S1:E20 - Davante Lewis
10:09PM Jul 13, 2021
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 host Davante Lewis, Director of Public Affairs and Outreach with the nonprofit Louisiana Budget Project, which he describes as a think and do tank, for a conversation on the intersection of policy and organizing.
Davante Lewis! Thanks so much for joining me on Louisiana Lefty today.
Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.
Well, I always start the podcast with how I met my guest. And I believe we met when you were at McNeese and involved with College Democrats there. Is that to your recollection?
I think so. I think the challenge with it is there were so many events and so many growing things, but I think that's when we officially met, when I joined or when I was about to, when I was running to join the Democratic State Central Committee.
Was it College Dems at McNeese or was it student government?
I think that was a time when there was no real difference between the College Dems and the Young Dems. So, it was kind of like a little mixture of both, but I was at McNeese at the time, and I had just come off of being the High School Coordinator for President Obama in the '08 campaign. And so, I was meeting people and still kind of getting connected to the scene, since I really got involved in that campaign, and helping organize high school students. And everybody's like, "Well, you can't just stop at high school students now that you're no longer there. You got to get involved with everybody else."
So, we very likely knew each other even in 2008.
Correct. I probably was on an email or something. I think that's the challenge when you do so much great work, you really forget when was the moment that you knew each other because it's just like, I feel like I've just always known you.
That's right. That's right. Well, and we've sort of woven in and out of each other's timelines at this point where in 2016 at the convention, we were both whips for our respective candidates. You were the head of the whip operation for Bernie Sanders in Louisiana, and I was head of the whip operation for Hillary Clinton in Louisiana.
Yeah, and I think we were an example. I tell this to people all the time, you go back in that '16 convention, you'll notice Louisiana, we were positioned in a very, I mean, we had great seats, but we were right behind--Colorado was above us. Pennsylvania was in front of us. North Carolina, I think was to the side of us, and we, I think our operation of the Sanders-Clinton unity really was a display cause I think most people watch that convention and know how sometimes chaotic it got, but one place you did not see that was Louisiana. We really stuck together and had a great time and dialogue with one another while some other states were probably having a little bit more of a challenge than we did.
That's very true. That was actually an exhausting convention. But there were some pretty cool things about it particularly our morning breakfasts where we get together and have great people like Cory Booker come in to speak or Jamie Harrison because we shared breakfast space with South Carolina--
South Carolina at the time. Yeah, I think it was a true testament to Louisiana that even though there were a lot of disagreements in that moment, in the time, and then, of course, all of the leaked emails had just come out as we were all arriving, Louisiana and you and I and all of our delegates really worked well with each other and had constructive dialogue even in the moments of talking about it. Like we never screamed at each other. There was never these tensions that you saw on their stage time. We just really respected everyone. And I think your leadership with the Hillary Clinton delegates and then me working with our Bernie delegates, I think it just was a testament to how we did it the Louisiana way.
And then cut to four years later 2020, we actually were running mates in the Louisiana Democratic Party leadership elections. It was a short campaign for us. Only about 11 days I think was what it came down to. But look, I want to say this though about that. I ran for chair, and you joined on my ticket as first vice-chair. And I want you to know how grateful I am that you took that journey with me because your involvement with my campaign set a tone, in my opinion, for what I would have wanted the party to focus on moving forward. And we knew that winning was unlikely, because the DSCC is a very political body by nature. And while we've both been very involved in Democratic politics since 2008 at least, we're still at heart grassroots activists and progressives. And that's really not the makeup of the state party in general. But I think it was really important for us to have an option on the ballot for voters in that election. So, I'm grateful that you took that risk with me. I appreciate it.
Thank you. And I'm grateful you did. I like to tell people, oftentimes we may not be winning the battles, but we are winning the war of what we need to be focusing on. And sometimes we may not be the generals dictating it, but our thoughts may be the action planning and what we brought to the table and what we focused on, I think really starts the conversation and keeps people thinking about it. And sometimes I tell people, I would prefer more people to start thinking about the things that I think about and care about than me just being in a position of power. And so, I think that there's always the victory, and I think if there's anything that we did, we were able to recenter and refocus that we really need to focus on the people on the ground if we really want to do something different in our state.
