Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement, fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission because victory for Louisiana requires you.
On this week's episode, I'm joined by Political Strategist, Consultant, and self-described gun for hire Ryan Berni, who has over two decades of experience in Louisiana Democratic Party politics. He's best known for his ongoing work with James Carville and Mitch Landrieu. Ryan famously repurposed the rallying cry of "win the day" in Mary Landrieu's 2014 runoff. And it's a motto he believes would serve Louisiana Democrats and progressives well as we organize today. Our talk took place in the middle of a Louisiana thunderstorm that presented multiple challenges to the recording. However, despite power outages, we powered through and won the day.
Ryan Berni! Thanks so much for joining me on Louisiana Lefty.
Great to be here. Thanks for having me, Lynda.
For sure. I always start with how I met the guest. And the best you and I could piece together was we met during the 2010 Mitch for Mayor campaign. I most remember you from a town hall y'all did, I believe on rebuilding infrastructure, following Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. And I recall when I saw you there that we already knew one another. But that's the first time I remember seeing you. You helped elect Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, the same year the Saints won the Super Bowl. And those events really came right at the same time. That was a huge year for the region. What was your role on the Mitch for Mayor campaign?
Yeah. In 2010, I was actually working for James Carville in Washington, and we were assisting then Lieutenant Governor Landrieu in his run. We had done a poll for Tulane University, which James was affiliated with, that really might have been the impetus for him to run in the first place, to give it a third try. You know, the city was in a pretty bad place at that point. It really needed a jolt in the race. It was kind of unclear who was going to be the front runner. So, we got involved there and were involved in an advisory capacity, and Mitch won the election, and the Saints won the Super Bowl in the same weekend, and I was in Miami, and I just remember this just great sense of I've got to get back home to New Orleans. You know, born and raised in the New Orleans metro area, I had been away for several years and felt like there was just this moment in the city's history where you really just had to be part of the rebuilding. And so, a couple months later as Mitch has taken office up, I flew back and went into a communications role for him.
So, what is your political origin story? What got you originally involved in politics?
Yeah. I think I've probably always had the political bug from a young age and did all the student council and civics stuff that you do as a kid. In college, as a freshman, I got really involved in College Democrats and began interning at the state Democratic Party. And we worked on really rebuilding College Democrats chapters across the state. We got to 23 chapters. I played an active role in Governor Blanco's election in 2003. You know, really were trying to turn things around in 2004 in the Kerry election. And I worked on the Kerry campaign, took a kind of sabbatical from school, and kind of did statewide organizing and worked on and off at the state party and also had, during the summers, begun interning for Carville. So that is really how I got involved. Always kind of involved in party politics from a young age, served on the party Executive Committee, I mean, all the kind of things that you do when you're part of the party apparatus. And got really good experience. Kind of did every job in a campaign that you could do from kind of high school on: from knocking on doors to designing websites, to fundraising. Did all that over a span of four or five years, and once you have the bug, it's hard to let it go. And so, tried to figure out how to make a career at least tangentially related to campaigns and politics after that.
Have you ever considered running for elected office yourself?
No, not really. I definitely feel like there's people who want to be out front and be the public servant on that side. I feel like I've done a good bit of public service on the behind-the-scenes side, whether it's at the city or in other roles and much prefer being behind the scenes. I think there's, particularly in communications and political work, so much anticipation built up around a rollout of an event or announcement, and the ability to kind of see something from beginning to end on the staff level has always been something that I've really enjoyed.
So, you've managed campaigns for a couple of Landrieus. I've learned so much from you studying you in those roles. What would you say makes up a good campaign manager? What are the qualities and skill sets?
I think campaign management is interesting, right? Because it's equal parts strategy and political acumen. And then also, you're doing the HR, Human Resources motivation piece. And in particular, I think about the tough campaigns like the end of Senator Landrieu's campaign. I feel like part of the job every day was just motivating everybody to come back for the next day. And I think one of the things that we really tried to focus on, and we'd be remiss if I did not mention my dear friend who we, of course, lost early this year, Norma Jane Sabiston, who was in the trenches every day with us, but our kind of philosophy was that we had to--the race was at a tough spot. And to keep everyone's attention and energy, we had to focus people on shorter-term goals like just winning the day. And so every day, we had a staff call, Lynda, which you will remember, where we ended every day with let's just take stock of what happened yesterday. Let's figure out how we can win today. And if we keep stringing together winning days, we can turn the ship around. And I think that was a great framework for how to approach a lot of these tough challenges we have. Like look, the idea of saying that we're gonna be back to where we were in 2003, where Democrats are gonna hold every statewide office and both the United States Senators, that feels so far away. Let's just figure out how we start winning a couple days, a couple weeks at a time. And eventually, we will get into a place where we are closer to making our goal, our end goal, a reality. And campaign management is a lot about that, right? Stringing together small wins and motivating people. And that was a couple hundred people in that campaign. But in smaller campaigns I've been involved in too, it's a lot of the same thing: budget management and overall strategy, message development. So, it takes a combination of skills. And I was very blessed, at a young age, to get a lot of different experience in various parts of the campaign that, I think, really make it successful. I think people who have been successful like Jen O'Malley Dillon, who was the campaign manager for President Biden, worked on various components of campaigns over time. And I think the other thing, I think this is just true of politics in general is just to not be set back by losses. There are inevitably going to be more losses than wins sometimes that rack up, especially like us working in Democratic Politics in the South. And being able to trudge through that and really have a good attitude and think about the next opportunities as opposed to what just happened behind us. Learn from what would happen, but you can't get too down about it because there's always gonna be an opportunity. Things always turn around.
