Brigid Bergin: It's the first day of Black History Month and we're bringing back our special series, Black Queer Rising.
All Month we're talking with Black LGBTQ-elected officials, changemakers, artists, activists, and influencers, and exploring all the intersections of Black queer excellence.
According to the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which trains and advocates for political candidates and office holders, the number of LGBTQ people holding political office doubled in the past six years.
Despite this increase, the Victory Institute also reports that as of 2022, queer people account for only 0.2% of elected public office holders. That's far short of the more than it's 7% of the population that identifies as LGBTQ.
Even though it's 2023, many Black queer elected officials are making contemporary Black history as the firsts. In November 2022, Davante Lewis became the first Black openly LGBTQ public official elected to state government in Louisiana. Davante, welcome to The Takeaway.
Davante Lewis: Thank you for having me.
Brigid Bergin: Davante, you were elected Public Service Commissioner. First, what does a Louisiana Public Service Commissioner do?
Davante Lewis: The Louisiana Public Service Commission is an elected body of five members who represent over a million people each and we are utility regulators. We regulate electricity, sewage, water, pipelines, interstate commerce, taxi cabs, trucking. We are really the body that is the start of the investments in renewable energy and so we are one of 11 elected utility commissions across the nation.
Most are appointed by their legislator or their governor. [unintelligible 00:01:52] Louisiana were the only constitutionally created body, which means the legislative branch. To an extent, the judicial branch has no control over us. We are completely independent. It's by far one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful utility commission in the nation.
Brigid Bergin: Wow. I'm struck. A million people you are representing. That number did not go by me [chuckles] without making the impression. Davante, can you tell me about the rate payers' bill of rights and what difference this could make for ordinary citizens in Louisiana?
Davante Lewis: Absolutely. Louisiana is one of the most impoverished state in the nation, actually the most impoverished state in the nation where our average annual income is 47,000 people. My district stretches from the start of the part of the Mississippi River in East Baton Rouge Parish. I run through what is called the River Parishes along the Mississippi River and I end up with almost all of the city of New Orleans. We know that poverty is prevalent here, especially among Black and brown individuals.
My district is 60% Black and so what the rate payers' bill of rights was talking about was ensuring that in utility regulations, we talked about consumer protection. That is putting a moratorium on utility service cutoffs because we know utilities, in my view, are a human right. You should have a right to a cool house in the summer and a warm house in the winter. It was about reigning in the excessive late fees. This bill of rights is about reigning in and really centering people and not utility companies and large corporations and determining how services are delivered to the people.
Brigid Bergin: Davante, can you tell me a little bit more about your background? Where'd you grow up?
Davante Lewis: Yes. I am a Louisianan boy. I was born and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is on the western side of the state. I've been a big just community activist. I got my start when I was President Obama's Louisiana High School coordinator. I worked getting high school students to make calls in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina to really say yes we can and then from there just kept my community involvement up. I ran for school board at the age of 18. I then stayed very active in higher education, was a student body president for two years at my college in Louisiana.
Then I took a break. [chuckles] I needed a pause and so I became an elementary school teacher teaching our young boys and girls. I returned back to Louisiana where I currently work at the Louisiana Budget Project, which is a non-partisan non-profit policy think-and-do tank that works on issues that really affect low and moderate-income families. We want to eradicate poverty and we want to ensure that Louisiana is a place that has racial justice. That's the work I'm doing and that's what propelled me into this race.
Brigid Bergin: Hold on with me for one sec, Davante. We're going to be right back in just a moment. It's The Takeaway. It's The Takeaway and we're back with Black Queer Rising on this first day of Black History Month 2023. Still with me is Davante Lewis, District 3 public commissioner in Louisiana. Davante, I have to say, Louisiana politics has a bit of a reputation. Even in your own election, there were reports about how big energy tried to use big money to support your opponent. How do you want to go about tackling this kind of corruption real or perceived?
Davante Lewis: Absolutely. I think it is a shame in the state of Louisiana that the industry that we regulate on the Public Service Commission are legally allowed to donate to us. Think about that. Your utility company can donate up to $10,000 to a candidate who could potentially win election to regulate them. I just think that is just a breach of trust with the public.
