matt Murdock is a tremendously nuanced character, recovering alcoholic, completely conflicted over his Catholicism. He's consistently conflicted by, just a really amazing character. But I could have named 50 other ones, but I'll go with Daredevil. Otherwise, would be here for like six hours.
Well, that's a perfect answer, I think for you. JP, as always, I appreciate your time, your knowledge, your wit, and your dedication to making Louisiana a better place. Thank you so much for coming on Louisiana Lefty.
Thank you so much for having me. I love being here. And I will certainly make you return the favor when I want to talk about organizing on Ask JP because you're one of the most prolific and active and effective organizers in the state. And that's an area, when it comes to organization, that I'm not as familiar with as I should be. And I think people would love to hear your perspective on my podcast: what it's like organizing in this ridiculously conservative state.
Happy to do it. JP, Thanks so much.
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