I think that's right. Well, we've touched on several items from your political CV already, but I do want to ask: what got you interested in politics in the first place?
Yeah, I've gotten this question a lot. And it's always interesting because there's not a moment that I can remember. My great-grandfather was a fruit truck driver in Lake Charles and would attend city council meetings and knew all of the laypersons. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was one, so I never really got to experience that. But the stories I hear, it's so ironic and so just inspiring how much we are alike to know we only knew each other for about 13 months. And so, it really, I think it was, I say all that because I think it was born into me. But I just remember really being engaged--one of my first memories is the 2003 gubernatorial race. And I just remember going to my great-grandmother's house and watching the commercials and saying, "Okay, I want to learn more about this." And I remember Kathleen Blanco's commercial, and we were of course from Lake Charles, so we knew Richard Ieyoub and the Ieyoubs were part of it. And I remember, and I was like, well, I kind of like what Foster Campbell is saying. And then I watched Buddy Leach's commercial, and I knew of his family. And so, it was really kind of in that moment. I don't think I really paid attention much, but I remember noticing the commercials in the '03 gubernatorial race. And then after that is when I really started to say, I need to learn more than just these commercials. These 30-second things that I see in between cartoons can't be the only thing that people are talking about. And so, I really, as I went to middle school, got involved in student council, which really put me, and following city government and how power structures work and who had authority, and that's when I realized that hey, if there's anything you want to do, it's in this arena. It is in public policy. It is in politics. That is where it meets it, and I often cringe when people tell me, "I don't do politics." I say, "Well, do you care about your trash being picked up?" And they're like, "Yeah, It's late." I say, "Well, you know that sanitation is run by your mayor." I say, "Do you do care about police brutality?" And they're like, "Yeah, I care about what's happening." I say, "Well, I hope you know that the mayor picks the police chief, and the police chief is normally governed and appointed by your city council. That's politics." And so that was kind of the theory that I came to as I was growing up was just like, every time I found something that I wanted to be interested in or cared about if I followed the chain all the way to the end, it brought me to policy and politics--somebody being elected. This choice, while it may be three levels down, really starts from this elected position, and it from there just took off, and I've been doing it ever since.
So, you got involved in policy that early?
Yeah, I think my first real thing was being on the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council. I think my freshman year of high school in Lake Charles. Mayor Roach created this, and then I really started to learn city government, and then I was one of the first members of the Louisiana Legislative Youth Advisory Council that Governor Blanco had created, which brought young people from every congressional district to basically serve as an advisory board to legislators. And really, that's when I learned Louisiana Legislators. So, I tell people, I may be one of the youngest lobbyists still at just shy of being 30, but I've been around that building now almost 14 years. I like to say, I'm like a young veteran. My face may not show all the scars and the years, but I've been around the block a few times.
I believe that. Well, what other high points from your political CV have we not hit on yet?
I think what people find out is when I really exploded, so after the '08 campaign when I became, and I really followed President Obama, and that was kind of the next phase, while there was always an interest before there, and I followed it, and I learned the things, and I watched DC, the '08 campaign was the real turning point from doing things to being it. And so, what a lot of people don't know is I ran for school board at 18. A lot of people knew about my most recent race, which was running for City Councilor in Baton Rouge, but my actual first real political race was in 2010 when I ran for school board. I was fresh out of graduation. I tell this to people all the time, my first day at McNeese, I went to class, and I left class, and I went and canvassed. So, I've never actually had a traditional start to college because my first two months of college, I spent phone banking. So, I joined a fraternity and met people, and in our break time, I had them doing call time and calling voters. So, it's just been--it's never been stopping. I introduced, most people would introduce their friends to alcohol and drugs in college, and I introduced them to what canvassing and the VAN was.
That's amazing. That's amazing. I come from a strictly campaign space. So, I love hearing that. And you've said that you started in policy early. I've also heard you say policy is your love language.
Yes, shout out to Ayanna Pressley for that amazing catchphrase.
Well, I love that. Once policy becomes issue advocacy, it still requires some organizing. Do you get involved in that part of it in the work you do right now?
