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 speak with Joel Emerson, who was the statewide Field Director for Mary Landrieu through the Campaign for Louisiana coordinated campaign in 2014. We do a bit of a debrief on that race as it comes up again and again in Democratic organizing spaces, and because I believe there were important takeaways from that campaign that still impact our elections and our work today. As an addendum, we mentioned the campaign manager for Mary Landrieu during the primary by first name only, Adam, and I believe both Joel and I were content to not dig in too deep on him in the episode besides to say that he did not continue with the campaign through the runoff. Literally, as I was putting edits together for this episode, two New York Times articles came out about Adam Sullivan. One exposed that he was creating havoc in Democratic circles in New York as a consultant for the governor from his home in Colorado. Another revealed a series of sexual harassment charges against him that led to his termination at previous jobs, and apparently, ended up losing his consulting gig with Governor Hochul. In the first New York Times piece, it mentioned he had been abruptly fired from the Mary Landrieu campaign, quoting her saying she had replaced him because she was losing and she wanted a more familiar team. While I believe this context needed to be added to the subject at hand, it's ultimately a digression from the conversation Joel and I had on the campaign. And I want to return to that part, where we talk about what went right, what went obviously wrong, and what the long term impacts of it have been. As a bonus, please stay tuned until the end. As Joel touches on two new projects he's working on that will be particularly salient to Louisiana Lefty listeners. One is a Campaign in a Box app called Universe. And the other is People Power and Light, which is working in Louisiana on recruiting and training environmental candidates to run in hyperlocal races. I've seen Joel up close and personal, training volunteers on the Mary Landrieu campaign. And I know he excels in that space, one of the best I've seen. So with his skill set, his relationships, and his optimism, his work is giving me great hope, which is a good place for our conversation to end up.
Joel Emerson! Thank you so much for joining me on Louisiana Lefty.
Lynda, thank you so much for having me. I've been looking forward to this for a really long time. Very happy to be here. Looking forward to our conversation.
Well, I always start with how I met my guest, and we met through a mutual friend. We had both worked on the Obama campaign in 2008. And our mutual friend Kevin Brown introduced us and we've known one another since then. I don't even know if you still use your OFA Joel email address, but I still have that in my contact list.
Oh, yeah. Yeah, those were the good old days when we were, you know, we were young and we were scrappy and we were trying to do everything we could to, you know, make a difference here. And yeah, those those OFA Joel email addresses were always good.
We all had our "OFA.whoever@gmail" addresses because it was such a grassroots campaign. They had folks across the country working for them, who may or may not have been being paid.
Yeah, exactly. Shout out to Kevin. He and I are still in touch and I'm really happy he, you know, introduced us as some deep seated Louisiana politico's here.
And he was so young at the time, but was also my boss, which was another hallmark of the Obama campaign, there so many young people in leadership positions, which was great. Well, what first got you interested in politics, Joel?
That's a good question. What I like to tell people... generally my story here is... basically, growing up, at some point in time becoming remotely politically aware, somewhere in maybe middle school to high school and then leading up into college, I would probably have considered myself politically apathetic. I didn't really want to major in, like, political science. I didn't really think about politics in any particular way. And, you know, fun fact about me is, there's one time in my life where I went out, flyered around LSU, like, a sign that was like, telling people not to vote. I'm serious. Yeah, like, put flyers around, I was like, "Your vote doesn't matter." Which is crazy to think about now because really, potentially, like many other folks in the state, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, my family, our belongings and house were largely spared, but I have friends who lost everything. And in the wake of the storm, I just saw the disastrous federal response we had and just, like, the tremendous lack of leadership that we saw. And I thought, like, "There's gotta be a better way." And I really just kind of stewed on that idea for a while and realized that, like, I couldn't be politically apathetic anymore that, like, I needed to be politically engaged. And that really culminated with President Obama's first election in 2008, where I did some more work on campus there. And then ultimately got my, you know, organizing job right out of college in 2010. And fell in love with it from that point on and have really kind of been riding that wave ever since.
I have to ask you, what was the impetus for putting up flyers that said don't vote? Was that personal? Or was it like a group of people?
No. It was just me, I was an organizer for nobody, I guess, at the time. And I think... and I don't want to, like, throw too much shade on my, like, general family, but I grew up in like a relatively conservative household. And I think in the wake of, you know, Bush v. Gore, and then just seeing potentially the early years of the Bush administration, I particularly felt disheartened by the things that were happening and just felt like it didn't matter. Because I was effectively raised to think that, you know, the Republican Party was the right way to go about doing things. And when I saw that I didn't agree with the right way to go about doing things, I was like, "Well, if the Republicans are the only right way and they can't get it right, well, then the Democrats certainly can't get it right either." So I just became fully apathetic and was like, "It doesn't matter. There's no difference." It was part apathetic, part potentially, you know, the anarchy too, so who knows?
Interesting. All right. Well, that was just me being curious. So from the Obama campaign, your first job in 2010 organizing, what was that?
I worked on a coordinated race in North Carolina. Elaine Marshall was running for Senate at the time, and I organized in, like, the Greater Charlotte region. And then, like many organizers do, I bounced kind of all over the state to and I eventually wound up in western North Carolina, working with the Heath Shuler races as well, back then. 2010 was a tough year too. In the wake of Obamacare, everybody was up in arms, and especially in North Carolina, and Heath Shuler was able to hang on to his seat that year. Elaine Marshall didn't. I think she was running against Richard Burr at the time. I need to double check that. She wasn't able to win. But it was an interesting, particularly interesting race, and a real nose to the grindstone moment for me as an organizer because I was in these rural, more suburban areas of the country where a lot of people weren't happy about, you know, Obamacare, effectively. And they were mad and up in arms. I mean, this was the heart of the Tea Party movement right there.