Well, I'm so glad that you brought up the idea of "win the day" because, I think, I texted you a photo of this when I opened the Hillary for America Office in 2016, I hung up a big poster board sign of "win the day." And of course, that came from you in 2014. Was that the first campaign that you kind of came up with that ethos, or had you been using that all along?
It's something that I have to imagine I learned from somewhere else or had seen in another place. But I think in that particular moment, coming into the campaign late after things had kind of been set, and things were not in the best shape, there was a need to shift the internal narrative before you can even get to the external narrative. And I think that that was pretty critical there. It definitely became a much more fun campaign after that, at that point, stepping into it. So, I think it's like I said, I think for Democrats down here, progressives down here, it can feel like the wilderness sometimes, and I think, maybe we're too focused on the long game goal, and let's come up with some short term wins that we can get in the near term.
That makes sense. When and how did you connect with Mitch Landrieu? Was it just in 2010?
So, I got connected with Mitch, I had worked in 2004 in the Kerry campaign with Emily Sneed, who was Mitch's Deputy Chief of Staff. I had worked with the Landrieus writ large in various roles when I was at the state party. Mitch was the lieutenant governor in 2003. Mary was the United States Senator. So, I'd definitely worked around and with folks in the orbit. But didn't really get a chance to work closely with Mitch until really James convinced him to run in 2009 and then over the course of that 2010 campaign. And then, of course, worked for him 2010 till now. I'm still working for him so in various roles. So, one of the only people to be elected statewide as a Democrat in recent years with the exception of Governor Edwards. He and Mary are the only two still that have been elected in the last 15 years. So, so much great political skill and acumen and really just been an honor to learn from him over this long period of time.
You went right from the campaign into you said communications with him, but eventually, you became Deputy Mayor, right?
Yeah. In the first term, I was his press secretary, then communications director, and then took leave. Left to run the reelect, came back, so came and managed the reelect in '14, then went back for a short period of time to City Hall as like a senior advisor role. I think we had the Super Bowl or something. There were things that I was working on that we were doing and then turned right back quickly and took a sabbatical to run Senator Landrieu's, the end of Senator Landrieu's campaign. And so, when I went back in the second term after that, shortly thereafter, is when I took the role as Deputy Mayor of External Affairs, where we had, you know, my portfolio was communications, all the government affairs, federal, state, and local, neighborhood engagement, and all the kind of policy work.
So in the political sphere, we often talk about wonks and hacks, wonks being policy minded folks and hacks being those of us who love campaign work. Well, we often see campaign staff go with their candidate if they win their race and transfer from political work to government work. Does the role of campaigner translate well to the official side staff for an elected official? And I mean, elected officials need to be able to do both campaign and work in government. So, is that a transition that a lot of us political folks can make successfully?
Yeah, I think so. I think the basics are important. I think the communications skills are very transferable from politics over to government. I think the people skills are ultimately the thing that is also very important. I think any success in government is about partnerships and linking and leveraging people and relationships. And I think those were all very transferable from campaigns. Particularly if you're in one of those kind of political communications roles in a campaign, I think, in particular.
And your first term with Mayor Landrieu, you must have spent the bulk of your efforts and political capital on recovery. Yes?
