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.
I'm your host Lynda Woolard. On this episode, I'm sharing a conversation I had with newly-elected Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis, just after his 100 day mark in office. Davante and I have a long history. Our political paths have crossed many times. We discussed that, in addition to his political origin story, in a previous episode, which dropped in Season One of Louisiana Lefty, titled Run Before You Walk. I'll link to it in the Episode Notes. Our paths crossed again in his most recent race, as I joined his team to manage the campaign in the runoff. So I asked him to return to the podcast to talk about the run, the win, and the job. While we had discussed my joining his campaign throughout the race, finances stymied that possibility until the runoff. So there's that reminder that early donations are critical for campaigns, and that candidates can have the best message in the world, but without money they cannot get that message out to the voting public. While coming onto a campaign so late in an election cycle can be difficult, there were a couple of elements that gave me the belief that this was a winnable race, where I could actually play a role in helping bring our side across the finish line. First, Davante was an exceptional candidate with a solid personal story, who had done some serious groundwork by explaining his vision at forum after forum. Secondly, there was a strong coalition of local community groups that supported him, that had been involved in this race for months, and that had already clearly defined what their lanes would be for the final weeks of the election. Davante gives a shout out to them in this episode; we've heard from many of these groups on previous episodes; and we'll no doubt hear from more of them on future episodes. Davante was a rare candidate that when we put him in front of people, I never worried about what he was going to say. And he always knew exactly what he wanted to say, because he speaks from the heart with a deep studied knowledge of his subject material. Interestingly, depending on what happens when Governor Edwards and Commissioner Campbell term out, there's a world in which Davante, in his early 30s, could be the highest ranking Democrat in our state. How we know that he's already impacting the terms of our political conversations is that other elected Democrats are now adopting some of his talking points. That's a shift of the Overton Window right there. Still, what I like about Davante's framing of the work he's doing now is that he's genuine, and he holds true to his values, and you'll hear him say this, he turns his job title around to say: he's a commissioner that serves the public. That's a theory you'll hear him emphasize again, and again.
Davante Lewis, or should I say Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis, welcome back to Louisiana Lefty!
Thank you. I'm so glad to be back. And I guess I got a new title now.
Well, almost two years ago, in our first season, you came on, and we released the episode Run Before You Walk, and folks can go listen to that if they want to hear more about you and more about your origin story and all of that stuff that we talk about on most podcasts. But you told us on that podcast that you probably would run for office again. And true to your word, you did. And you won! So I wanted to have you back to talk about your victory.
Thank you. I don't know if on that podcast I would have predicted this office at this time. As I've always said, "You've got to go where your passion is at the time," and "Passion without action is a wasted emotion," and we acted on this passion and the results are there to see.
I've listened to that podcast again twice since you were elected and it holds up. And you gave some great information, so I do hope people will go listen to it if they want to know more. But what is it that made the PSC the seat that drew you back into running for office?
Yeah, Public Service Commission, for those of you who may not be completely familiar, because we are a secret agency, and I think it's secret, on purpose. In Louisiana, the Public Service Commission, regulates your utilities, so it regulates electricity, water, wastewater, sewage. It also regulates non consensual tows. So when your car is towed at a concert or in an apartment complex, that is our jurisdiction. We regulate moving companies. So when you think about complaints or issues you may have when you are moving from one house to the other house, we handle that. We also have some jurisdiction over some pipelines, as well as taxi cabs and some other areas of transportation. Prison phone calls and telecommunications... while we don't have broadband explicitly, we do have some of the old telecommunication lines and telecommunication companies. So we used to regulate landlines, we still do, most of us know, most people don't have a landline, but some of those landline equipment and actual transmission lines are used for internet. So we regulate that. So while I may not regulate how reliable your Cox Communication is, for example, I do regulate the lines that are operated to sometimes provide broadband. And so when we think about all of this, these are life or death situations, right? And when last summer hit, we know, bills skyrocketed. And I felt everyone was kind of talking around the issue and people were making very tough decisions, whether they live in heat, or whether they eat and I felt no one from the commission standpoint was really articulating those interconnections, how, when people have older homes that have not been handled correctly, means it's more energy that they have to expend to keep their house cool. Well, if we don't have a living wage, we don't have affordable housing, and we don't have reliable transportation, people don't have a disposable income to make up $200 to $300 difference in their utility bills. And, for me, the job of a regulator at the end of the day is not to get caught up with the science, or the cool technology, or the engineering, it is to do three things: make sure people's lights come on, make sure people's lights stay on, and then make sure people can afford their lights to even be on. And in that moment I said, "I think we need somebody who is willing and ready to go to bat for people and not be consumed with what the companies say, or the status quo or how we've done it, but to say it's not working for us," and and so I just kind of felt the urge that somebody needed to speak up and make the connections to all of these items. And so I just decided to run on on a whim. And here we are, now the youngest elected commissioner in Louisiana history. And we're still doing some digging, but it looks like I'm the youngest commissioner in American history.
Oh, wow. All right. You mentioned on that first podcast, I think we talked about you saying policy is your love language.
And you are still at the Louisiana Budget Project. So all the stuff you're talking about that the Public Service Commission does seem to dovetail into your interests and the work you're doing there.