So you moved around, organizing until the 2014 election for Mary Landrieu. Is that when you came back to Louisiana?
Yes, that is when I came back to Louisiana. So in between, I stayed in North Carolina, for 2010, 2011, 2012. And then 2013, I worked on the governor's race of Virginia, helping elect Terry McAuliffe to governor there. And then I came back from that race. I learned a lot. It was a great campaign, a great team to work with. And I came back to Louisiana in 2014 to work for Mary Landrieu, which was also interesting and a learning experience for me, and I'm sure we're gonna get into that too.
Well, yeah. And it was still a difficult year for Democrats because the ACA was still an albatross around the neck, particularly of Blue Dog Democrats in the South. Isn't that the year that the last of them were really swept out of the senate?
Yeah, that's correct. They held a grudge. No, the whole concept of, you know, people getting health care made a lot of people mad, and we paid for it. You know, some of our senators and representatives paid for it as late as 2014. Mary Landrieu being a part of that.
Tell me what your role was. And just to be clear, there was a Mary Landrieu campaign and there was a Campaign for Louisiana, which was the coordinated campaign. And it was one of the only true coordinated campaigns I have known of in Louisiana. It was very tied into the Mary Landrieu campaign. It was very connected and full blown. A very large, coordinated campaign. So tell me what your role was on that.
Yes. I should clarify, I was working for the Campaign for Louisiana officially. Mary Landrieu's race was the highest level race that we had on there.
Were there down ballot races you had that you were working on?
There were down ballot races that year. Cedric Richmond was up, I believe.
Yep. Sure. Yeah.
And I'm trying to think of other folks who were running for Congress in other districts... The names are evading me now. You have to forgive me here, that was 10 years ago.
Sure. Got you.
But yeah, so for the Campaign for Louisiana, I was the the organizing director for the state. We had about 80 organizing staff on the ground there. And I want to say we had 8 to 10, maybe 7 to 8 actually, campaign field offices around the state at that time. And organizing staff are organizers, regional field directors, deputy field directors. We had the whole shebang.
What were your teams doing around the state?
We were really trying to build on the work that you all had done on the presidential races in 2008 and 2012, where there were organizing movements on the ground, but as you mentioned, potentially not like a full-blown, coordinated campaign before. I don't want to say it was the first because I could be mistaken there. But it certainly felt like the first one in a long time where a full-blown coordinated campaign had come through. So a lot of what we were doing was, we started registering voters, we were focused on turnout, we were focused on building neighborhood team models across the state, recruiting volunteers to lead their neighborhoods, to turn out their neighborhoods to vote. We were knocking on doors, making phone calls. This was a little bit pre-text, which I think a lot of people were pretty happy for, but a lot of what we were doing was focused on what I would consider the big three, which is registering voters, making phone calls, and knocking on doors.
And just to comment on something you said... We had done some work in the state for the presidentials, but largely that had been volunteer recruitment because,as a red state for a Democratic presidential candidate, Louisiana's role, invariably, was as an export state, as we call it, which meant we called into Florida to try to get folks in Florida to go vote for Obama. That state has kind of turned red in recent years itself. But at that point in time, we were still very focused on Florida. I think there was... in addition to the voter registration Campaign for Louisiana was doing... I can't remember the name of it, I'll see if I can find someone that can... there was another fully funded voter registration effort that Mary Landrieu had going before the coordinated campaign started. And that was, like, paid door-to-door canvassers also. There was a tremendous focus, and again, I am unaware of any since then that were this organized and this well funded. She really put a huge emphasis on voter registration.
She did and I wish I could remember the name of the organization too, but I know exactly what you're talking about. And I think, especially in the South, in a "Conservative state," I think you have to focus on voter registration. And you have to focus on voter registration as a long term project, if you want to build a winning coalition. Mary Landrieu knew that and her campaign knew that and the Campaign for Louisiana knew that. And a lot of what we were trying to do was to, you know, obviously win that election, but build a winning coalition going forward for years. And shout out to the work that y'all did for the presidential as an export state. I distinctly remember, we relied on so many OFA and Obama volunteers to help burdgeon us and like, you know, some of them just fully, like, the neighborhood team model, they were already operating in it. They were already running it. And we were just like, "Hey, can we please tag along?" It was great. I particularly remember one group up in Monroe, I cannot remember their names, but I remember a group up in Monroe was, like, super well organized and really helped us out up there.
We had started Team Blue Dat at the Louisiana Democratic Party the year before. So we actually had teams making phone calls... and it might have been before you came on, when Adam first opened that office here in New Orleans, I remember we were making calls for Mary Landrieu, like, pretty immediately. I've mentioned this on the podcast before, we had been focused on calling Democrats in parts of the state where maybe they hadn't heard from the party before and were just kind of connecting with them. And that went really well. But once Mary Landrieu got an office, we started immediately making Mary Landrieu calls. So we were able to get that going pretty early.
Yeah, it's fantastic.