Absolutely. I think that's one of the challenges that is really taking forth in the nonprofit policy world. So, a long time ago, there was this theory that policy work meant putting out a white paper and talking strictly data and facts. And there's truth to that, and that is an important portion of the work. But a lot of times, I like to say, normally we would say, if a tree falls in the forest, who hears it? Oftentimes, if you just put out a policy report, and you don't give it to people, who knows about it? And so, what has really transformed this work is the recognition that policy requires activism and requires engagement with people. It's very hard for me to go to the capitol and say, I'm speaking on behalf of low and moderate income families, when I have not talked or engaged with low and moderate income families and that my job should not just be to talk on their behalf but to enhance them talking on their own behalf because, like I often tell people, if you go talk to someone who's living in poverty, they don't need a white paper to tell them what it is to be in poverty. They don't need a white paper to tell them how hard it is to make end meet. When you're working a minimum wage job that has no access to sick time and no paid leave, and you have an unfair schedule. They don't need that white paper. What they need: sometimes the data and the facts to say that I am not the only one. This may be my story, but there are 547,000 other people who are doing the same thing as me. And I think that's what we have really started to do now is recognize the power in collective power. That it's one thing to present the research and tell you how many people live in poverty. It's another thing to enhance people who are living in poverty to talk for themselves and to say that this is the problem because we oftentimes, we really got into a savior model where a lot of nonprofits wanted to be saviors. We wanted to walk into a community and save them because they were impoverished or because they were uneducated or because they didn't have access to generational wealth. And instead of serving communities, which is saying, "We are here to enhance your fight, to enhance what is happening for those workers who are fighting for $15. I'm here to tell you, how can we do it? How many people will be benefited by if we raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour? So, you know, your story is not the only story." And so, one of the things that we're doing now is recognizing that while most nonprofits, and almost all nonprofits because of the IRS are nonpartisan, that doesn't mean as Dr. William Barber says, "We are nonpolitical." But I think that's where we're really starting to see growth is that to really make a difference and to impact communities, we got to be in the political process, which is building people power.
And we've mentioned this on the pre-interview video that we did for Facebook, but I don't think we've said yet that you're currently working with the Louisiana Budget Project. So, I want to make sure people know that's the work you're doing. How many people work at the Louisiana Budget Project?
Well, we have grown amazingly. So, for those of you who are not familiar, the Louisiana Budget Project is a think and do tank that works on issues that affect low and moderate income people. And I say do because no longer are we just thinking about these policies. We are now doing things to enact the policies, but we really are looking at Louisiana and how we uplift low and moderate income people but through the lens of taxation and our budget but with also other public policy. And so, we have three goals: we are really looking to eradicate poverty, to promote racial justice because we know there's no such thing as a race neutral policy, and that race neutrality as think tanks used to do really dilutes the work that needs to happen when we're talking about how policy disproportionately impacts different communities, and we're trying to build a more prosperous Louisiana where everybody can grow. So, my main job is I'm the Director of Public Affairs and Outreach, so I handle all of our legislative affairs, our engagement with partners and other organizations who are doing the same type of work trying to build the same type of power that we are and then strategically thinking about how we take our reports and the research and the data and how do we mobilize it and use it in a way that people are building structures and power systems and getting civically involved? So that's kind of what I do. It's great to bring all my loves together in one position. So, I enjoy it. There's a staff of 12 of us. And so, we have a few of us who work primarily on outreach and advocacy and communications. And then we have a host of very smart people who are crunching numbers and researching and analyzing and creating like the Child Tax Credit--our version was created by my colleague. She really looked at models and created it. We've had a lot of conversations about paid leave. And former senator JP Morrell had a bill, right before he left, on paid leave. And we really did the research to structure how that program should work. So, we are sometimes very upfront about the work that we're doing, and other times, we're very behind the scenes because we know this is a collective effort, and we're not looking for recognition. We're just looking for the work to be done.
And who are the allies that you work with?