Right. I think it makes me a very interesting regulator, because when somebody approaches and says, "Well, this is just a $5 change on people's bills," I have looked at see what a $5 change does when you're living paycheck to paycheck, when you're already in the red by time you pay all your bills. And basically what you're doing is you're you're collecting a late fee here just to get enough money to pay that bill and then you're back in the red by the time you owe the next bill and you're dragging this on. So I understand from the research and the community engagement part that $5 ain't $5 for everybody. And our level can't just be, "Well, a $2 change seems different." We're talking about a $2 change in a utility for a subdivision where the average income is $250,000. That's very different. But within my district, we got communities over here where the average yearly income is $26,000. And that's the average. I mean, I represent the portion of Baton Rouge that is right behind Tiger Stadium. And I want people to know this is how drastic poverty is not only in our state, but in the communities I serve. Brian Kelly, the football coach of LSU, makes just about $200 less a day than the neighborhoods around LSU Stadium makes it an entire year. I want to put that in context. Brian Kelly LSU's football coach's daily salary is just shy of $200 less than the neighbors who surround Tiger stadium's yearly salary is. And so if we are not thinking about that, and how poverty plays a role, and then how our lack of investment in renewable energy and in a clean future matters, because as we know, these hurricanes are getting stronger. I don't think anybody's going to deny that, whether they want to agree that climate change is real. Everyone knows the storms are stronger than they have ever been. I take extreme offense, when our only message during hurricane season is: get a game plan. And I do that because so many of our people can't afford a game plan. People didn't evacuate New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina because they didn't want to, there was a significant amount of the population we don't talk about that didn't have a choice to evacuate. In Hurricane Ida or Laura or Delta, people don't have the financial ability to say, "I want to drive around and find a random hotel and stay there for God knows how long." And so if we are looking at how are our dependence on natural gas and fossil fuels is warming the planet and warming our waters, which makes the storms stronger, and then we're not realizing that if our utility structure is not built in a way to be reliant and resilient, people are staying here. And people are staying here and one of the highest causes of death during a storm is not the storm. It is carbon monoxide poisoning from just trying to stay cool, or be able to have some food to eat. And so it was the intersections of no one's thinking about the people in these conversations, which really propelled me to run.
Very good. Well, you had run for office twice before. And those were unsuccessful campaigns, in the sense that you did not win. There may have been other things that you got from those campaigns. But what made the difference here, do you think?
I think what made the difference here in this race really was the response from community. I think this was a race where unlike the previous two, the community had an invested interest. And the community was really looking for someone who they felt would fight for them. And so I think it was a perfect storm on multiple fronts, where there was an issue that people truly felt and cared about, and that we made the direct connection behind what this elected office and the issue that you care about is related. Right? Because I mean, sometimes issues that you care about are intertwined in government, right? You care about police reform, but that's really your city council election, which they pull in the superintendent, who then makes all the policies, right? There's a direct link from the office that I was running for to people's energy bills. And we made that leap very clear. And I think that, along with an upswell of people saying, "Hey, we've got to do something different," and the support from community-based groups and state groups who were yearning and saying, "Hey, we want to do something," I think that propelled me. I think I had the perfect opponent, who I was able to make a clear contrast against. I think I had a message that resonated. I want people to realize this was not just like, as much as people want to frame this as a progressive challenger versus the establishment, we won conservative areas. There's countless amount of people who called me and said, "Hey, I want you to know my mom and dad who never agree on anything both enthusiastically went into the booth and voted for you." This wasn't a white or black issue. We won the Black vote by 73% of the vote. We won the white vote by 69. This wasn't even a New Orleans/Baton Rouge divide, which we have always seen. We won New Orleans with 63% of the vote and we won Baton Rouge with 67% of the vote. So this was a race that I think just showcased the yearning of when you really focus on people and community and organizing and advocating for them and talking about the things they care about, they will respond. Because I was doing some numbers for that. Everybody said, "Oh the turnout of the runoff was low," which is true. However, we had more people vote in the runoff for this election in December 10 than voted for the special election runoff for Louisiana's Congressional District 2 after Cedric Richmond left. And so I just want to remind people that that more bodies came out in this runoff, which had nothing really else on the ballot, than came out in the runoff to determine whether Karen Carter Peterson or Troy Carter was going to Congress.
So more voters for a public service commission race than a congressional race is pretty impressive. Tell me what you learned from your first two campaigns that you brought to this one?
Yeah, I think the first two I learned really the importance of speaking to people. And in both of those races, I'm a policy nerd, I spent a lot of time on developing my policy platform, which is great. And I want to showcase I researched and I probably spent way too much time on that. I didn't give myself enough time to articulate it, because I was developing such a great thing. I think also, what I learned in those two races is do not get caught up with trying to get the endorsement of elected officials. I spent a lot of time with meetings asking for people to endorse me in my city council race and stick with me. And this race, I didn't do it. I was like, I'm just running for the people. I didn't badger people, I didn't call. I said, "Look, if you want to talk with me, I want to talk with you, but I'm not spending all my eggs in the baskets getting one class of people to anoint me as a leader." I think third, what really I learned from those two races is the importance of being engaged. I witnessed how much town halls mattered in those first two races. They may have not propelled me to victory, but I recognize people respond to that. So what I ended up doing was, I don't think I missed a single forum of an invitation somebody gave me in the race. And if I did, it was one, maybe because there was just a prior commitment. And so I think what I took away was those organizing strategies and recognizing that you play to your strengths. And don't worry about what the other candidates are doing or where other people think you need to be doing. This race, I just kind of ran it the way I felt comfortable running it, and wasn't really guided by, "Well, this is how you should do it and this is who you should talk to." It was like, "Where do I feel comfortable?" And I think all of those lessons brought me to this moment.
I think those forums and town halls are really important because it does prove that you show up. People see you doing that, they get to hear from you personally, and it just proves that you show up. You also you had some difficulty with the fundraising piece in the primary. Mario Zervigon came on and helped with the fundraising in the runoff. And I really saw you develop into a phenomenal fundraiser, in my opinion. And I really thought your skills there really kind of came into play.
Yeah, I mean, I think the hard part sometimes about political fundraising is donors want to know that there's a viability, right? They want to know and I had a hard race, I had a district bigger than a congressional district. 961,000 people live in the district, 10 parishes, going up against an 18 year incumbent from a political family lineage. You had everybody from the governor on down to the old political establishment on his side. So I think there was this fear of what was to come. And so what I did is I just said, "I'm going to stay true to me," and I told them, "I'm gonna get to a runoff, and when I get to a runoff, I can I can make this happen." And so what I think really developed was then the ability to not only connect the issues, but the strategy and showcase that like, "Look, I'm not just picking up the phone calling you to just call you; I'm calling you because I believe in myself." I think that's the key. Sometimes political fundraising is, I think people are looking to find the confidence from the donors. And I was trying to show the donors the confidence that I had, and I think they responded, when they recognized that I was committed, I was dedicated, I knew what I wanted to do, I had my targets. And I said, "Look, if you help me, I can execute this strategy, and if I execute this strategy, I can win." Versus I think sometimes just because of the system, we hope the donors guide that for us, and I was going to guide it. And so I think people heard my plan, heard my message, saw the excitement, we were building and said, "Hey, I want to I want to be on that team."