Yeah, I think the city was on its back, I think it's safe to say in 2010. The recovery had kind of flatlined. You know, former Mayor Nagin was in the midst of a huge corruption scandal, to say the least. We now know how that ended. The city was pretty racially divided, more so than maybe even, you know, it was pre-Katrina. Blight was at an all-time high. And then we got into City Hall, and the basic budget that the city had, which at that time was about $480 million a year, was running about a $100 million deficit. So, we came in halfway into a budget year. So, people take office now, and it'll change, but, at the time in New Orleans, in May. So, by the time you get your hands around things a couple months down the road, June, July, it was clear that we were going to be out of like operating capital soon if things did not happen. So, the first really kind of year and a half was kind of two things. One, the city's budget and financial situation. And then two, the macro rebuilding. The city had a not great relationship with FEMA. Mayor Landrieu had a particularly good relationship with the Obama administration and with, Senator Landrieu was in Washington and was able to leverage that to basically say, look, FEMA, I understand that you've given the city what you said they asked for, but what haven't they asked for? Because we kind of knew that that was kind of the drill. And we were able to restart negotiations on everything basically from the roads and water sewer settlements. So, housing funds to you name it. And as a result of that, spent many years up until we left office really closing out FEMA negotiations that ultimately resulted in about 2 billion more dollars than the city had when we got there in FEMA negotiations. And so, a lot of the groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings and stuff that you see Mayor Cantrell doing right now, that's all a fruit of the labor of really restarting those FEMA renegotiations, getting those projects fast-tracked. We had something that was called the top 100 projects list that really the goal was to have all those done by the end of the first term. And those got greenlit. Big catalytic projects like the Lafitte Greenway or major water infrastructure projects. The Loyola streetcar line, which jumpstarted a lot of development in that part of downtown. Big things like that to small things like bikeways going from 5 to 100 plus miles of bike lanes in the city and various different projects that were priorities of the council members and the mayor. The regional libraries all of which were redone. So, how do we get all these things back on track and get going again? And at the same time, how do we rebuild the budget from zero? You can imagine coming into office, and I had moved down from DC and come down, and the first two weeks they're like, oh, everyone's going to actually get furloughed, but you have to work the days, you're just going to basically take a 10% pay cut. So, but that was the kind of thing. We all knew what we signed up for. We knew it was going to be a sacrifice, and it was a lot of work, long hours, and ultimately, was well worth it. But those early years were really, really kind of tough.
If Katrina was the one word that defined Mayor Landrieu's first term? Would monuments be the word that defined the second?
Yeah, I think without a doubt. I think if you look at where we were in the second term, so that started in 2014. In 2015, we started to plan for the city's 300th anniversary, which was going to be in 2018. It was the end of the term. It was kind of the end part, and so we said, this is a great opportunity to use the city's tricentennial in a way that another city somewhere else, global city would use an Olympics and not only just for physical infrastructure as a rallying point but an organizing principle for you know, education and economic development and all the plans that people unveil every year. What do we want the city to look like in 2018, our 300th anniversary? Really as a report back to the rest of the country on the investments that they made, and the world made after Katrina in our city and her resilience. And so, began those processes, and maybe this was even in 2014. We started to talk to folks about it. And Mitch now has this very publicly reported on conversation with Winton Marcellus about helping curate the tricentennial, and Winton tells him, well, you got to do something about those statues, and in particular, it was about Robert E. Lee. And that really set off a whole set of thoughts in Mayor Landrieu's head. And he went through and really started having the team do some research, and the Dylann Roof Charleston AME massacre occurred, I guess, probably in the summer of 2015. So, this is pretty early. We had already been doing a lot of racial reconciliation and racial equity work, both from a planning perspective, and we had a program called Welcome Table going on. South Carolina decides to take down the flag. Of course, New Orleans had done that in the 70s. Talk about, I think Moon, Mayor Moon Landrieu was on the council at the time. So, talk about being 50 years ahead of schedule. And ultimately, at one of these Welcome Table kind of end ceremony events says, look, you know, I want to think about what it means to start talking about taking down Robert E. Lee. And of course, that set off holy hell, right? And I think we knew it was going to be hard and a big deal, but I don't think we really fully appreciated the gravity and the ferocity of which people were going to push back on that, both inside and outside the city. I think obviously, there was a lot of support in the city, but there were definitely pockets and factions that intended to make it holy hell and succeeded in a lot of ways and really was the precursor to a lot of the stuff that we've seen now. All this Proud Boy stuff and the Insurrection. Those were groups that were all on the ground here from the time that we announced the monuments projects, and ultimately, there were a couple of those really tense moments in 2017 ahead of the monuments coming down where it was touch and go for a while. The police department actually did a very good job. But ultimately, these strains of these white supremacist, white nationalist organizations were on the ground organizing here long before they were thinking about the Insurrection at the Capitol.
I always want to make sure we're giving credit to the activists who pushed for progress for years. Take 'Em Down NOLA was the driving force behind a coalition that worked to take down monuments. But as you mentioned, it was a very personal relationship that really set Mitch's mind on this mission. Politically, was he ahead of the curve nationally in his insistence upon moving this forward?