Yes, so some of our closest allies are the Together Louisiana Baton Rouge-New Orleans apparatus. Also, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice is our closest partner. We really partner with them like when they host their town halls or legislative roundtables or some of their candidate forums. We work to create the questions while they do a lot of the groundwork. We partner with them, but at the capitol, we have tons of allies: The Urban League of Louisiana, a bunch of policy organizations. There are all kinds of partners, so if you're working on policy, you're working on activism, you're a grassroot partner--Step Up Louisiana. Most people wouldn't think we work very closely with Step Up. Because we know the research we provide helps their members go to counsel and places and advocate.
Full disclosure. We're hearing your little puppy right now, a little bit, chiming in on your--
Yes, she loves when we talk about our partners.
Well, very good. And I did ask you before we started recording if you were willing to talk about LABI. Would LABI be considered the biggest antagonist for the work you do?
I would say they are, but they're also sometimes an ally. So, I'll tell you, so most of the time they are an antagonist, and we go tooth and nail, but we have found areas where we can work together. So, we are part of a workforce coalition and recognizing the need to broaden Louisiana's population and make ourselves have a more equitable workforce. And so, we partnered together on some bills last year. They helped us as we were trying to free transcripts for college students who were in debt at the campus. This year, they worked with us in trying to raise UI benefits. And other times, they are our biggest pain when it comes to raising the minimum wage, providing paid family medical leave, giving people access to sick time. So, it's a little bit of a love-hate relationship. There are days where we stand hand-in-hand and love each other. And on other days, we're probably going at it just like we have been about the cancellation of the additional supplemental UI benefits. So, it depends on the day and the issue. But for the most part, we're trying to bring them on to the right side.
So LABI is an acronym for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Is that?
Right. So, are they a little more difficult on these years? Every other year at the legislature, we have budget years, right? So, there are regular session years where you can put any bill up. And then there are other years that are really focused on fiscal issues. And we just went through one of those fiscal years. Is this a more difficult year to get through with LABI?
I think so. There are just some places where we just disagree on tax policy. For instance, we don't support a flat rate. We don't think a flat rate does anything and disproportionately hurts low-income individuals and mostly Black and Brown people in our state. So, the fiscal sessions are normally more challenging because that's normally the heart of our disagreements are on fiscal policy, but it doesn't change because even in a regular session, we, like I said, we disagree on labor policy. We disagree on who should be the driving force of our workforce. Should it be business or should it be workers? And the Budget Project, and in our work, we believe that workers should be the ultimate person determining, and I think that's been the challenge. That's been the whole issue with the supplemental $300 UI benefit. A lot of people keep talking about, well, when we go to a restaurant, there's no one there to work. And I saw a great economist say something that when you go to a store that has high prices and bad services, no one says, "Oh, oh, that store has some problems." So why do we say it about a restaurant? Maybe there's something, maybe the reason you're not having workers is because you're not paying them enough. You're not giving them the benefit. And so that's one of our disagreements is that for once in American history, the worker has power. And we've done everything to blame them for being the--and not looking into say, "Hey, maybe business, maybe you're the reason that no one's coming to work for you." Not that people are sitting at home collecting $300 a month because let's be real, in Louisiana, if you are getting your $300 and you're getting the maximum state contribution of unemployment, you're only getting about $13 an hour. So, you really didn't make a big improvement in your life. So, if $13 an hour is keeping people from coming to work for you, maybe there's a problem with how you're actually structuring your workforce and your business and not that people are trying to be lazy because it's not like they're making a whole lot of money off of this unemployment insurance.
Is there an opportunity for bipartisan progress in the legislature as it's made up now?
I think so. I think there are some things around the surface. And then like I often like to say that there are things that you can approach from both sides. I think criminal justice has shown that while some of us come from it from more of a just, fair, equitable lens, some of our friends on the conservative aisle are coming from it from a cost. But we're coming to the same conclusion. And I think, and I tell that to people all the time that I am okay with, and I think it's healthy for us to find reasons to vote for things even if we aren't agreeing on why we're both voting. I don't think we have to chew the same gum and say, "Well, I'm voting for this because I believe X, Y, and Z. And you should too." If you believe in A, B, and C, and we're both coming to the same conclusion, I think that's fair and reasonable for us to have in our society. And we should encourage that. So we've seen that in criminal justice. We've seen that in workers. I think one of the things we've recognized is how debt is holding back workers and occupational licensing. We've seen a lot of bipartisanship on that. But I think one of the challenges to it is we have to also recognize and identify the same problem. I'm a former high school and college debater. One of the first rules in debate was always define the terms. Well, first thing you do in a debate round is you say, "I'm going to define every word in this debate. So, you know exactly what I'm talking about." I think that's the challenge for bipartisanship right now in our state is we're often always working on different definitions. And when you work on different definitions, you can't find a solution because you're not identifying the same problem in the same way. And so, I think that's going to be the challenge: for us to really work on what we are defining as some of the problems in Louisiana are.