In full disclosure, I was on your team in the final weeks. I came on at the very end of the campaign. You had Red Cypress as a communications team that helped you, I think, from the very beginning, though, right?
Yeah, very beginning.
I thought we had a team that worked pretty well together. Mario and I have talked about how you were sort of an ideal candidate, you really kind of trusted us to do our jobs. You seemed to hire people that you trusted. And then you trusted us to do our jobs, and just kind of basically said, "Where do you need me? What do you need me to do? Where do you need me to show up?" So it may have been, I mean, just really the best campaign I've worked on, because we worked so well together.
And I think that's key. And I mean, go back to your other question about lessons learned. I realized where I didn't need to be involved at, where my time was not needed. As much as I may have been interested in, let's look at the numbers and run multiple lists, my time is not valuable there as the candidate. And so if I have someone who I trust, who understands who I'm speaking to, and where we should target, I don't need to be in the conversations about targeting. As much as it may be interesting to edit a video and look at all the different scenarios and color themes for for a for a mailer, I don't need to be in there. And so I think that was the beauty from those two races is realizing where I needed to spend more time versus where I need to pull back. Because I think sometimes as a candidate, it's ownership, right? It's just like anything that you do, you feel like everything's your responsibility, even if you have other people doing it. But it's also I think, for me in the way I view it, about recognizing your strengths, and I knew my strength was getting out there and having people hear that message and hearing me, and I don't say this facetiously, but it's amazing how many people walk up to me and said, "Hey, look, I just saw your mailer and I could just feel the authenticity coming out of your smile;" or "I heard you in that forum and I said this isn't just some talking points that somebody developed for him, this is something you've thought about, you care about, and it motivates you." And I think that is a beauty of a candidate is to know where your strength is, and then hire people, or surround yourself with people who have strengths everywhere else, even if you have an interest, and then do exactly what you want. I don't want people sitting there telling me how to talk and how to dress and do all that. And so why should I tell my communication team how to communicate? Why should I tell the person doing the management of different initiatives and different voter contacts, how to run those programs? And I think that's how campaigns can thrive is you got to give up control. And you got to be in constant communication, but know that everyone plays a role. And you got to let the puzzle work itself out, rather than trying to be the puzzle yourself.
One of the things that I picked up when I listened to the first podcast we did a couple years back, we talked a little bit about how progressive candidates can win. And you identify as a progressive candidate. And you know, one of the concerns is, will some of our moderate Democratic voters, will some of those Republicans or more moderate or conservative independent voters vote for a progressive candidate? You made the point in that previous podcast, that you have to connect the progressive issues - progressive issues themselves poll very well with voters when they're taken individually, and they're not identified specifically as progressive - but you made the point that you've got to be able to connect how those progressive policies impact people and you went on to identify, like, older Black and Brown voters, you talked about Abuela and Sister Hattie Mae and Mr. Alfred, how you have to talk to them about the issues, but they're really looking at it from a self preservation perspective. So they don't want to jeopardize the gains that they've already made. So it's your job then to tell them how the policies you're proposing are going to go on to help them. And I really loved listening to that. But I kind of saw you do that in this campaign, where you broke down, what you and I might call progressive policies, you really broke them down to a pragmatic level.
Yeah, I mean, I think that that matters to people. So for instance, like I said, I come from clean energy as a way of saying that our environment, our planet should be protected. And oil and gas and fossil fuel is is not clean, and it is poisoning our water, it's poisoning our air. However, to some older voters, natural gas is reliable. So that conversation was, I didn't change my message or change my belief, but I told them, I was like, "Hey, look, why you want to know why your electricity bill is high? It's because the way we generate power is mostly natural gas. So when gas goes up, your electricity bill goes up. Whereas if we had a mix of solar and wind, and hydrogen and batteries, then your bill's not fluctuating as much, because those are standard costs." The sun's always going to shine. It may not shine every day. But there's no cost to the sunshine. There's no cost to the wind blowing. There is a cost about how oil and gas goes. And so that's a way of where you took a Green New Deal, and you connect it to somebody who may hear Green New Deal and say, "That ain't for me, what is all that about?" Right? I mean, those are ways where I think when I talk about, you got to connect the progressive issue back to people's lives and how it operates. So that was the way, or for instance, why one of my pillars was investing in green jobs. Because there are people who may say, the polling data shows this, "Yeah, I want something different, but oil and gas, they provide jobs. So if we close all those plants, people don't have work. And I and my dad, my uncles, they all worked at the plants." So we had to say like, "Hey, not only will our investment in solar bring renewable energy or clean energy, it brings high paying jobs. And we need to ensure that when we are adding a solar farm, that the solar technicians are local talent. So we are retraining your uncle and your father, or we're giving your brother a job." And so that's what I was talking about in that moment. And what I did in the campaign is to demystify this stuff. I think that's why it didn't work when the attack ads came out about, "He's gonna raise your electricity bills, he's going to do all this stuff in California and New York," people ignored it, because now they understood why green energy mattered to me, what that meant, what that look like, how is it you can do these things, and what does it matter. And then making the connection like, "Hey, look, if we are using more natural gas, that means we are making the waters warmer, and because of all the co2, and every time we make the water warmer, the storm gets stronger." So this isn't even just anti gas, this is about - do you want a category six or seven hurricane? - because at a certain point, if we continue on this path, the storms are going to be stronger than anything we've ever measured before. And so that is the art I think to progressive movement is people agree with us on our ultimate solutions. We've got to talk to them about the way the solutions work for their lives. And we may love the Green New Deal, because it's a Green New Deal. They're going to love the Green New Deal, because the Green New Deal provides them clean air, provides them fresh water, and makes their utility bill lower. And sometimes you got to talk that way, and not just "I'm for a Green New Deal," which I am and I said it and I've never shied away from it. But if you look at the way I communicated with people, I communicated with them in the way that they would understand why I care about a Green New Deal what a Green New Deal actually means to me and and what does it mean to you and why you should care about it.