Well, I think you make an important point about--I mean, this was not even a new thing to Take 'Em Down. This was an issue that had been percolating for decades in New Orleans. To that note about Moon Landrieu in the 70s and them taking the Confederate flag down from the city council chambers, to the various episodes in the late 80s and 90s, or folks like Maria Galatas and Reverend Avery Alexander led protests at the time around the Battle of Liberty Place but also Robert E. Lee and other statues. So, there's really decades of a history of activism in the city that was focused on these symbols. People didn't see it or hear it, or they felt it. You know, there was a lightning rod about David Duke. And so, it's like back and forth. I think the moment in 2015 was maybe a little bit different. Again, because the Charleston murders were prevalent, because there was this discussion about symbols particularly with the confederate flag coming down from the South Carolina State Capitol, because I think the city had post Katrina, I think really, were in maybe in a different place about some of the conversations on race to be able to maybe take a different path. But yeah, Mayor Landrieu was definitely way ahead of the political curve. And I don't even want to use the word political like we did just there because I don't know that there was much of a political calculus. I mean, I think we knew it was going to be a hard lift and a kind of tough moment to get through. And I remember, in particular, a deputy mayor's meeting where he said, "Okay, guys. We're gonna do this. I just want to make sure if you want to out, you can get out. This is it, though. This is gonna be a thing." And everybody said, "No, we're in. We're in, and we're excited to do it." And so, that's kind of how it happened.
That's very cool. Do you think the monuments issue would make it harder for Mitch Landrieu to run for a statewide office again? Or is that blown over?
I think it's maybe a little bit blown over. I think he's still one of the few folks that has a profile to run statewide as a Democrat. But I think yeah, sure. No, I mean, the monuments issue is a hard one in the rest of the state outside of New Orleans. I mean, as hard as it was in the New Orleans metro area, it's definitely harder in other parts of the state. But I think as time goes, I mean, I can't tell you how many people were fierce opponents of the monuments coming down in New Orleans that have come around and said, "Well. You know, I've been better educated on it. I've seen or I've talked to more people. I see how this looks to the rest of the country. This is clearly not a one-off thing. This is happening around the globe. It's a conversation that's long overdue." And people have really come around. And so, I don't know what that means for him politically, but I think the bigger point is in that moment, it's certainly he knew that he wouldn't be running for statewide office anytime soon once he did that. So, there was certainly no political calculation around it.
Gotcha. You mentioned the Proud Boys descending on Louisiana during that monuments fight. I know more than one person has also identified that the Louisiana 2014 Senate Race might have been a training ground for what has since then come in national politics. Americans for Prosperity and the NRA were deeply involved in Mary Landrieu's last senate race. She was one of the senators, like John Mccain and Claire McCaskill, on Putin's political hit list, so to speak. In 2014, we saw a big presence from Ali Alexander, who ginned up the Stop the Steal efforts last year and helped orchestrate the January 6 Insurrection Day. And he coordinated back then with James O'Keefe of Project Veritas, who ended up getting arrested trying to plant listening devices in Senator Landrieu's federal office. Do you think there's any there there on this theory of Louisiana as a test case for these forces?
Yeah, I think look, I mean, there was definitely a Project Veritas person that tried to infiltrate the senator's campaign in 2014 after they had already had the issues in the federal building, and, which they committed federal crimes tapping into stuff there. I think there are, you know, in a conservative state like Louisiana, where you have some of these fringe elements, I think, yeah, you're gonna find lots of instances where things are happening in Louisiana far ahead of the national kind of discourse or scene. And so yeah, I think those 2014 efforts were definitely early iterations of what has evolved to large-scale massive misinformation campaigns. You know, I don't know that there was any Russian interference in 2014. But, you know, if somebody said, here's the evidence, it wouldn't shock me, basically. And so yeah, I think that's something we always have to be cognizant of, in particular with some of these groups like Project Veritas that James O'Keefe runs.
Well, we've certainly seen Russians hack into our state systems. So, it's certainly possible. Is there anything we should have learned from that? And when I say we, I mean national Democrats. Was there something we should have learned from 2014 that we didn't?
Well, I think 2014 and then you look at the 2016 and the email. I think, by and large, campaigns are really kind of startup operations. And they come together quickly. And the infrastructure is not permanent. So they're short-term. And I think we have to approach it in a much different way particularly with some of the back-end security stuff because there are clearly nefarious actors like Russia, who are, and I'm sure China and other actors, that are trying to interfere in elections, and they can do it in various ways, including hacking and other stuff. But there's also the huge misinformation piece that we really have to face as a party. And it just so happens that they almost always are targeting voters of color, who we know are disproportionately Democratic voters. So, I think it's something that we absolutely have to keep an eye on and learn from and continue to innovate and continue to make sure the campaign infrastructure itself is secure.
Well, I'd always thought Mary was not progressive enough for my taste until I saw her so skillfully handle crowds at the Affordable Care Act town halls in 2009. Then I found a deep and profound appreciation for her. I remember one in Reserve, Louisiana in particular, that was just brutal and had folks who were already on government-funded health care waving signs that said things like "Keep Government out of my Medicare. I'd always say Mary's yes vote on Obamacare is the thing that crushed her in 2014, but you mentioned the other day that really, the opening blows were from immigration.