I am working diligently to introduce a bill in our state legislature to enshrine that in state law, but I'm also looking at an internal rule in the Public Service Commission that says if you are a sitting commissioner on the commission, you are not allowed to take a campaign donation from an entity that you regulate because it doesn't make sense. I think the public sees that as something that just shouldn't be done.
Brigid Bergin: I want to talk a little bit more about your race for a moment. That incumbent at Lambert Boissiere easily won the crowded nonpartisan jungle primary, but then you, a newcomer, won with nearly 60% of the vote in the general election runoff. How'd you do it?
Davante Lewis: We had a strategy from day one that this was about mobilizing people and making sure that we connected with people. We were in every community. We were on every platform and we were talking about the issues that really mattered to people. I think for so long these races have gone with whoever has the most money, who has the governor and the congressman and the former congressman as their endorsers, and just ignored the suffering of people.
What we did is we knew that it was going to be very hard to win in round one, as you talked about Louisiana as a jungle primary and so we were very strategic that we needed somewhere between 20 to 15 percentage points to get in that runoff. When we had that one-on-one match and we could talk about those issues and make a contrast about the future of Louisiana we could do it. We worked with grassroots organizations.
We worked with people like the Sierra Club and DSA and Sunrise Movement of New Orleans. We had our religious folks and together Louisiana, which brings together a bunch of pastors. We had voters organized to educate an organization that's made up of formally incarcerated people who are making a difference in their society. When we all joined forces together, we were able to beat back the establishment, the machine, and industry for too long who have controlled Louisiana politics.
Brigid Bergin: Davante, let me go ahead and ask the question. How are you feeling about being the history-making first?
Davante Lewis: It's a wild feeling. You don't want to center yourself in history because you are in this movement to do the work. I don't take this lightly. I understand that my success breeds success for other people which means I am more dedicated and more committed to the work that I was elected to do because I know when you become the first, you hold the baton for everybody else.
If you do bad, then maybe you shouldn't have a Black person in office, maybe you shouldn't have someone as young as me, maybe you shouldn't have someone from the LGBTQIA population. While I feel the gratitude that I was able to break a barrier, I also feel the public responsibility to ensure that I just do the job so we don't have these barriers for the person behind me.
Brigid Bergin: Louisiana along with Mississippi and Alabama have never elected an out Black queer person to the state legislature. What are you hoping your candidacy and victory will mean in this region of the country?
Davante Lewis: I think the South is rising. I think the showcases that a new South is on the horizon and I think for too long the South has been identified as a place based off of its typical white Christian extremism that has dictated our political system in our conversation. What I'm hoping is that this shows that when we just connect with people, we can do this. I didn't just win the Black vote, I won the white vote in this race. I won up and down the district one, even in conservative areas in my district as well as some of the most liberal parts of the state of Louisiana.
What I hope this shows is that when we just commit ourselves to the race and don't let people define what is electable, and who can be electable, we can make change. I think it is the changing of the guard. It is changing of the narrative of who a candidate can be, who a candidate should be, and letting the people of our communities have a voice. When they have a voice, I think a lot of barriers can be broken.
Brigid Bergin: Davante, you are inevitably going to inspire other people, but who were or are some of your inspirations?
Davante Lewis: Oh, absolutely. When I think about this moment, and where I've gotten, I think about people who laid the groundwork. I often say, so many laid the foundation for me, and I'm just working on the building. I think of the intellectual fight that James Baldwin led for so long, that kind of set my mindset and my theory. I think of community activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, who decided just to challenge the system, whether it was people who naturally wanted to agree with her or people who are adversarial to her.
I think where I got inaugurated at the Louisiana Old State Capitol, and right outside of that Capitol was the plaque where the first bus boycott started in 1953, right here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I held, so I think about all 10 of those. Pastor T.J. Jemison, who really sparked a movement.
If we were looking at Black history knows that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King look to Baton Rouge for the Montgomery bus boycott. To live two blocks from their house, to get inaugurated from the bus stop of the Baton Rouge bus boycott which sparked the civil rights movement in this nation, those are the people that really guide me into the history of what foundation we have laid and how do I continue to build on that history that so many have laid for me.
Brigid Bergin: Davante Lewis, Public Service Commissioner for Louisiana's Third District is the state's first Black, openly LGBTQ+ elected state official. Davante, thank you for joining The Takeaway.
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