Well, I hope you'll continue to speak to progressive candidates and folks who want to be progressive candidates about how they can do that, because your campaign was really a good model for how that can work, and how you can take those ideas and make them more understandable to people, more acceptable to people, to get them to understand that there is an actual pragmatism to progressive ideas. Right?
Right. They work. I think what happens is so much in the progressive space, we get caught up in the, I like to say the utopia, our North Star, where we should, must, and need to be. And people get lost. I think there's blame to go around. It's not only in the progressive movement. I do think there is a a very conservative corporate media structure that does not kind of favor progressive thought in the way that it needs to. I do think there is this sense of kind of progressive ideology sometimes threatens the status quo, threatens what we've become accustomed to, and threatens kind of the very major tenets of capitalism, our elitism of wealth. But what that does, is it showcases that like, when we as progressives are talking about, we're not coming and saying, "We're gonna raise your bill by $75 a month, because we're just going to shut off every natural gas plant tonight and be 100% solar." We know that can't happen. And so I've always said this, we've got to talk about our bold policy vision that we recognize has incremental steps. But we don't make those incremental steps our actual policy vision. And I think that's what my campaign was able to do was showcase that we have a Northstar. We know where we're working towards. But we're going to admit that certain parts are going to happen in phases. But just because we do phase one doesn't mean tomorrow, I go out in the lawn, and I wave my pom poms and call it quits. We clap that phase one is done. And we pick up the hammer and we started building on phase two tomorrow. I think that's the key.
Well, you've already started working on some of your campaign promises, like your rate payers Bill of Rights. Tell me how that's going.
Yes. So we are really looking at multiple solutions. The Ratepayers' Bill of Rights, one of my first things is about disconnections. I believe a disconnection is immoral. I don't believe we should ever be disconnecting electricity or water or gas because it is a human right. It is a needed service. However, it's very hard to come in and make a rule when I can't describe how prevalent the policy is. I can't examine what those practices are. I can't examine what a company allegedly says they they do or what they don't propose. And so the first thing that we did is we sent out a letter to every utility company, and I said, "Please tell me how many disconnections you did in '21 and '22, what that average cost was a month, if you have it, what the duration was of that disconnection, what are the fees to reconnect after disconnection, and what the population looks like," so we can draft a policy that actually responds to the state. Because it's one thing to go ahead and put a disconnection moratorium or a reporting requirement, because like Louisiana is one of 40% of the states that do not require the utility companies to even report how often or how much they disconnect people. So it is an unknown factor here. And my thing was, I'm not going to allow the utility companies, if I tried to make a rule, to say this doesn't really happen. Because what's one of the first things you always hear opposition to good, people-centered policies? "Well, that doesn't really happen. We don't really evict people. We don't really cut their lights off. We don't really do all of this stuff." And it's hard when you don't force them to report it every month or every time or yearly or whatever it may be. And so this is what I'm talking about in my phases, but still doing my Northstar. I'm going to get to hopefully one day pushing or I will push a rule on a moratorium. But that may mean, to showcase why I need that moratorium, I may need to pass the first rule, which is you got to report every month so we see how prevalent it is, so we know that like, when it is December, and I'm getting a report that 20% of the state's population was up for disconnection, there's a problem. And so that's what I've been working on right now in our office around utility moratorium. We also are working extensively on reforming prison phone calls. We will have a report at our April 26 meeting. I issued the staff, I said, "Get me data." We hadn't studied the data of where Louisiana stood in ten years. So it wouldn't be anything for me to come and say, "Let's go cut the phone call rates in half." But half may not be good enough because as as we've learned, sometimes, if you don't have data, cutting in half may still keep you high. Right? Like, you may still be at the top of the list by cutting it high. So I said, "Look, before we go, let's make rules, let's get the data, let's get the information, let's see where we're at." So then we can make a better determination about how high we are. Maybe it is a small tweak, but maybe it needs to be a massive reform. And so this is how I'm working in my bold goals, but working the system, because oftentimes I tell people, it is one thing to assimilate to the system, which is what I don't want to do. But I cannot dismantle a system that I don't truly have all of the information about how it works. And I feel I'll build better and stronger policies, if I know how people are actually operating, even though we know I can probably guess the answer, guess that we had a lot of people we disconnected. I want to see how many we did. And then I get to see who actually answers the question, because it's not a mandate. So then if I want to pass the reporting requirement, it's even better, because I want to say, "I asked you voluntarily to give this information, and you chose not to. This is why we need to report it. Because if you wouldn't voluntarily give me this information, I need to mandate it, because it's clearly clearly something you want to keep hidden."
Very good. Well, I do like one of the other things you talked about on your campaign that I see you doing is making things more transparent for folks. So you let folks know on your social media, you're putting information out about when the meetings are, how folks can watch them. And then you give little reports beforehand and afterwards, so that people have a little bit of a better idea of of what goes on with the Public Service Commission. And if people are not following you on your social media, they really ought to be, so that they get better informed on that.