So we couldn't remember the name of this group that was doing voter registration for Mary Landrieu. But I got a text from Ryan Berni answering this question. So fortunately, I now know the answer. It was the Registration Project. So we can stop racking our brains about that. And that was a subset of Patriot Majority, or the 501(c)(4) side of Patriot Majority. And they were supporting Mary Landrieu.
Thanks for reminding me of that. And shout out to Ryan for having the memory for that because that was well beyond mine. Yeah, they did a ton of great work, registered tons of people, really inspiring stuff. And the more people vote, the better. So shout out to them for the work they did.
As you pointed out, voter registration is such a key piece, but we will never register people at scale without folks actually funding it and putting paid canvassers on the ground who will go door-to-door and in all these nooks and crannies of the state. Because just setting up a few tables at Walmarts on the weekend is a lovely civically-minded thing to do, but it will never register enough voters for us to swing elections. Of course, we've been talking to folks like the Environmental Voter Project recently or... I've talked to several groups recently, where we've really looked at the fact that we have a fairly high registration rate in the state. It's over 80%, over 85%, I think. But we have such low turnout, particularly in these local elections. So the other piece of this is mobilization, which is what you were working on. The Campaign for Louisiana was working on persuasion and turnout. And that's the other piece of the puzzle that we've always got to be looking at.
Yeah, it's definitely both sides of the same coin. You need to register voters. You need to bring in new voters to your party. You need to bring in new voters to the electorate, and then you need to make sure that the folks that are already registered and the new folks that you registered all turnout to vote and they all know the issues and they can all, you know, feel confident in why they're voting for you or your candidate.
I think the organizing work that Mary Landrieu and Campaign for Louisiana did was really significant. I think there were long term effects from that. And I think we can talk about that a little bit too. But what, in your opinion, is really what defeated her campaign that year?
Ooh, a spicy take question!
I mean, was it the ACA? Was it her votes on that?
It could have been her votes on the ACA. It could have just been, you know, the hangover from, you know, the 2012 election. It's never easy for the same political party to retain power in the wake of a presidential election and a victory there. 2014 was an absolute bloodbath for Democrats at the time. Everybody lost. I mean, I talked about my I work on the McAuliffe campaign. A lot of my co-workers on that race went to different states across the country and I don't know if any of us really won. It was really rough. And we were all trying to organize. And we were all, you know, seasoned campaigners at that time. And sometimes, you know, the national focus is against you and it can be tough. I don't think there's anything in particular that the campaign did wrong that led to a defeat.
Yeah, no, I don't think so either. I asked Kirstin Alvanitakis, who was the communications director at the state party and so therefore working with the coordinator campaign that year. She reminded me that Mary Landrieu was a huge target of the Russians. And that there was a lot of investment in Russian disinformation that was targeted at her. And I think that might have been the same year that Claire McCaskill lost her seat. She also was on the Russian hit list. So that was something...
I believe it.
And a precursor to 2016. Right? Like, Mary was theoretically one of the test cases that they used on the stuff they would use two years later.
Wow. I believe it. I don't remember any of that, but that wouldn't surprise me, if it was a test case for that.
Well, and I would hope... if you're working on field work, your head isn't in that part of the game anyway, right? Yeah, voter contact, voter contact, right? Russians were not the only folks who were interfering in those 2014 campaigns and precursors to 2016 and beyond. I want to clarify, I'm talking about interfering in the campaigns, not the elections. They were not changing votes, I am not saying that. But they were interfering in the campaigns. James O'Keefe also was on the ground. James O'Keefe, of Project Veritas, who's by the way now kicked out of Project Veritas, but he was here causing all kinds of chaos. As was Ali Akbar, who later changed his name to Ali Alexander, and put together that Stop the Steal rally in Washington, DC on January 6th. So there were definitely some chaos agents working here against Mary Landrieu in 2014.
Yeah, thanks for refreshing my memory about that because I distinctly remember us having to brief our organizers and our regional field directors about the possibility of these, as you said, chaos agents coming through. If there's any real sign of, like, a real deal campaign is when these two creeps show up and they decide to start causing some havoc. We had it in South Carolina on presidential campaigns I've worked for. Like, this happens to the big deal campaigns and I think it goes back to your earlier point about, like, this is like the real deal coordinated race. This is the other side of that sword, right? This is the part of where these two absolute weirdos decide to show up and start causing some havoc. I just want to touch on the point... those people are the worst. I'm not a fan of O'Keefe or Ali Alexander. They can go kick rocks for all I care.
Well, their a big claim to fame, of course, is that they like to do these videos where they do these undercover videos and then twist them and put them out. Release them out of context so it makes it look like folks are doing illegal or unethical things when they aren't. But interestingly enough, both of those men have found themselves in their own legal troubles since. And Ali Alexander is in great legal trouble right now. He has apparently been either sending or eliciting nude photos from underage men online. So he's got his own hot water to deal with now, but I digress.
Yeah, one of the things that always bothered me about their tactics... because, like, tracking is a real thing in campaigns, where you send a campaign staffer to track an opposing candidate, try to potentially catch them in a moment where they say something, you know, that's potentially not flattering. But there's a big difference between that and targeting a campaign volunteer, someone who is just manning the door and is just really trying to make a difference to their community. And like trying to put that person in potentially legal trouble, but at the very least, like, and not even at the very least, but like, ruining people's lives. Because you know, they're just trying to appease you, like, they they prey on our social, like, ability as people to just try to keep calm and carry on. They really prey on our desire to just be nice and to try to be welcoming. And they twist that and they turn that against us. And obviously, like, we can't do... every campaign I've ever worked on, we try to never do anything illegal, we run everything we do by campaign attorneys to make sure that we stay within the boundaries of the law. And it really bothers me that these folks will just come in and try to mess up a random person or random volunteer's life, who really has very little standing or sway within the campaign itself or the organization itself. It's really... it's awful.