So, you do see reason for hope on an issue-to-issue basis?
I will always say, I see hope. I like to say, I'm never optimistic. But I always have what I call genuine hope. And genuine hope is the thought and the feeling that it's going to get better even through the suffering and the hardship, with my eyes wide open, that things aren't working the way that it should be. And I think oftentimes, we confuse and conflate hope with optimism, which means we think, and we feel it's going to be better. No, I don't feel it's going to be better. But I am really, with my eyes wide open, that if we just put the time and did some of the work, and we recognize this suffering, we could do better, and things can improve.
Okay, do you think it would make a difference if we got more Democrats elected to the legislature in how much progress we could make?
I think so. I think partly what our challenge is is we have a lot of people who just don't represent Louisiana in the Louisiana Legislature. And when I say that I mean we have a lower share of Black members than our Black population. We have a lower share of women than the percent of women in our state. We have a lower share of what--our median income is 50, is just around $47,000-$51,000 in this state. Do you want to know what the median income of someone in the legislature is? It doesn't represent that. And so, I think it's not even just about Democrat and Republican. It's simply about just fitting the demographics of what our state is. And the way our legislature, and this is the problem with a part-time legislature that we don't give a salary to, you can't actually bring real people in. And oftentimes, I know people talk about, well, we don't want to pay these people $70,000 to go up there and vote against stuff. So, when you think about it, if you're a teacher making $55,000 teaching, can you really afford to take a $17,000 job being a state representative? You can't. If you're Joe the plumber from the conservative side, you're not going to quit plumbing to come get $17,000. So, I think that's one of the things we have to think about is how we really incentivize average people. And I think it takes us paying legislators some more money. Because if we don't pay them more, we're going to end up with the same type of older, retired, whiter person representing districts because they're the people that can afford to stand up and serve.
Do y'all do any work on redistricting with the Budget Project?
We haven't. But we are very interested in ensuring that we know how redistricting plays a role in public policy and in connection with people. So, one of the things we're going to work to make sure and partner with some of our partners is ensuring that we have equal representation. One thing that we have supported is the end of prison gerrymandering. I think one of the things people don't often know about is what we do is we count those incarcerated not where they are, where they lived, or where they were when they became incarcerated but at the actual facility. So, we know we put a lot of our prisons and jails in very rural remote communities. So, when you say you have a district of 34,000 people for every person, and let's say you have a rural jail in Sabine Parish, that prison population counts toward their 34,000. So, they end up actually representing less than someone who is in New Orleans, for example. And so, we've brought our voices to how that's unfair and unequitable to the Louisiana population. And so, those are some of the things we're going to talk about is ending prison gerrymandering, making sure that districts are reflective of communities, and also just the need for us to look at how participation for people and how redistricting plays in that politicians should not be picking their voters. Their voters should be picking their politicians.
That's for sure. People of color make up a large percentage of the Democratic Party in Louisiana. Statistically, they tend to consider themselves more moderate, sometimes even conservative. What are the chances for progressive candidates to get elected? Let me--before you answer that. I think progressive issues are popular in the state if you take it issue by issue. I think it's just harder for people who present as progressive to overcome some of the hurdles with the optics of that. Just would like your thoughts on that.