Yeah, no, I mean, I think transparency is important. And I think this is a give and take about accessibility, right? Like, yes, Louisiana has open meeting laws. So all of our meetings are open to the public. And yes, we're recording them. That's not accessible to me, because not everyone has the time to sit there and watch our five hour meeting. Not everyone has the time to drive to Baton Rouge or when we move around the state and sit in a room and miss a day of work for five hours. And so I feel that it's my responsibility to say like, "Hey, this is what's happening. If you have thoughts on it, let me know." And as I built my staff and my staff as being on boarded, we're going to be doing more. We're going to be doing virtual office hours. So we will be in all 10 parishes once a quarter where you can come to us in your own community, not just calling our office or emailing our office, or having to come to the office when you're in Baton Rouge or New Orleans, but in your own neighborhoods. We will be hosting town halls in the month of July. So we are planning it out right now because July is the month where the commission takes it to break and so I am calling that my district month and so in the month of July, you will see us up and down the Mississippi River, hosting panels, hosting information. One of the things I think is so important is not only about what we do, but explaining what happens. As I was talking about people's electricity bills, I think one thing people would be wise to know is that we have what's called a fuel rider. So what happens is the cost of natural gas that it takes the energy company, or the rate that they pay, it doesn't go into the equation, it goes straight to you. It bounces around, because they're not hedging. So Entergy Louisiana or Entergy New Orleans isn't buying a fixed rate, for instance, on gas. So if gas was 21 cents for them in August, you're gonna pay that 21 cents on your bill. If it's 37 cents, you're gonna pay that 37 cents. So it's a straight pass through. But here's the catch, why some people may say like, "Hey, look, I was vacationing for a month and my electricity bill went up." Well, there's a lag time in the fuel costs. So when you get your April bill from Entergy or Demco or Cleco or whoever you may have, you're actually covering the fuel costs from February. So if gas goes up today in April, you're not really going to see that on your bill until June or July. And so I think it's even important to get some of this information just so you can understand like, "Why did my bill change? I didn't turn my lights on as much, my AC was up?" Well because the fuel adjustment is a two month lag period. So you're kind of covering the cost of your energy from April, not in June when you pay for it. So that's what I find to be the most important is that you can't expect people to understand or engage on what they don't know. And people who didn't know that can now engage to say, "Wait, maybe we should use more renewable energy." Because renewable energy, you can do a fixed cost, the sun is not going to change if we have more solar generated. However, if we just keep using natural gas, that means when gas goes up, your bill goes up. When gas goes low, your bill goes a little bit lower. And so would you rather have a more consistent bill or would you want one that fluctuates with natural gas? That's a way of presenting that information that changes people's conversation about whether or not they believe in renewable energy.
Your very first meeting as Public Service Commissioner, there was an older woman, an older Black woman, who came up at the very end to speak about some of the issues she was having with paying her bills. And I loved that, everybody kind of listened to her, but were gonna just let her say her piece and walk away, and you kind of called her back and said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, I want you to know that you're exactly the reason that I ran for this office, the reason that you're here and the story that you're telling me is why I'm here." And I thought that was a really powerful moment.
I mean, I said that, in essence, on the campaign trail, and I believe that my job is to be a commissioner on a commission that serves the public. It's my name backwards. And one of the first things I did in that meeting, as well, is I looked around the room, and I said, "All I see is regulated entities, lawyers for regulated entities, and lobbyists for regulated entities. But this is a public service commission. This should be about the public. And I should be asking all of you the question: is what you're proposing in the best interest of the public? Now, what's your bottom line? Not what's always been done, what's in the best interest of the public?" And I think I want more people to come to our meetings and share their stories, because like I said, when we are up there debating a $5.50 fee for hurricane damages, and people are saying, "Hey, look, my lights have been out. My streetlights have been out. My utility pole has been leaning in my yard for 15 years. And I'm struggling to make ends meet. Now this energy company that hasn't done their job now wants to pay $5.50 more." I need to hear that story. Because that story tells me like, no, I need to put it in context. And so I think that's the most important.
You had a bit of a difficult transition. Do you want to talk about that at all?
Yeah, I mean, I think we upset the old guard; we broke the status quo. And so the typical concessions that you would get after an election, I didn't get. The typical let's meet at the office and shake hands and let everybody see that we are transitioning in good faith didn't happen. Even the support system among elected officials in various roles didn't happen. I didn't get the introductory calls from everybody about "Congratulations" or "I'm willing to work with you." And so it was a little bit of an exile island, that you disrupted our process, and so figure it out on your own. And I mean, I think the saving grace for me is I've been around the system, I knew the system, I didn't really need those calls. And I will say it's not like I don't need guidance, but I didn't need it as much, because I understood how politics work, where our government is, what our budgetary process works. And so it was a sign of that, "We want to try to isolate you," I think and try to make me come back and kiss the rings that I didn't kiss in the election. And I think, as I proved, I'm going to just do my job. I didn't need you to get here and I don't need you to stay here. And I think for me, one of the things that I've been dealing with is having people recognize that I'm not looking at what's next. I'm not looking at the next term. I'm here for six years. Six more years is not promised. Another office isn't promised. And I cannot not do the work of the people because I'm worried about, "Well, hey, if I decide I want to run for governor or congress one day, I need to come befriend you" or "Oh I shouldn't really say that, because you know, that's going to make it harder for your reelection if you don't take the utility checks, because that's who funds campaigns, and so I know that was a campaign promise, but you still should do it." No. To this day, I have not taken a check from a single regulated entity. And for the next six years, I'm not going to take a check from a regulated entity. And if that means that puts me at a money disadvantage in 2028, and somebody comes and takes all their money and beats me, I want to be proud on the term I had. I don't want to leave office, ever saying, "Man, I compromised myself, because I was trying to get to the next level." And so those have been the battles that these first 100 days have really presented, which is sometimes being principled is not rewarded in this field.
I wrote down one of the tweets you put out recently about this, where you said, "I've been elected for almost 100 days. And I can say many electeds are well meaning people. However, too many of them are guided by power, privilege and pressure, and not policy and people. This is a hard job. But I refuse to let the elite class distract me from my purpose."