They're just horrible people, as you previously stated. The other thing is, like, I do think that the Obamaccare vote was still a problem for her. And I think she was aware that it would be, but was also happy to take that vote anyway because she... I heard her talk since then, about how she'd it all over again because of what it did for the people of Louisiana. And I can tell you that my respect for her as a senator grew as we were pushing for ACA. The health care reform. Because I just saw the way she responded to her constituents, the way she handled events, the way she managed a room of people, some of them who were just hateful towards her. And again, spreading misinformation and disinformation. And so I've really learned to think very highly of her throughout that. And the other piece of the puzzle that I saw... because again, for me, I had always been left of Mary, right? So I had always prior to that thought, "Well, she's not really as liberal as I'd like to see." I wasn't as involved in politics in previous years that she was running. But like me, I saw all these young people from across the country, who were far left or progressive, left of Mary Landrieu, come work on her campaign in a very idealistic way. Because they appreciated who she was. And because they knew the reality on the ground here was that we weren't getting a super progressive candidate elected to Senate in Louisiana.
Yeah, I think that speaks volumes about the, you know, the effort it took to get the Affordable Care Act passed in the first place. And then the courage I think that a lot of these elected officials felt or needed to get it over the finish line. I think that was obviously a politically not easy vote to take. And a lot of folks, maybe all of them, paid the price for it. And... not to potentially go on a tangent here, but I think we need a little bit more of tha now, when it comes to gun reform in this country too. I don't think it would be a very politically popular vote, to do gun reform in this country, but it'll save lives. And I think in the long run, that's more valuable. And I think the Affordable Care Act was the same way. The number of folks who now have health insurance because of the things in that bill is so much better. It's exponentially better than what it was before. And it's it's funny, because it's so ingrained in our society now, that it's kind of funny to think about a time before, but it wasn't that long ago. I might go on a personal tangent here, like, my sister had a ton of, you know, pre-existing health conditions, and she wouldn't have been able to have insurance without it. And it's crazy to think that there was a time in her life where she couldn't have.
People forget that it wasn't just the Affordable Care Act, it was also the Patient Protection, the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act. And there was a day when your insurance company could kick you off your insurance for any reason whatsoever. Did not have to give you any excuse. I don't think people remember that.
I mean, it's the greater good. And you can, you know... I think there can be arguments that maybe we could've push for more or that maybe there could have been a better plan.
We still can push for more.
We can still do that, but it was certainly a step in the right direction. And it certainly was a step that saved a lot of lives. And I think that's valuable,
And set up a situation, by the way, where it helped John Bel get elected because he ran on accepting the Medicaid expansion.
That's right. That's right.
So I just wanted to leave, before we move from this, to a quote that Nancy Pelosi said. I just watched that documentary, Pelosi in the House, last weekend. And her daughter asked her a question if she'd rather pass health care or be speaker, like, was losing the speakership worth it in order to pass that health care? And her response was, "Oh my goodness, there's absolutely no comparison. The fact is, we're there to do a job not to keep a job."
So I think that was Mary Landrieu's take on that as well. People think the DNC is the folks we go to to fund our races, but they don't really fund any races, they work on the convention. And they're focused on some messaging and the presidential races. But for that Senate race, the entity that funds that is the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. And there's one for every kind of campaign there is. There's the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, there's the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, there's Democratic Attorney Generals, Democratic Secretary of States. Like, for every kind of race there is, there is a separate fundraising entity over that. And they are not really connected in any way. So the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee played a big role in that 2014 campaign. And that's a double-edged sword in some ways, right? Like, it brings a lot of money, but there's also a lot of stipulations and control over that money. So did you have any thing you wanted to... I mean, you don't have to say anything on that. But did you have anything on that you wanted to say?
Again, it's been a while so my memory might be a little bit shoddy here. But in general, I felt that when it came to the primary election, at least the Louisiana primary election, we were well funded, I mean, 80+ organizing staff in Louisiana? Amazing. Absolutely amazing. Would I have wanted more? Could I have asked for more? Potentially. But I was very happy with what we had. And I was very happy with the field offices that we had. The problem was... when everybody got cleaned out in, you know, in the Senate in 2014, the DS made a decision that, you know, the well was going to run dry for the Landrieu campaign. For the runoff.
So yeah, so just to set that up for folks who... most states, I should say every other state, in November has their election for the senator who is going to be their Senator. In Louisiana, that's our primary. So we go to the runoff most of the time, which is going to be in December. So we're that weird, last month of the year where the whole country's eyes turn to our Senate race, you know, our Senate runoff. That's what happened here. In November, when Senate got wiped out, the DSCC had to make a decision on whether or not to continue to fund Mary Landrieu.
And I don't know what was the decision, like, I wasn't in the room when that decision was made. I don't know why that decision was made. I just knew that it was. And I was left to deal with the consequences.
What happened? So yeah, what happened then?
Yeah, I can't remember the exact numbers, but we had to lay off a lot of our organizing staff, we had to close a number of our field offices.