Yeah, I think immigration and guns. Look, she also was for the Manchin-Toomey Bill, which was why the NRA was so invested in trying to take her out. Obviously, the Affordable Care Act vote. And she had been part of, as a moderate in the Senate in the Democratic caucus, was part of every kind of big negotiation across the 18 years that she was there. Whenever they had a Gang of Eight or Gang of Ten or Gang of twelve, whatever these names that these people come up with inside the beltway, she always found herself as a kind of center of gravity in the Democratic Caucus, and because of that, played a really important role in shaping policy. And I think particularly in her third term after getting elected in 2008 and while President Obama was there, I think there are any number of instances that you can point to and say, well, wow, that was a really courageous vote. The Obamacare vote was a very courageous vote. She said from the floor, she knew it was likely going to risk her reelection. And that turned out to be very prescient. And I think on that and immigration, on guns, she really took votes that were right and certainly defensible politically, but that definitely put her to the left of where some people in the state were. I think in the business of elections, you have to get people elected first. And so, I certainly hear, oh, this person is maybe not progressive enough on this set of issues or this or that. But we, particularly for the statewide offices, getting a Democrat elected is a hard enough task. To have the meet every litmus test and every single issue is really a far reach. And so, I think if you look at the totality of Senator Landrieu's record in particular, and on the environment where she single-handedly delivered more money to the state for coastal restoration and environmental causes and climate change adaptation than anyone else in the country from any state, or on guns, where she voted for the Manchin-Toomey amendment, which was kind of the center of a lot of discussions around gun reforms, or certainly on Obamacare, where she was the deciding vote for the Affordable Care Act, she has a very solid track record on progressive causes that we should be very proud of. And I think people make the same argument sometimes about Governor Edwards and had it not been for Medicaid Expansion, or the work that he's beginning to do on climate now, or his leadership through some of these big economic fights where Republicans wanted to force austerity on colleges and hospitals, and he righted the budget so that we have better-funded education and healthcare, I mean, those are fights worth really championing and being proud of and certainly Democratic. Those are not positions that would be taken by Republicans in office. And so, I think sometimes we always can try to have very progressive elected leadership, but we have to get people elected first.
True. Recently, Mary tweeted out a thank you to Bill Cassidy for his vote on the Trump impeachment, which I thought was a classy move on her part. What are your thoughts on Cassidy's votes there?
Any person that's just looking obviously, clearly, the betrayal of American trust in democracy that in those days when it was very clear. I think Senator Cassidy was very clear-eyed about it. I think even his kind of defense of it was like, look, I was trying to be an impartial juror. I listen to both sides. Once I had an argument that seemed very reasonable and lined up with my view of things, the other side didn't even make an argument. And so that's where my vote was. I think he is also trying to fashion himself as one of these folks in the moderate middle that can get things done. I don't know that we saw that from his early terms, but you certainly see him starting to be part of negotiations, authoring bipartisan bills, and trying to be one of the four, five, six Republican senators who at least are starting to have negotiations on a number of issues. And I think that certainly puts him as an outlier in that party. And certainly, as an outlier in this congressional delegation from Louisiana, save for maybe Garret Graves in Baton Rouge. I mean, the rest are kind of lock, stock, and barrel, opposed to everything that comes out of the White House or comes out of Democratic congress.
How has he been in general, and let's juxtapose him in this conversation with our Junior Senator John Kennedy?
Well, I don't even know if there's any sense in even talking about Senator Kennedy because I don't think he can point to anything that he's done that would benefit the people of Louisiana. Senator soundbite, as I know some people like to call him. I think he's just very much more interested in his ability to get on the media and in front of the media and come up with some folksy southern drawl fake accent than doing much of anything that's going to benefit the people of the state. So, I think, which juxtaposing that to Senator Cassidy, yeah, look, hell, makes Senator Cassidy look like a world leader. I think time will tell though. We got to see what comes out of Cassidy's efforts, and certainly, Senator Kennedy is up in 2022. And I'm very hopeful that we're able to field a candidate or candidates that can really put his record or lack of record to the test because it's fine maybe for him to be out there in the media playing the stick, but if you don't have results to show for what you're doing, I think you have to answer to the voters at a certain point.
Well, let's talk about that. As we're looking at upcoming races for Senate or for the next governor, what do we need to do to recruit the right folks to run?
Yeah, I think this is where we really have to look at the folks that are out there and start promoting people who are working in a local level in cities, in parishes across the state. I thought it was, of course, Senator Cassidy had a fairly easy reelection, but I thought it was important that somebody like Mayor Adrian Perkins of Shreveport got the exposure statewide that he did and is starting to build the network that he has and a grassroots donor network and really get out there from an early point. And I think these things also just take time, so I think anybody can look at what happened in Georgia over the last 10 plus years and see that it was, in many ways, methodical and strategic but also slow build to get to where they're at. And they had to have a lot more demographic change than we have here in Louisiana. That certainly contributed to it. So, I think we've got to be patient but start to elevate people and put people in position to compete. I think we too often get to a place where we're a week before qualifying, and everyone's scrambling to even find somebody to run. I think the more we've started to elevate people one or two rungs down, you know, council people and assessors and sheriffs and DAs, of which there are a lot of elected Democrats in the state, I think we will have a better shot at grooming candidates for higher office.