Yeah, I mean, I think because of the system, politics gets a bad rap. And therefore politicians get a bad rap. "You're all liars, you're all greedy, you're all self interested." And what I wanted to do was divorce those realities, because I think they are a little bit of a paradox, and they are not correlated. There are people, a lot of them, who agree with me, and who disagree with me, philosophically, who are really in this for the right reasons, or they believe they want to help. However, the pressure of being a chairman of a committee, or the pressure of "I just want to pass bills or I want to pass an initiative" or the privilege of "Ooh, now these companies are taking me to dinner, and they want to be my friends and they want to do all this," I think gets to people. And what I've really done in these 100 days is remind myself that, yeah, I go to the receptions and I listen to him. But that's not the reality of my life. That's not the reality of my constituents. So for every reception I go to, I still need to be in the community grocery store, like I was before being elected. I still need to have my friends who are just average working people who works at a funeral home and who is a nurse and who is an administrative assistant at a company, because that keeps me in touch with what's happening with actual real people. And when I talked about that, I think what happens is you get in this like, elected class. And so we become elected and you get invited to a suite for a Saints or Pelicans game, you get invited to the VIP section of French Quarter Fest, or you get invited here or there. And what happens is you become part of a circle, which means now, that kind of just average day life is not really getting to you unless it's a constituent calling you, unless it's a town hall. And it's not the just the everyday of like, "Oh, you know what, my friend was talking about X, Y, and Z." And so I have been very focused and cautious to not stop what life was before, because I've been elected. And that means continuing to surround myself with with everyday people. Because that means I'm looking at this stuff, because an everyday person is not going to understand the fuel rider because they don't have that information, or the ins and outs about utility regulation and how costs are distributed to them. But I'm going to hear that, like, "Hey, you know what, this ain't working for people" or "You know what, maybe I need to explain this for people, or I need to ask for questions." And so that is where I really come from. And that is that the the pressure of being an elected official, and then feeling like you have to do the elected official things, sometimes distract you from the principles of why you actually came here, and that they are at odds. I know that while these some of these lobbyists are very nice to me and now want to be my friend and want to talk to me about things, at the end of the day, they still have an ask they want, and they're coming to me. And so that friendship may develop into a real friendship. I don't want to discount that. But that friendship wasn't started off with the fact that "Hey, Lynda, you know what, we just share common interest and we started talking to each other realize we really liked each other," it was "I need Lynda's vote at some point for something, so I'm going to be her friend." And I think that's where you've got to be very cautious and know that even if you become very friendly, and it's a genuine friendship, at the end of the day, there's still an ask that a majority of them want from you, and you should be with people who just want to survive.
We spoke a little bit on a video that will be on Facebook and YouTube on the Lefty Lagniappe video about what's going on in Nashville and the Justins. We talked about that if folks want to listen to it, but one of the things you mentioned was that part of what they did was call out our side a little bit, that our side kind of went along with them at some point, started supporting them at some point. But initially, when they were first like speaking up against the Republicans, saying "You're not letting us speak on the floor, our constituents really have some things we want to speak about, and you're not letting us do that," some of the folks on our side really weren't supporting them. And that did remind me a little bit of some of the stuff that goes on in our state. And one of the things that came to mind, in fact, was that the Louisiana Democratic Party actually worked against you, even though you had their endorsement. Right? They actually worked against you in your race. And amazingly, while you were not taking money from entities that you would be regulating, the state party was taking money from those folks to use against you, which deserves to be called out, and is not what our side should be doing. But I just wanted to know if you had any comments on that, that you wanted to share?
Yeah, I mean, I think this is the challenge of what we're talking about. The status quo isn't working. And I think what we saw in this race was, too often we are trying to defend the progress we've already made, but not recognizing that we need to be fighting for the future. And so I don't ever want to come across as I'm dismissing the hard work of my predecessors, because they had fights. And it was hard to even create this district to put the Black person, Irma Muse Dixon, on the Public Service Commission. But I think what we saw with the Justins was saying, "We can't be silent to the fights we need to be having because we got some of this." We can't say, "Okay, great, they gave us some minority majority districts, so we need to shut up and just kind of play by the rules and let them beat us up." And so I think what my response has been, is that at a certain point, we have to say, what is our purpose? What is our goal? What are we doing? And granted, let's be real, we're always going to have inner party fights. We're always going to have disagreements about who's the best candidate for our party, who represents what we need in the party. Those are normal, they should exist, and they should happen. I am not a believer that we need to be singing Kumbaya, because we're not. And we are diverse. And we have different thoughts. And we have different solutions. And we have different ways to do it. However, we cannot ever get to a point of doing the opposite side's bidding. They want us to be divided in the way of picking between the future and the past. They want us to be divided in between picking between things as they are right now and as they should stay forevermore or how they should become and what they need to be. And so I think this moment in this race, in terms of the Justins is a reminder that you've got to call it out. And I called out to party and I said it was wrong. I still to this day say it's wrong. I know there's this talk that "Oh, we offered it to Davante" and there's this kind of Kumbaya. No, I'm not out there trying to destroy the party. But I think we've got to be honest and we have to reflect sometimes what barriers we put on our own selves, not just the barriers we see the other side create for us, and how sometimes we are rewarding the same behavior that we detest the other side for doing.
Yeah. The other issue that came up on your campaign about money was that there was outside money being spent on this race in your favor. And there was an attempt from your opponents, not just your candidate opponent, but folks who were against you, to say that was therefore outsiders trying to dictate what happens in Louisiana. I have so many problems with that. I think I should probably write a piece on it because I have such a litany of problems with that. And I've said in a previous episode that I did on on the Environmental Voter Project, first of all, it matters where that outside money is coming from. If it's coming from the Koch brothers, you know, maybe we do want to pay attention to that. But if it's coming from the Sierra Club, maybe that's not quite as villainous of an entity for our side, at least. Where we come from, we shouldn't be worried about environmental groups investing in our state and wanting to make sure that our people are protected. Because the fact is, environmental issues, climate issues, do not stop at our borders. So it's right that other folks are going to have an investment in who has a say on those things happening in Louisiana.