I think you said that at one point in time it was half. You had to lay off half.
That sounds right. Yeah, we had to lay off a lot of our staff, and we had to close a lot of our field offices. And that, you know, I stepped back to because it was hard for us. I didn't feel like it was right to do that. I didn't feel like we were setting ourselves up for success. And I didn't feel like it was right for me to retain my job, if I was going to fire half my staff and close most of my field offices. I felt like it would have been effectively just a title I had. So I took a step back and, you know, hopped off the team at that point. Because at the time, to be honest, I was pretty burned out. I was really committed to try to make us a winning campaign and to effectively have the river run dry at that point left a bad taste in my mouth. And I said, "Time to stop."
So you left for the runoff?
I did. Yeah, I did.
I did not remember that. So I'm kind of sad that you did. Because the interesting thing... so I'll speak on this since you weren't there for it. The tone of the campaign changed almost immediately because prior to the runoff, there had been a person that the DSCC sent to manage the campaign. And, of course, he left. For the run off though, a couple of Mary Landrieu's tried and true friends came back to run the campaign for the runoff Ryan Berni and Norma Jane Sabiston, who we have since lost. But the tone of the campaign... you know, we had the morning campaign calls... the tone was immediately different. It was immediately different. And for those few who stayed for that last month, it seemed like their moods shifted. Even though we knew we were kind of fighting this losing battle, there was still this great morale boost there. There was this this great sense of, "Oh, we recognize what we're running for now. We recognize what we're working for." And that was really interesting. That was very interesting to me that they came in. Because Ryan and Norma Jane are from here. And they'd run campaigns for Landrieu's before and so they really understood the moment we were in and the space we were in.
I believe it. I didn't get to know Norma Jane very well, but I do know Ryan Berni, I've spent some time talking to him. And I think he's great. And yeah, I don't know if I have more to say about them or that but...
I did get to do an episode with Ryan. Might be in Season One. Yeah, it was in Season One of Louisiana Lefty. So if folks are interested in that, then go back. But I stole from him... He didn't make this up... but he used that every morning that we'd get on the call, - win the day, just win the day, what are we doing to win this day. And I have used that in multiple campaigns for myself, whether it's for, you know, to share with volunteers and staff or whether it's just for me waking up and being like, "How do you win the day?" It is a really good way to go into campaigns.
I do like that mantra a lot, yeah.
So the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, that supported Mary Landrieu, has the same acronym as the Democratic State Central Committee, which is always very confusing to people in Louisiana. So when you're talking about the DSCC, it's hard to know which one you're talking about. Stephen Handwerk and I did... I want to say it's in Season One of Louisiana Lefty, we did an episode called "Demystifying Democratic Alphabet Soup", where we talked about all those different groups. So if folks really want to learn the difference, they can do that there. But I, given my preference, I would change the state parties group DSCC name just to get rid of any confusion there, but that's really not something I have any impact over. But the one thing I'll say about the actual DSCC, that folks just sometimes call the DS, for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the DS. Louisianans have never gotten over the fact that they pulled their funding on Mary Landrieu. I don't think they've ever forgiven the DSCC for that. And I personally know a lot of people who, when they've gotten fundraising phone calls from the DSCC, have given them an earful.
Really? Doesn't surprise me at all. If there's anything... Well, let me say this, to your original point, us Democrats, we love a good acronym. And then on the side of that, us Louisianans, we know how to hold a grudge. We certainly know how to hold a grudge. 100%. Ask Nick Saban
Having been able to build that infrastructure, you mentioned that you were able to build off of some of the outstanding Obama infrastructure that was still around. You had 80 campaign organizers out there at one point in time. What are the long term benefits of something like that? What are the leave-behinds of that sort of infrastructure?
Well, I think there's a lot of hope. When you're an organizing director in that role, like, the work that you've been doing, what you've been building for, or even if you're an organizer in a community that, like... the volunteers that you've helped organize will keep doing what they're doing, that they will remain socially engaged, they will remain politically engaged, and they'll keep organizing their communities for the better. I think that that happened in Louisiana. I don't know. But I definitely feel like, if you take the time, if someone has taken the time to volunteer on a campaign, you know, and have taken on the role of, like, a neighborhood team leader, or take on the role of just like a phone bank captain, that person is going to remain politically engaged one way or the other. And maybe they're burnt out or tired from being a neighborhood team leader or phonebank captain. But they are going to stay engaged. And I think that what that does is it just builds power from the ground up. And I think it really builds a sense of kind of passion and a sense of community around trying to make your home better, you know, make your life better, make the state better, make your town better. Really anything. It's certainly not easy work, but it's also not complicated work, either. Really. It's just getting out there and being a member of your community and talking to folks. And if you put a face to some of these potentially obscure policies or these potentially, you know, arcane sounding votes that may be needed... but if you put a face to it because you're out there fighting for your community, folks will remember that, people remember that. And when they go to the ballot box, they may vote the way that helps you out. And I think that's what really brings... I think that's part of the power of organizing. And I think one of the things that I've always loved about organizing is putting that power into the hands of the people in the community. You know, working in North Carolina or Virginia or Massachusetts or really anywhere that I've been, I think one of the best feelings is when you have someone come into your campaign office, and they say, you know, "I'm here, I'm from, you know, X town, and it's super rural and it's super conservative, but I want to fight. I want to make a difference." And they have all this energy and they're not sure what to do with it. And you as an organizer or a campaign staffer can give them the tools to make a difference in their community. And then watching them use those tools? It's amazing. it's one of the, you know, it's one of the best feelings in the world, I think.