And is that how you think we build the bench? Just from promoting, by promoting from within?
Yeah. And I also think thinking differently. I think we also have to think about how do we build a bench that is diverse? I think for a long time, people looked around and, of course, no one's gonna say that race is not a major factor in someone being elected statewide, but I think it's important for us to build a bench of African American, Latino, moderate, liberal, progressive, like a bench of candidates in our party that speaks to all kinds of walks of life and ways of life. And the thing that I think we get stuck on a little bit is how many people fit this litmus test of where they are in every single issue. And that is not the way that we're going to build a big tent party in the state and certainly not a way that we're going to win elections. So, I think you know, I'm not for compromising our values, I'm for finding people that we can get elected.
Is there more of like an archetypal candidate we need to be looking at rather than an issue?
I think that's hard. It's hard because, of course, we say, oh, let's go find, who's the next John Bel Edwards? And I think that's a hard thing to find. I think that he was a candidate who had this great bio and military background and was genuinely pro-life and was genuinely pro Second Amendment but had also been Bobby Jindal's nemesis in the legislature as the Democratic caucus chair and from a kind of small town legacy family in Amite. I just think that's hard to replicate. And I think people kind of maybe fall back on that too easily. But I think there is work on issues and moments when I think some of the great organizing work that's happened in Louisiana is so important. Because I think there is a lot of work that's happening right now in the economic mobility space, and economic opportunity space, and labor organizing, and the environmental justice and criminal justice spaces, where Democrats are right on the issues. The position where we are on those issues are popular with voters. And now we just need to find candidates who can deliver a cohesive message on how they're going to deliver on those priorities. And so I think when you think about step back and look at the long game, we're starting to put some of those pieces together and the work that groups like the Power Coalition, or the Louisiana Budget Project, or other organizations that are really on the ground and really started put some of this issue organizing in place, stuff like you did when you helped lead or were part of certainly the unanimous jury project, those are all things that, I think, long-term will benefit Democrats at the ballot box down the road.
Where does Louisiana sit in relation to other southern states? You brought up Georgia. And you said, you know, we're not demographically the same as them but compared to the states around us, is there anything we can learn or duplicate here that's being done elsewhere?
Number one, I think it's important to know on the Georgia piece, they had major demographic change over time. Younger, diverse, and then also white college-educated influx because of the business growth, particularly the Atlanta metro area. So those were changes that happened. They also went to automatic registration for a period of time. I think they're going to reverse it because of the Republican legislature, but they've had automatic registration for a number of years that instead of the what we have right now in Louisiana, where you have the option to opt-in, to register to vote when you go get your license, DMV, they automatically enroll you. You would have to like opt-out. And so that put a lot of infrequent voters on the rolls kind of all at once that allowed for there to be, not to have this need for massive voter registration every year like you would have in a place like Louisiana. So, all those things kind of converge on top of just Stacey Abrams's just sheer persistence. She just really just put her, her and her team really just worked at it every day for years and years and years, put a lot of strategy and thought into it and so many other people. I think if you look at where we are, thinking about Georgia, and obviously that was a different case, I think we are much farther along than a lot of our other southern piers. I think if you look at--Louisiana obviously has got a growing base of Black voters. The younger generations in Louisiana are increasingly higher rates of people of color. And that's of various races and ethnicities. I think the Latino, Latinx population is growing considerably. Asian American population is growing here too. You know, as college education rates improve in the state, I think you'll see some shifts along partisan lines as well. And we have a track record of electing Democrats here in the last 10, 15, 20 years. That is not the case in most of our other southern states. We--of course, this recent election in Georgia with the presidential ballot and those two other places--we had elected statewide Democrats more recently than almost any other "southern state" with the exception of Virginia and North Carolina, which has, you know, trended Democratic in recent years. So, I think we're well-positioned if we could do a little bit better job of probably coordinating resources and organizing long-term and again, get some wins that are about the short-term with a longer-term vision. But very grateful to a lot of the work that's been happening really over the last, I don't know, Lynda, what would you say? Five years, four or five years?
Five years. That sounds right.
But I think you can start to see a pathway out of the wilderness with some of the work that's going on now.
I agree with that. Like me, you used to work at the Louisiana Democratic Party. What year were you there?
I was at the party from 2003 to 2007 and on and off in various capacities.
Okay. Well, when I talked to the governor a little over a year ago about the future of the State Democratic Party, he warned me then that state parties, be they Democratic or Republican, really cannot raise the money they use to be able to raise to do the kind of organizing work I focus on outside of a handful of state Democratic parties like in Wisconsin, where the former head of Move On Ben Winkler became chair and made it a real organizing juggernaut. Is this the reason state parties seem so weak? It's just the lack of ability to get money like they used to?