Absolutely. I mean, I think this is the this was the challenge with that whole premise is, what's the interest? So Entergy donating a check isn't dark money, but someone who cares about the environment and knows that if you don't protect the coastline of Louisiana, it makes hurricanes stronger, which means a hurricane now can make its way up into Texas and Arkansas, and they live in Little Rock saying "Hey, I want to I want to help out" is somehow dark and villainous. I don't think it is ever an issue about money. I think it is who has the access to money. And when we determine something to be evil or bad, it is typically to cut off that chain. And so right now, I think if you can portray grassroots groups who are connected all across the country, I mean, I don't think anybody would claim all of the money Bernie Sanders raised was dark money. It came from all across the country. But that's because people believed in what he was saying. That's not dark. It's nothing villainous about it. It was real people who believed in the same way it was in my race. It's real people. Yes, there were $5,000 checks from people in California and New York. But they're real. It wasn't a $50,000 check from a company. It was somebody who took money out of their own pocket and gave it to us, which is what they say our financial system should be. And so I think what the problem is, is if I don't call that dark, I can't control it. Because I don't have a way to get to it. Company money, I can get, because the company is always going to go with the status quo, because they want to protect their interests. A company nine times out of 10 is going to fund an incumbent, unless that incumbent is extremely hostile to who they are. Then they're going to fund the opponent. The reason I think we saw so many say this is dark money in my race is because they can't control that money. And that money doesn't become theirs ever. And that money could potentially stay in my campaign, and people like me and their campaigns. And so to me, this is all a conversation about control, who gets to control, who can be in politics, and who gets to control, who has the resources to run in politics. But like I said, this wasn't like some random donor dropped a million dollars and said, "I am picking this random person out of Louisiana and doing it." These were people who listened to people on the ground. They listened to the Sierra Club. They listened to the Environmental Defense Fund. They listened to Sunrise Movement New Orleans. They listened to Voters Organized to Educate. They listened to Step Up Louisiana. They listened to Fair Housing Louisiana. And they said, "We need your help. If you care about affordable housing in Louisiana and making sure that the energy burden is lower, if you care about making sure our environment is clean and we start to go on a path of renewable energy, invest in my state. And if you invest in Davante, you're helping with that cause." That's very different than someone wanting full control. These donors didn't ask for anything. They're not calling me dictating my agenda. I haven't actually talked to quite frankly many if any of them since after Election Day. Because their interest wasn't in an agenda. Their interest was in who will fight and help the people. And they're letting me do that. And so that's very different than, I think, some of the other money avenues in the state where you do owe favors. I don't owe anybody anything.
The folks who are complaining about the outside money tend to be the people who aren't getting that money in that race. But I noticed some of the folks who complained about the outside money in that race had in fact gotten outside money for their own races. So the elected officials who wanted to complain about it, are themselves more than happy to collect money from outside the state.
That's why I say it's about control. It's about who wanted to say the outside money only mattered because it was outside of the candidate that they wanted. Right? That's why it's outside money. Otherwise, it would just be money. But it was outside money, because it's outside of who I want. So therefore, it's big and it's bad, because how dare you to give money to someone I don't want to win.
Well, and the other thing that to me, clearly that argument didn't win, right? Like people, voters didn't really see that as a reason to not vote for you. But I believe, at least Democratic voters, we know what it's like. We're called an export state in presidential election years. We help win elections in swing states. Whether it's for president or senate or whatever, we send our resources and spend our time helping win those states because we already know how our state's going to go. And so that is a role I think we're familiar with. So it doesn't feel that weird to have other people take an interest in our state when an election that might impact them is up.
Also what I say is the same way that we say, hey, Louisiana, or sometimes our conservatives say, Louisiana needs to be like Texas, people say, "Look, if Louisiana could do it, so can my state." And so maybe their state doesn't have, I don't think people know this, there's only actually now 10 states that actually elect their public service commissioners. All of the other states, they're appointed or selected by the governor. When we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion in regulating utilities, you think about the Black population in this nation, you think about the Black population in all of the states, I am one of I think I've got my numbers correctly, 17 Black commissioners across the country. When it comes to Asian Americans, I think there's only two commissioners. And so what I think people feel is that the election here in Louisiana wasn't just about we want to control Davante or we want to be outside money. It's about, "Hey, if we can showcase what Louisiana is doing differently, and Louisiana is a diverse commission, and Louisiana is making these moves, I can go back to Kansas, I can go back to California, I can go back to New Jersey, and say we need to be doing this." Why can't Louisiana lead, because Louisiana is at the Climate Central of America. Now we're going to be affected with climate change harder than any other place, really, I think in this country. And so if we can start being more proactive, other states can say like, "Alright, well, if Louisiana developed, for instance, offshore wind at a reasonable rate, hey, maybe California could do it." So I think that's what it is.
And I'll just make one note before I pivot again: I've noticed that the races that you've gotten involved in and supported candidates in since you've been elected are doing very well. Davante. You've had a little bit of a golden touch with some of the candidates you've supported.
As I said, when I endorse people it's clearly off of what I believe and who I believe in. And I think there is a yearning for candidates who are just really ready to do the work of the people. And that's why I put out that tweet. It's not saying that current elected officials are bad humans. But I think sometimes they are distracted by what's the most important, they are distracted about who is liking them today, they're distracted about what may elevate them in a political leadership role, they're distracted by the pressures of, well, if you ever want to do anything else again, you can do that. And I don't operate that way. Like I said, if you want to take me out, there's going to be an election in November 2028 and let the voters decide. And so I think that that's kind of how I'm operating.
So you were telling me a little bit about your pay before we started recording. And you told me something I didn't know, which is where your paycheck comes from.