Well, I noticed in 2015 in John Bel's first gubernatorial election year, there was an extreme hangover. There was a lot of depression in Democrats. And the sense that Mary had just lost and I think folks had seen her as so infallible in some ways. So electorially infallible, I should say. That I think that was a big hurdle to get over for folks. Certainly the people I was connected to were just convinced that we could never get a Democratic governor elected. So that was a lingering issue from 2014. But on the positive side, Mary Landrieu donated her data from all that work that y'all did. So she donated that data to the Democratic Party. So that was of benefit to John Bel. And I think all those voter registrations that were done, quite possibly benefited John Bel in his election. So I think that there were long term benefits that folks maybe haven't even really thought of. And certainly, over the course of 2015, people started to see the potential for a Democrat to win that race as the polls started to show at some point.
Yeah. I don't want to take credit for stuff that I don't know, that I don't have any power over. But sure. I mean, it would be lovely to think that the work we did helped carry over and helped win that election. I don't want to take anything away from Governor Edward's campaign and the work that they did on the ground. I think he did a fantastic, obviously they did a fantastic, job and ran one of my favorite political ads of all time. That campaign against David Vitter... And I, you know, I think if you invest the time, you invest the money, you invest the people, you can build this power. But that's the thing, it takes time, it takes people. And if it takes time and people then it takes money. Because it can't just be volunteers doing this all the time because they will absolutely run themselves ragged and then they won't volunteer again. You need someone on the ground who is actively organizing that community, you need someone who is actively building up a community of progressive voters and reliable voters in that community. And there are a bunch of organizations who do this kind of stuff. But having someone who is on the ground to keep everyone organized, keep them focused on the fight at hand and keep them focused on the election at hand and making sure that folks in the community are aware of whatever local elections are happening or, you know, not even that most high profile elections are happening, but like continuing to build these attitudes and idea of being, like, a voting citizen. I think it really builds on itself. Because, you know, if you start voting in "off year elections," you're definitely going to vote in presidential elections. And you're going to keep voting in your off your elections too. It's building on that power.
Yeah. That was ultimately my point, that all these things build upon each other. If you look at Beto O'Rourke, some of the campaigns he has run in Texas, while he himself has not won most of those big name, those marquee races, I should say, he's been credited with down ballot success, right? With getting congressional folks elected, with getting Supreme Court seats or justices, judges elected. So all those things kind of interplay with each other. So whenever you are doing that work of base building and power building, it has impacts beyond your particular races.
Yeah, I think you can look to Texas as an example. I think you can also look to Georgia as an example there. Stacey Abrams and her organization have really done tremendous work there. And obviously, she didn't win her two elections either. But you can see the aftereffects of the work that they've done. And you can see that, with the right time and investment built in, you can build progressive power in, you know, traditionally or, you know, normally understood as conservative places or states. Especially in the South.
Well, let's pivot a little bit because we are talking about building progressive power, and you are currently doing a couple of different things that addresses that. I don't know what you want to start with, let's start with your day job. You're working with a company called Universe. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yes, I work right now. I was very lucky. I started with this group called Universe. Universe is a political platform, almost a Campaign in a Box. And it's a political platform startup that is focused on local and/or down ballot elections. So I almost wish I had a visual for this. But there's so many political technologies out there that if you want to run a, like, high tech campaign it could be 20+ different things that you need to purchase and buy to run a high tech campaign. And a lot of the times, if you're, you know, running for school board, you probably won't have the funds to, you know, to purchase all these things. For whether that's your local vote builder accounts, or you know, potentially a contract with like a data modeling firm, that kind of stuff. But you still want to run a good campaign, but you may not be able to do that. So what Universe tries to do is we try to provide equity and access to those tools for down ballot candidates, really across the country. We've got, you know... our bread and butter really are these like municipal races, these county, parish level races across the country. We do some work with congressional races as well. But really, our focus is to try to empower somebody with the tools that they need to be successful and to run a successful campaign, without breaking their bank. And I'm really lucky to be working there. And it's a great team and a lot of these candidates that we're working for are people who, you know, decided that they want to make a difference in their community. And you know, they're like, "Well, I don't know a random millionaire. So I'm not sure if I have all the money I need to run." And they found us and we've been able to give them access to some really powerful tools when it comes to like helping phone bank or canvas. We even have a website builder now, so if folks want to build a website they can do that. We're launching a contribution intake section now too so folks can fundraise with Universe too. It's really exciting the work that we're doing. And it really makes me happy to do this kind of work too because I think, as a person who's largely worked on bigger races or presidential races or governor races, you know, there's always a lot of focus on those races and I think there needs to be more focused on building power in these local-level communities and local-level races because a lot of the time they have more impact in our everyday lives then, you know, a governor may have or a congressman may have. And I'm really happy to be with Universe, you know, help give them these tools.
Well, so you mentioned wanting a visual, I'm certainly happy to put links in the Episode Notes, if there's something there you want folks to be able to go see. So if there's a visual or if there's a link to your website, where folks can look a little bit more at what you offer? I'm certainly happy to put that in there.
I will say... I should have said this earlier too. One thing that's a stat that I always like to cite off, and that we like to set off, is 70% of local down ballot races go uncontested every year. And we're trying to change that. We're trying to get more people.