Yeah. And I'm probably one of the most progressive people, but I'm also really connected, and I think one of the challenges, and think this is in conversation with the ongoing New York City mayor election, and people are just confused on how one of the most progressive cities seems likely to elect as their next mayor a Black man who's a former cop, who is a former Republican, who has less progressive ideas. And oftentimes, I see the challenge is because progressives have done a very poor job in my eyes of talking particularly to older Black and Brown people who are the bulk of voters in the people of color space. It is normally your abuela on the Hispanic side. It is normally sister Hattie Mae and Mr. Alfred on the Black side. And oftentimes that is the population that progressives just aren't talking to. And you're right. I think our issues are popular. And when you talk to these individuals, they agree that the system is rigged. They agree about how we need to do, but sometimes we're not connecting the progression. And a lot of times, I think one of the challenges is that they are often about self-preservation. And when I say that it doesn't it mean in a negative way. It says, "Look, I am with you, but I don't want to jeopardize where we're already at and what we already have for something." And then I think there's a conversation that has happened. And I say this in my more professional capacity that there is a way that we can articulate a bold policy vision that incorporates incrementalism without making incrementalism the actual goal. And I think that's a distinction that a lot of people feel, a lot of people hear. It's like, it's either Medicare for All or it's a public option. And how you can actually say the same thing that yes, we are for universal health care coverage, but we know that we may not get there overnight. So, let's keep building the foundation and adding pillars to our health system that gets us to a place where we finally have universal coverage. And I think that's a challenge that our senior people of color, who are progressive but who are more reserved, and progressives have to work out that communication channel. Because I don't think it's the issue. I don't think it is the way, but it's the way we present that some of these things are going to take years. And I think one of the things progressives are great about and that we know, but we don't articulate enough is that we know a lot of the things we are fighting for, we may not actually ever see in our lifetimes. But we're working towards it, so somebody else can achieve it. And oftentimes, I think some of our--the way we go about it, especially talking with these voters, makes them think that we're going to come into government and overturn everything overnight, a system that took 300 years to be put in place. And we know that's not the case, but it's just because sometimes we don't articulate how our vision is bold and how we're going to move the levers within government to make that vision happen. And I think that, if we focused on that and those communication channels between abuela and sister Hattie Mae and progressives, I think we would have a very much strong, bold coalition that would do great things in this country and in our state.
Yes, you're talking about the mayor's race in New York City, but you look at the mayor's race in Buffalo: different outcome. Someone that was talking about police reform and more progressive issues there that actually won that race.
And one of the things she did is she did the traditional stuff. They made 19,000 calls. I think, what I read about her campaign, I think they called every voter that was in the voter register and VAN. And that's what you got to do. Oftentimes, I think we try to find our targets. And we try to find who we think is going to speak to us instead of having those conversations because there is a conception that older Black and Brown people are more conservative, and they're naturally more conservative in their implementation than they are in their ideas. And if you talk to them, you can showcase to them how your idea will be implemented. And they go, "Okay, you know what? Yeah, I'm really for that." But it's because oftentimes, we don't really open those channels because we already have marked people off that it creates a controversy.
And I've had several young guests recently, and I've asked all of them this question, so you still fall in the young category as far as I'm concerned. What do you think animates young voters and gets them to not only vote but to engage on a deeper level?
I tell this to people all the time, I think the reason you're seeing so much youth engagement recently is out of the recognition that the American Dream just doesn't exist. And I think for so long, we painted this picture that if you worked hard, you went to school, you'll get your--you'll get your house, your three-bedroom house, your two baths with the white picket fence, and your family and your dog could live and thrive. And young people are recognizing just how much that just doesn't exist anymore. Because you may get there, but you may be now saddled with $100,000 worth of student loan debt that you'll never pay back or that you are working hard in education, and you find out after you graduate that every job application says you need five years of experience, but you just spent four years in undergrad to get a college degree. And so, it's the challenge that sometimes we put this aspiration of this grand trophy we're working towards, but we haven't actually looked at all of the barriers, the obstacles, the challenges in American society that have been put up to ensure we don't actually ever get there. And so, I think what motivates young people is sitting there saying, "I know we can do better. And I know it shouldn't be this hard. And I've done the work. What's missing?" And I think we're recognizing what's missing is public policy. It is the recognition of how these levers work with one another and systematic changes. And that I think young people have recognized that we have to stop singularly focusing on an issue and recognize how they play hand-in-hand. We want more people to buy homes, but we're not looking at how student loan debt affects people's ability to buy a home. And if we are now going to tackle student loan debt, that means we have to tackle how education is unaffordable for people. And if we're going to talk about making education more affordable, then we have to talk about the living wages for those who have to work to pay for college. And then how we may be talking simply about home ownership, but how the affordability of college and a living wage dictates that. And I think that's what's motivating young people saying, "You can't solve this just by focusing on one thing. This is the system. This is a puzzle. They all move together." And if you're not doing the bold work of moving everything, you won't actually solve the problem because you can create all the first-time homeowner programs that you want, but if our debt from college is what's keeping us, the program is never going to work. And I think that's where young people are really starting to notice is that we recognize a lot more just kind of the system as a whole and how it's not a whack-a-mole. You got to do everything together because solving one issue doesn't mean that you've actually solved that issue.