I think a couple things. I was at the party at a time where we had all but one statewide elected official. Even in 2003, right? So, you had everybody but I guess Fox McKeithen, who was the secretary of state, was a Democrat. And really, he was kind of a Democrat. He was friendly. But ag commissioner, insurance, you name it, right? It's like, Robert Wooley was the insurance commissioner. Bob Odom was the ag commissioner. We had this like old guard that had been in there for a long time and was very, very loyal to the party apparatus. In fact, even after, I think, Governor Blanco got elected, there was a fight for party chair, and the Landrieus and Governor Blanco and other people were lined up behind one candidate. Odom lined up behind another. The Odom faction won out. And he just had, he wielded a lot of influence and power in the party. So, you go from that period of time quickly, even in like 2007 when the Republicans start organizing their Committee for a Republican Majority and some of these outside groups, and over time, the farther away you are from that period of time, the less relevant the party, I think, has become. In large measure, yes, because of the fundraising, because of Citizens United, and the people. The party had power because it was where money was funneled through during campaigns for all of the field organizing outreach work also TV work and mail and any other kind of paid advertising. Because you could, the limits were larger than obviously through a campaign, and for a coordinated campaign when you can start taking $100,000 per entity checks, those are really valuable places to be, particularly in federal elections. And then, so Citizens United happens, and you have all these undisclosed or even disclosed 527s or 501c4s that can take unlimited contributions, and where corporations can give unlimited amounts, and it kind of took the fundraising prowess away from parties in a lot of ways. And without the fundraising, yeah sure, it's hard to build the infrastructure. I think there was a time when Governor Dean, when he was DNC chair, certainly was committed to this 50-state strategy. I think there's been a time, even in recent years maybe even under Tom Perez, where the DNC sent a certain amount of money to state parties to keep the lights on and keep some staff in. But outside of campaign cycles, I think it's always gonna be hard for a party to have more than a kind of skeletal staff. Again, there are certainly exceptions to those rules. But I think it's just going to be a hard place because there's not the need for the party to be the financial conduit for these campaigns in the way that they used to, not in the same way anyway.
So what would be the best use of a state party today?
Well, I think when you have elected officials, I think their best place is to prop up and defend elected officials like you have with Governor Edwards here. And then I think to do some of this bench building work that we talked about. No one else is really out there trying to prop up the work that's happening by Democrats at the state and local level or local and hyperlocal level across the state. And I think the party could play a role in doing that with the communication stuff: placing op-eds, highlighting positive news from localities with Democratic mayors, for example, or other, you know, sheriffs or DAs. You know, doing some of the issue organizing work, fighting bad bills in the legislature. I think there's still a ton of ways for people to play in the space without having to be the conduit for all the money like they used to.
And I guess you think it's easier for the community groups we were talking about before to raise money and build momentum on the organizing side.
Yeah, I think so. Especially as 501c3s. A lot of the work that's happening right now, even though, of course, it helps with some of the partisan organizing down the road, it's happening in a non-partisan way because it's around issues or supporting organizing people of color writ large. And so, yeah, I think it is in many ways easier to attract funding and resources for that than say, to hire a staff or a couple staff people at the Democratic Party.
Well tell us more about E Pluribus Unum. I know you're still working with the former mayor on that.
Yeah, yeah. So, I think after Mayor Landrieu left office, obviously, we did a lot of work on racial equity at the city. We were one of the first places in the country to have a racial equity plan and institute racial equity lends and budgeting. And so, he wanted to figure out a way to replicate some of that work or advance that work more broadly across the South. We spent about a year plus on the road traveling across 13 southern states, about 30 communities, to dozens of focus groups, talked to over a thousand people, and really didn't launch the organization until fall of 2019 with a report that we call Divided by Design. It's Divided by Design. So, you can go to www.dividedbydesign.org and get the report, which we made interactive for the website component. But kind of came up with about 15 key truths from our deep-dive research on attitudes on race, and poverty, and economic opportunity, and also violence across the South. And some of them are kind of pretty straightforward like the fact that maybe white people don't have an understanding of systemic racism or are not willing to accept it in both ways. I mean, I think most people, most white people define racism as malice or interpersonal actions between two people as opposed to looking at this huge, glaring systemic racism and institutional bias that is still present today. And so, I think that was kind of one of the major findings that helped guide the creation of our work. You know, stuff like that. Education and inequality often go hand in hand and kind of the key ways that tackling those issues are important. That media drives narrative, and stereotypes, and the way that people view issues on race and class. The arts, culture, music, sports are drivers of bringing communities together, particularly white and Black communities across the South, both in physical proximity and space and in a kind of cohesive way across the community in other ways. And so, out of that report, really launched programming in three main areas. Leadership Program, which we call Unum Fellows, which right now is focused on municipal and local elected officials. We have mayors, school board members, district attorneys, sheriffs, etc., council members from about a dozen states in that program. And they'll each come up with a racial equity project in their city, or town, or county, that we'll fund. And they're going through deep training and narrative work. We also have a policy bucket, which right now has been primarily focused on COVID, as has everything in the last year whether it's vaccine equity or the recovery bills at the federal level. We are right now in the process of, we've also been very, Mitch has been very involved, Mary Landrieu has been very involved for a long time on truth and racial healing racial reconciliation work. There's a lot of momentum right now for a federal truth and racial healing and transformation commission. So, we're involved in that work as well as how to maybe have that trickle down to a state and local level where a lot of the work is really going to have to happen anyway. And then, you know, issues of voting rights representation, democracy issues. So, we were very involved, we partnered with Stacey Abrams's Fair Count organization last year on a lot of census work across the South. And we're working on a lot of that work. Currently, there's obviously this voter suppression wave that's happening in bills and legislatures across southern states and non-southern states by the way, but our focus is on 13 states. And then our last bucket of work is narrative change. And that happens in a bunch of different ways. You know, through traditional means like social media and how things are reported in earned media. And then we're looking at a bunch of different initiatives to really shift these false narratives that have persisted for a long time. The monuments, of course, are a part of that. How we learn our history is a part of that. How we talk or don't, you know, avoid the topic of race. The off-ramps that white people provide themselves either, you know, an empathy or exceptionalism or colorblindness and how all those things really, you know, are to the detriment of us being able to go through the issue of race in a forthright way. And so, you know, that is that body of work that we're really proud to be a part of.