Yeah, trying to give people the tools to do that. So tell me again, you've mentioned kind of some of the stuff that you do. But I believe you've told me you don't actually have the database of voters. That folks have to come to the Campaign in a Box with that, is that correct? they need to buy their own data?
There's a couple of ways we can go about doing it. They can bring their own data, if they have their own data. We also can work with the local board of elections or secretary of state to collect that data. It'll just be raw voter data, though. So it won't have like the institutional data that maybe a state party will have or is potentially hanging on to. We are working and we have some partnerships with state parties, state Democratic parties, across the country to get, like, a data sharing agreement. We don't have one in Louisiana yet, but I'm working on it.
All right, very good. And then so folks would bring their data, and then you would help them set up a phone bank or text bank? And?
Yeah, we do everything from list creation, to phone bank creation, canvassing, like, creating walk lists and walk packets. One of the things I'm most proud of that we do is... I think it's very volunteer focused. And we were really... Because like, if you're a volunteer, you're gonna come for a school board, like, you're gonna volunteer for a school board candidate, like, you want your experience to be really good. And as a candidate, you'd want your volunteers experience to be really good because you want them to come back. So one of the big things is we don't require any like app download. We don't require any logins or password remembering, like, the campaign will send you a link, you open the link, and you are canvassing, phone banking, texting straight from your browser, on your computer or on your phone.
So you would create the list for folks or you do a training to tell them how?
Sorry, yeah. We do training. I also hold regular office hours for our clients, where they can dial in and ask questions, but we give them the tools to create lists, and then create phone banks or any other voter contact type tool. We even have a postcarding tool to help them target and communicate to their voters however they see fit.
Do you do regular presentations of any sort that someone could, if they were interested in learning about it, could get on and see sort of a test drive demo?
I do demos by appointment, basically. But if you go to Universe, it's www.universe.app, there's a button that says "Request a Demo." it'll link you to my calendar and we will get going. And I will give you a demo. Demos usually take 15-30 minutes, and I can show you all the tools that we do.
And you only work with Democrats?
We only work with Democrats. That's correct. A big part of us and a big part of what we want to do is we want to build progressive power. And our goal is to only work with progressive candidates and Democratic candidates across the country.
Do you work with groups who are not candidates?
Yes, we work with labor unions. We work with nonprofit organizations. We work with student organizations too. One of the things that I'm really excited about is we just launched a Democratic Club Program. And this is to help us work with youth organizations, but also, like, local-level organizations that probably don't have a lot of funding. We want to make sure that they can use Universe as well and use it to however they really want to use it. We just got a partnership with the LSU Democrats. I was talking to their president the other day and they were really excited about the work that we are doing. And we, you know, if... I can't guarantee it's free for everybody, but for most local groups and most youth groups, we can provide a free instance of Universe to help them build their power.
Glad to hear you're connecting to the college dems, because I think that's something they'd really be interested in. And how are they getting data for that? Is that something like?.. Because my worry is for, like, a statewide group, it's a lot of data to buy from a secretary of state.
It is. And so what we will likely do with LSU Dems, for example, is give them some voter file data or worked with them to get voter file data from the secretary of state for East Baton Rouge Parish. So they can talk to voters in the parish, they can canvass with voters in the parish.
Right, so maybe starting doing things piece by piece, like, maybe focusing until you can afford to add data.
Now, for most of these, you're focusing on small races, which would not be expensive amounts of data, right? I'm aware of that.
Louisiana is, I think, relatively inexpensive compared to other states to, for example. But yeah, other times there are some states where collecting data is very difficult. And this is where these partnerships with the state party are going to be really helpful for Universe. New Hampshire is a great example of a state where, as an organization outside of the state of New Hampshire, it is not easy to get voter data. As opposed to Pennsylvania, where I paid $50 and got, you know, the whole voter file.
Oh, wow. Well, let's pivot to this other project you're working on your sort of labor of love that you're working on.
Probably unsurprisingly, I mentioned that the wake of Hurricane Katrina was kind of my political awakening. I have been an environmental voter since. And one of the things I'm most excited about that I'm doing, since I moved back to Louisiana in November, is I partnered up with some really amazing women from different progressive nonprofit organizations and environmentally focused nonprofit organizations to start a new 501(c)(4) called People Power and Light. Our whole focus is to try to elect people to potentially, like, parish, council races, school board seats, that kind of stuff, who are environmentally minded because in Louisiana parish counselors, school board superintendents, if that's the right word for it, have a lot of power over what happens to zoning laws. To even you know, taxes being written there. So we're trying to get folks into those seats, or trying to train folks or recruit folks to run for those seats, to potentially make a difference and, you know, essentially stop selling the soul of our state and our natural beauty to the oil and gas industries.
And that sort of harkens back to your point that 70% of those seats go uncontested. If you're recruiting people who care about the environment and can get the word out to people about it.
Yeah, if anyone is interested in hearing more about what we do. This is this is very grassroots of us right now. This will harken back to my OFA, but just email it's email@example.com. Contact us. We just hired our new Executive Director. Her name's Hope Basil. She's a rock star. She is working really closely with the people of St. James Parish right now to try to find candidates to run there for their parish council races this year. So we've got a lot of work ahead of us, but really, our whole goal is to try to, you know, flip the scripts. As someone who grew up in cancer alley, we want to try to bring this back to a healthy population there. We want to try to make it a good place to live, rather than a place where you're likely to die younger than the national average. I grew up in Laplace. My whole family is mostly from Norco though.