Louisiana Public Service Commission doesn't get a single dime from a taxpayer. We get no what is called 'general state funds.' So when you think about the state budget, and you read the state budget, the allocation from the state budget to the PSC is zero. Now we are listed in the state budget because the budget authority of our budget is still in the hands of the legislature. So they are approving how much we can spend. However, none of that money is coming from your income tax or property tax or sales tax, corporate taxes. The way the PSC is funded is through typically most likely permitting fees. So when a utility company pays a set rate of their profit to us to regulate them, they also will pay a fee for violations that goes into our fund. And so when you think about it, in layman's terms, the utility companies are paying us to regulate them is how the system operates. And so that I think creates a difference, because it's not subject to when taxes go down in the state government, our ability to regulate your energy bills doesn't change. The only time we've ever had some issues is during the Jindal years when we had a lot of reserves, and he thought because they had budget authority, he could steal our money, and we sued them. And the court said, nope, nope, nope, that money doesn't belong to the state of Louisiana. It belongs to the Public Service Commission.
So you're paid more than legislators, but you're still the lowest paid public service commissioners in the country. So you also have kept your day job at the Louisiana Budget Project. I don't know that that's the right way to say that now. Your old day job, maybe.
I call one the day job and one the the extra day job.
Okay. That's fair. But so you're particularly busy, I suppose, right now with legislative session being in.
Yeah, it makes it a little challenging, but we're getting accustomed to it, figuring out our groove, figuring out how to make it all work. But it is a very interesting dynamic, because I think it's the first time where, there are legislative items that affect the commission, and so I probably am the most unique commissioner who is deeply engaged in the legislative process. So I went to our budget hearing, I'm looking at the bills that either give us jurisdiction or take jurisdiction away from us, and I'm able to respond in a way that sometimes I don't think other commissioners have been, because they have not been - I don't want to say privvy - they just have not been accustomed to the kind of legislative life. I mean, outside of Commissioner Campbell, none of them served in the legislature.
Well, before I ask the last few questions, is there anything else you want folks to know about public service commission?
I think what people should recognize is - and you're going to see a lot of hot topics - we're going to be talking about whether or not and how we put more renewables on the grid. We're going to be talking about resiliency. We're going to be talking about hardening of the infrastructure. And we're going to be talking about the biggest hot topic that Louisiana has been debated in 20 years, and that is whether or not to have retail markets, where you can buy a plan for your energy production and consumption the same way you buy a cell phone plan. Should you be subject to this system? And that's going to come to a head before my term is over, probably in the next two to three years. There will be a vote on whether or not we open the market up. And some call that deregulation. I think it's been used as a scare tactic. I'm not going to call it deregulation, because that doesn't mean there's not a regulatory process over these individual contracts. And I think that's been the problem. Some states went to retail market and didn't actually put in stronger consumer protections about disconnections, late fees, etc. But I don't want to say if there's an unregulated market. I want to say do you have a jurisdictional market the way that we do now where you live in a jurisdiction and that's all your provider is or do we go to a competitive jurisdiction where people can compete to provide you energy? And so I stay away from the term deregulated versus regulated because I don't think it encompasses really what the debate is. And so I would tell people that this is the time to watch the PSC. We're going to be taking some extremely important votes over the next two to three years.
Okay. Well, you've been very generous with your time, as has Sera. Tell her thank you for allowing us to borrow you tonight and I appreciate that she's weighed in a few times over the course of the interview.
She wants to make her voice heard.
You've already answered the final three questions I usually ask in your first interview. So I'm going to change it up a little bit. What was the most surprising thing about winning your race?
I think the most surprising to me is how many people paid attention to this race and how I walk into a room and someone says, "I know you from somewhere." And they're like, "Oh, I remember your commercial... Oh, I told my friends to vote for you" or I've been with a friend who was doing work in California, and they had their person say, "Hey, did you hear about this guy that just won Public Service Commissioner, like, he's amazing?" And they're like, "Davate?" And they're like, "Yes." Like, "Oh, he was at my house for dinner yesterday." Like how much this movement was seen across the nation, I think has been the most surprising, not only seeing here in the state how many people were familiar with who I was and what this race was about, but how many people paid attention, or it got to them in the nation about it really, really shocked me.
And what's been the most surprising thing about serving on the Public Service Commission so far?
I think the most surprising thing is the Public Service Commission deals with, because we're talking about electricity and water, is that everything is not face value. What I mean by that is, you know, when you're a legislator, you can debate the bill in front of you, and that bill may have some effects on everything that you do elsewhere. But you can really just debate the merits of that bill, and then say like, "I'm done with that, but we'll handle it elsewhere." The PSC, the information that we do builds upon items, right? So if I approve a new power plant to be built by Entergy, that means I am indirectly increasing rates because now that maintenance and upkeep of that power plant can be put onto your rate. And then that if I build a new power plant right now in 2023, and somebody wants a solar facility, now it's like, well, wait a minute, I can't have Entergy building a solar facility and a power plant, because it's now going to double your rate to $10. And so I think the most surprising or challenging thing is how you can't just look at the issue in front of you, you have to look at the system. How does this issue play to five other things we're talking about? Or how does this issue play the three things we're not talking about right now? Because the vote today may actually make what I want to do tomorrow a lot harder, because of the way that the system is integrated.
Okay, and Davante? If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
My superpower, if I had anything that I could do, would be to truly uplift communities. And when I say uplift communities by superpower, I mean that sounds like a very vague answer. So let me describe it. What I mean by that is that oftentimes, I run out of time in a day. And so for me, I would want endless time, so I can really be working on all the things that I want to work on and know I can work on. But we just run out of time. And when you run out of time, you're pushing back, and when you're pushing back, it doesn't happen. And so that probably would be mine would be time, because in this job, in this position, there's so much to learn, there's so much I want to do, and there's so much I need to do. The problem is: do I have all the ability and the time to do it?
I can absolutely appreciate that. Again, Davante thank you so much. Congratulations on your win. And thank you for all you're doing for the people.
Thank you so much. I'm glad to be back and I'll come back anytime you want to have me.
Thank you for listening to Louisiana Lefty. Please follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Thank you to Ben Collinsworth for producing Louisiana Lefty, Jen Pack of Black Cat Studios for our Super Lefty artwork, and Thouand Dollar Car for allowing us to use their swamp pop classic "Security Guard" as our Louisiana Lefty theme song.