Would you run for office again?
You know what, I tell people this all the time, I am a strong believer in never closing the door. And I know that's a cliche, but I also tell people that I probably will. What is unknown, because I'm one of those people, my motto if you've ever gotten a personal email from me, at the bottom it says, "Passion without action is a wasted emotion." And I tell people, I ran for public office twice. In between that was 10 years. I know it sounds really weird, but I ran the first time at 18, and I waited a whole decade before I finally did it again. And that wasn't because I didn't have interest in being in elected office, but my passion never matched a position that was open. Because there was a lot of people who said, "Oh you should run for school board again. People will trust you now. You were 18 at the time, but you're 22 now. People will have a different--." And I could have, but I didn't have the same passion as I had to be a school board member that I did four years prior. Until I chose not to. And so, that's why I tell people that I am not opposed to it. It's probably something that's going to happen. But I am not out here planning it and saying the next office is going to be this. I'm going to run for this position. It's going to come as what is the work? I never really had an interest in being in city government, but I ran for city council after the pandemic when I recognized the way that a local government could have helped make this pandemic easier for people. And so I was really passionate at the time, and that's why I ran. Will this passion for local government exists four years from now? I don't know. I can't say, but I keep the door open because I know that there's a chance, but I also tell people, it depends on where my passion--it may be another 20 years before I run because the moment may not come that I feel passionate until 20 more years from now, or it may be next year. It all just depends, but I say all that to say that it's open, and I probably will at some point but to be determined for what office.
What's the best way for people to plug into the work you're doing now with the Louisiana Budget Project?
Yeah, I would tell you, if you're really interested in that work, you can come to the--go to labudget.org. And all of our reports and our charts and our graphs are posted up on there. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @labudget. You can particularly find me on Twitter. I tweet a lot of our stuff out, and me and our executive director are kind of the tweeters of our organization. But we are doing great, great things. I will give you an exclusive: we are bringing back, for some of those of you who right before the pandemic saw that we charted a new engagement arm called Invest in Louisiana, and we had a kickoff conference in 2019. And of course, sadly, the pandemic stopped some of that progress, but we are building it back. So, we have an ambassador's program. So, if you're interested in saying, "Hey, I want to call my legislature. I want to tell them about issues, but I don't have the data. I don't have the facts and figures; I don't really know what's going on." Well, you can join this program, and we give you briefings, and we say, "Hey, look, here it is, go tweet your members. Go send them an email. Here's how many people--." We have district fact sheets on our website. So, if you're interested to know how many people are receiving Medicaid or how many people got the Earned Income Tax Credit or how many people live in poverty in your legislative district to say, this is why you should raise the minimum wage, we have a fact sheet for every house and senate district, and we're about to release it for every parish as well. So those are some great ways, and so through this Invest in Louisiana because we're bringing back our conference, we'll have some new details coming out in the next few months about it, but we also just kicked off this ambassadors program. And I think it's a great way for those progressive activists who want to get involved in the legislative process, but you don't know how to channel your energy. Well, come over to the Louisiana Budget Project, and we'll help you out.
So, two things: you do a lot of the research for people who may not have time to go into all of that themselves, and you make that available to folks who want to be better informed on the issues. And then you also give them information on how to best take action to support those issues that they care about.
Absolutely. This is why at the beginning when you asked me what is Louisiana Budget Project, I said, "This is why we are a think and do tank." We think about the issues. We research about them, and we give you that information, but then we also work with you to do action and create people power in our country because, like I tell people, our work can't be important if we're centering the power of the people in power instead of building power for people.