I thought I remembered you having a connection to Norco.
Yeah. Have you been to Norco,
I have not.
Oh, Lynda, Norco is wild. I'll send you a picture the next time I go visit my grandma. But there's a playground for kids, there is a chain link fence, and then there's an oil refinery in Norco. That is how close they are. And that's the norm in the river parishes. That's what people are used to. St. James Parish, in particular, these refineries have been built on or near communities that are predominantly black or brown. But that's what it's like, in the river parishes, its communities, houses, homes, and refineries. And, you know, they can say that they're not polluting, but you know, we all know, we all know what it's like. There's a reason cancer rates are higher there. There's a reason mortality rates are higher there.
All you have to do is listen to the people who live there. They'll tell you. So Joel, People Power and Light or P,P and L, which I love that acronym, you have some awesome cofounders you were telling me about. Do you want to tell us who they are?
Yes, I do. Serving on our boards, and some of our co founders, first is Gail LeBoeuf. Gail is also a cofounder of a really good group based out of St. James called Inclusive Louisiana. And then we have Anne Rolfes, who is the current director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and she's done a lot of good work in other places as well. And then finally Pam Spees, who is currently acting as an international civil rights attorney. Really, really amazing women, and I'm super lucky to be working with them.
Sounds like you have a great group going on there. Look forward to hearing more about that. So will you tell us, keep us updated on candidates that you recruit for this so we can make sure we're amplifying that. And also, can you make sure that you're keeping an eye out for good organizers in that area and nominating them for Organizer of the Month Award?
Yes, I certainly will. I've got a few in the top of my mind, we can connect offline about it. But yeah, there's a lot of great work being done out there. And there's a lot of folks who are really fighting for you know, the communities out there. If I can give a quick shout out my one of my favorites is the Descendants Projects. Have you ever spoken to them? Joy Banner, they're awesome. absolute rock stars. They are based out of Wallace and they do a lot of really good work, pushing back against the refineries and chemical industries there. It's really inspiring work. And they do a lot of really cool stuff. I love working with them.
Amazing, we'll have to have you back on when you get a little further down the road with your 501(c)(4) and get that a little beefed up. We'll talk more about that. And hopefully, if folks want to plug into it, they should just email you. Is the best thing to do?
That's really the best thing. It's firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to shoot over an email. Myself or Hope will receive it and very happy to talk. Very happy to tell you a little bit more about what we're doing too. You know, like I said, we got a we got a big, we got a big year ahead of us, but we're trying to make make the most of it.
Fantastic. Well, I'll obviously put that in the Episode Notes as well so that people can click on that gmail address to make it easier. Well, let's get to the last three questions. I appreciate you taking so much time and revisiting a slightly heartbreaking episode in Louisiana politics. For our side anyway. But appreciate your coming on to talk about that. Because I think it's really... I just want to reiterate, though, I think it was a really important election year for us. I think a lot of things came out of it. Good and bad. A lot of lessons learned there. And I really just think folks need to keep in mind that we have ended up here because of that year. Because of things that were set in motion that year. Joel, last three questions. What's the biggest obstacle for progressives in Louisiana?
I think... and maybe this is cheating a bit, Lynda, but I think the biggest obstacle is actually yet to come. I think if one of these Looney Tunes Republicans gets elected to the governorship at the end of this year... I think next year is going to be really bad. I think what we're seeing in Florida is just the blueprint for what could happen here. And I think that'll be our biggest hurdle is to, you know, really try to remain in that fight. It's a big race this year. And if, you know, we get the wrong person in that seat, it could be bad.
That is a fair assessment. What's our biggest opportunity?
Oh, let's take it back to the youth. I think the youth organizing happening in the state is really impressive. And I think if we can find ways to continue to harness the power and the passion that the, you know, the youth community has here in the state, I think it's really valuable. Because I think that builds on long term growth. You had Ciara Hart on the other day and since I've had a chance to talk to her and really impressed by the work that she's doing and, you know, the young democrats of Louisiana are doing too. I think, if I see opportunity in Louisiana, that's where I see it for sure. Or at least that's the first place I see it. Yeah.
Very good. And so folks know you and I had a conversation on Lefty Lagniappe, that will be on Facebook and YouTube. So they can go catch that video if they want a little extra content and hear us talk about youth organizing and youth voter turnout. Joel, who's your favorite superhero?
I thought this might be a tough one, but it's actually easy. It's Gambit. Of course the X-Men. Yeah. Why would I, a boy from Louisiana, want any other superhero than Gambit? Who's got one of the best superpowers ever, he controls energy. As a physics nerd, the ability to turn potential energy into kinetic energy? Pff... I take that superpower any day, and he's just like, super cool.
That's amazing. I have not had Gambit as a favorite superhero, yet.
You get the award for new superhero.
Yeah, Channing Tatum keeps saying he's gonna make that movie. I will be there day one. Watching it.
Nice. Awesome. Well, Joel, it's so great to connect with you here on Louisiana Lefty and I look forward to seeing what comes out of both the projects you're working on.
Thank you very much, Lynda. And again, thank you so much for having me. Shout out to all your listeners. It's been really a pleasure. And I'm looking forward to our next conversation and looking forward to see what we can get done this year.
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 Thousand $ Car for allowing us to use their swamp pop classic "Security Guard" as our Louisiana Lefty theme song.