Besides Divided by Design, how would people connect to your work there?
Yeah. So the website is unumfund.org. U N U M fund F U N D dot O R G. We have a biweekly newsletter. There's webinars every couple weeks. We have great speakers and thought leaders and networks. Many people will know Kia Bickham, who has been very involved in political work in Louisiana, is the director of engagement. So, she's another entry point, I think, for folks in Louisiana to really plug into a lot of our advocacy engagement work that's really kind of just getting underway. And so, hopefully, people will check out E Pluribus Unum. The name comes from the nation's founding motto, E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin and translates to out of many, one. It's about our diversity as a country, our oneness and getting back to that idea, that aspiration that we have as a country. We also have a podcast that people can listen to online. It's really aimed at people who are wanting to get up to speed on how systemic racism manifests today, and it's kind of broken out by topic area: voting rights, housing, the racial wealth gap, and criminal justice system, among others. So there's a lot of ways that people can plug into this work. I think that's one thing we've seen in the last year plus in this kind of moment of racial reckoning for the country is people are craving information. And that's important. And we want to provide avenues for people to learn more, understand what the racial equity work is all about, how it's different than just equality. But we can't just allow people to continue to have these kind of token pledges and corporate branded programs, we've got to go much deeper. And there's a real reckoning that has to happen about the truth of our history and our present and accountability that has to take place for us to really get the country and the South, state, city to a different place.
I will drop links in the podcast notes, so people can connect to you there. We are in the home stretch of the podcast, Ryan. Thank you for being so persistent as a storm has kicked us off the Zoom a few times. I ask three questions at the end of every podcast. The first one is what is the biggest hurdle for progressives in Louisiana today?
I think it's a good question. I think the biggest hurdle for progressives, which I would maybe argue is different than Democrats, is, I think, looking for the, letting perfect be the enemy of good. And I mean mostly in an elected official, political candidate recruitment strategy piece. I think, obviously, New Orleans is New Orleans, but what works in New Orleans may not work in the rest of the state. And I think if we continue to have to hold candidates that we put up to a New Orleans standard, I think we are going to have a hard time electing people that align with progressive values statewide.
What is the biggest opportunity for progressives?
I think the issue organizing work is where it's all at. I think we have a really great synergy in the criminal justice space, in the environmental justice space, climate groups, and then, I think, in the economic space where, whether it's the work that the Louisiana Budget Project is doing or some of the labor groups are doing, the progressive causes that we care about whether it's the minimum wage being raised to $15 or paid family leave, an issue that we work on, or any number of issues are really popular with the voters. And so, I think that's really where I think there's the greatest opportunity for progressives in the coming years.
And we lift up organizers here as superheroes. So, I always ask my guests, who's your favorite superhero?
I'm like pretty old school about it. I'm a big Batman fan. So, I would say, probably my favorite superhero.
I've been catching up on joker movies lately, and I appreciate the deeper nuances that I'm picking up from watching those movies.
Yeah, it's definitely darker than you remember it I bet.
For sure, for sure. Ryan, thanks so much for spending time with me today. I think you're one of the sharpest strategic minds in our state. So, this is a real honor and treat to get to speak with you.
Thank you for all you do and look forward to continuing to connect. I think we really do have a great opportunity ahead of us in the coming months and years. And hopefully, we can all continue to come together and really advance the ball because, I think, we've seen what the bottom looks like. There's only room to grow from here.
I agree. And I appreciate that, Ryan. Thank you so much, and I look forward to talking to you soon.
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