I love that. Is there any other work you're doing now that you want people to know about?
Yeah, outside of that, the Budget Project takes up a lot of my time, actually all my time, but I am truly engaged in, and I've been working with the Foundation for Louisiana on its Racial Truth and Racial Healing Program. So, if you are some local small nonprofits, LLCs who are looking for financial support, if you're doing racial justice work, that is a great place to be tuned in. And the last plug I'll do is if you are a young person, relatively young, and you're looking at ways to enhance your progressive values, not only in politics but in the field of your choice whether that be health, whether that be business, whether that be law, come and join New Leaders Council. We are opening up applications again for a new cohort. Our cohorts have produced some amazing people; legislative leaders like Ted James and Royce Duplessis have come through New Leaders Council. We have leaders in every field. And so that's another place where I do some of my work outside of the professional job that allows you some opportunities. So, there's all kinds of places to get involved.
As always, I'll add links to the podcast notes to make it easy for people to connect to all those things you've listed there. Davante, last three questions: what do you think is the biggest obstacle for progressives in our state?
I think the biggest obstacle is uniting to organize. I think one of the challenges is because we know we are in the minority at the moment, it makes it hard to figure out who should do what, how should you what, and then I say: there's power in us uniting and just doing it. It takes groundwork. I lived in Georgia for a little bit. And I'm from Lake Charles, so I've gotten to watch Texas, and let's be real, they've gotten to the place they are because they just finally said, "You know what, let's just do the work. Let's stop trying to find the right answer. Let's stop looking for the right person. Let's stop looking for the right candidate. And let's just do the work." And when you just do the work, sometimes it proves more beneficial than anything. So, I say that's our biggest challenge is let's not try to overcomplicate it and think of the grand scheme/plan to get us in power. It's literally just saying, you know what, let's just go to communities, and let's just start talking because those conservative places that you think are conservative now may become our biggest bastions of progressives because they may be voting a certain way right now because that's what they think, but when they are seeing the work being done for the issues that they care about, they'll join forces with us.
Do the work. I like it. What's our biggest opportunity?
I think our biggest opportunity is noticing that people are engaged. Most people didn't pay attention to the ballot initiatives on the November election because we were of course watching the presidential election. And we had, of course, our senate election between Senator Cassidy and Mayor Perkins. But one thing that really stuck out to me and stuck out to the work that I do was that progressive budget and tax economic policy was the central focal point. We voted down every conservative, top-down, trickle-down economic constitutional amendment. We said no to a budget cap. We said no to more industry giveaways and changing of ICAP. So, there is economic opportunity in this state, and I think we got to channel it. We have seen the polls: 82% of our public supports a minimum wage, 80% supports paid family leave. So economic progressive policy is popular in Louisiana. We just got to force it and showcase where all of our elected officials are and then start having people talk about it because I think we underestimate how conservative we actually think our voting population is. So that's our opportunity. Let's focus in on progressive economic policy.
Love that. And who is your favorite superhero?
Oh, who's my favorite superhero? That's a good one. I often, I go back and forth in my head with this, but I'm honestly going to go with Ironman just simply because I think Iron Man represents what I think the challenges are and has the skills and the mindset of recognizing: this may not be perfect, but we're moving in the right direction. And Iron Man always, for some reason to me, just reminds me of the great quote, the quotation by Dr. Martin Luther King that the arc of justice is always bending. And we may never see it as a straight line, but it's bending, and Iron Man is someone who I think is always looking to say, "I am here, but as long as it's bending, I'm going to keep going, and I'm going to keep doing, and I'm going to keep supporting it." So that's why I'm a big Iron Man fan.
That's perfect. And I am a fan of Iron Man as well. Davante, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you for your continued fight on behalf of working people and families in Louisiana. You are very appreciated. I appreciate you. There are a lot of folks who just appreciate all you do. So thank you.
Thank you. I enjoyed it and like I tell everybody, I do the work that I do because of people like you. When I feel like I don't want to do this anymore, I'm reminded of all the work that you all are doing. And that tells me: no, I'm in the right place doing the right thing for the right reason. So I extend thanks to you as well.
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