Andrew Tuozzolo is the Chief of Staff to Senator Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans). He received a Bachelors of Arts in Economics and History from Boston College and a law degree from Tulane University Law School. Currently, Andrew lives in the Aububon Riverside Neighborhood of New Orleans. You can follow him or contact him on Twitter @atuozzolo.
Lamar: I follow you on Twitter, and I’d bet we probably agree on the vast majority of issues. You and I are both white, politically-active Democrats from Louisiana in their late 20s. So, let’s start this interview on the deep end. Personally, I believe that there are some lingering, residual, and institutional divisions between white Louisiana Democrats and African-American Louisiana Democrats and that those divisions are too often exploited to the party’s own detriment. But during the last six years, as I’ve met young Louisiana progressives across this state, both black and white, I’ve come to believe that these divisions may be waning, that there’s a generational shift in the ways in which people interpret the “institution” of race and racial identity. To me, it’s encouraging. Most recently, Louisiana elected the first Indian-American Governor, a Republican, in the nation’s history, yet there seems to be a perception at least that it would be nearly impossible for an African-American Democrat to be elected to almost any statewide office. What are the root causes of this perception? After all, Louisiana is over 30% African-American. Do you have hope in our generation’s capacity to eliminate race from the political equation?
Andrew: I’ll confront the questions in reverse order, if you don’t mind. I think the inevitable answer to “whether we will eliminate race from the political equation” is absolutely not. That said, I suggest that the prism through which we view racial politics will shift dramatically in the next 20 years. I think several factors are at play here.
The first, I think, is the generational thought separation of the children of the post-civil rights era folks. I largely agree that among younger people, the question of whether someone is black, or white, or part of a distinct community and committed to tribe-mentality (zero-sum: if they get it, we don’t and vice-versa), is going to fade in importance. It already has, and I think young people of all races often reflexively reject the typical racial politics of their parents. This does not suggest that the race question, which is of extreme import in today’s politics in Louisiana (in fact, it is often the threshold question) will not continue to linger. Louisiana is, due to its history, circumstance, and economy, behind many other parts of the county, including the New South, on issues of race relations. So I think this gets better, and Louisiana has hopes of massive improvement along these lines because we’re so far behind.
The second factor that will shape the race question in the future will be demographics. The very phrase, “the race question,” today inherently commits one into conversation about a binary choice, i.e. what do blacks want, what do whites want. However, demographics in Louisiana are shifting. Perhaps not on the same scale as Texas or Florida, but at some point, there will be several State Lege seats that are Latino-majority (in fact, there is nearly an available one now in Jefferson Parish that was not drawn).
Then the question is: to what degree does that upset the current paradigm? When combined with decaying reliance on traditional racial divisions, what emerges? All over the country, there will be a new brand of politics coming from a different point of view that has the potential to upset the standard partisan lines unlike anything we’ve experienced. I won’t engage in prognostication, only to say I see tomorrow’s racial politics as very dissimilar to today’s environment, and influenced by very different things.
So I believe the divisions are waning, or at least there is a recognition that a certain stalemate has been achieved in the struggle between ideologies that are often embodied by race. We’re living through the final vestiges 20th century racial politics in Louisiana, and although due to traditions and discrimination, it will never disappear entirely, the circumstances that maintain the lines of demarcation will be fading away, at least in my opinion.
But what about electing African-Americans statewide? I think it’s definitely possible, and perhaps even probable, that Louisiana will have an African-American elected Statewide in the future. I think an African-American Republican could probably do it right now, if the margins held as they currently are (approximately 51-54% solid Republican vote in the past 5-6 years statewide across most offices). I believe that Louisiana will do it (and mind you, do it again) in the not too distant future. I do think some folks in Louisiana are uncomfortable electing others of a different race, for whatever reasons they harbor internally. That’s not a sustainable or productive view. You could partially assign the result of this type of politics to many of the devastating issues Louisiana faces today: from poverty, to access to healthcare, to public education. Bottom line is that it’s not results-oriented. If you want to sit in your camps and hear your own thoughts echoed back from one another, that’s your prerogative; you won’t see progress, and you won’t make a better Louisiana.
Lamar: A few years ago, Don Cazayoux, after beating State Representative Michael Jackson in the primary and Republican Woody Jenkins in the run-off, was elected to the United States Congress. His election made national news, because it demonstrated the ways in which Democrats could make in-roads in historically conservative districts. When Cazayoux ran for re-election, Michael Jackson ran against him again, but this time, as an Independent. Many saw Jackson’s decision as a vindictive and calculated effort at siphoning African-American votes from Congressman Cazayoux. Jackson did not seem to wage a serious campaign, but if the goal was to split up the Democratic base along racial lines in order to hand the seat back to a Republican, it worked. Ryan at The Daily Kingfish did a tremendous job covering this story. He demonstrated the ways in which people like Lane Grigsby donated thousands of dollars to the Republican challenger, Bill Cassidy, while simultaneously buying billboards all over Baton Rouge in support of Michael Jackson. Then, the day after Cassidy was elected, he and Jackson were photographed having coffee together at a Baton Rouge coffeeshop. What lessons should Democrats in Louisiana learn from this? They lost a Congressional seat, after all.
Andrew: Anyone that thought that Michael Jackson wasn’t being pushed along by folks who didn’t want to see Cazayoux re-elected are not being honest. Funny fact: Politics is one of those games that people always play to win. And just like water rushing around a levee, looking for a weak spot, if there are tactics that are within the law (or even in a gray area), you can expect that those who want to win will use them. Be ready for anything. Now, dividing your opponents’ vote isn’t a new tactic, but it can be an effective one. And even if Jackson had had every intention of actually winning that seat, it’s hard to argue that his entry wasn’t the sole cause of Cazayoux’s defeat.
This says a lot about coalition politics, insomuch as it was Jackson who, as a nominal Democrat, divided Democratic votes, and especially African-American Democratic votes. Now, this is always a problem for Democrats: What binds us together? How do we coalesce around issues and policy in a way that secures consistent victories? How do you make the case that voting for the strongest Democrat, white or black, is better than voting for the candidate you are most familiar with or at least more comfortable with? Democrats talk about getting on the same page, but when it comes down to brass tacks, winning isn’t always the priority. And maybe that’s a healthy way to run a community. But it’s not a productive way to win political campaigns.
I think this is a great example of the big tent that Democrats must hold together, in Louisiana especially– core Democratic constituencies, labor, African-Americans, liberals, Women, environmentalists, etc.
Will different groups believe that their issues will be addressed, even if not primarily, over time with a Democratic candidate? Do they believe that a candidate they support will even advocate on behalf of them when the time comes? That’s a big problem with many Democratic candidates in Louisiana. Maybe they have a (D), but do they actually want to go to bat for progressive values and ideals? Do they make a positive case for why progressive policies work?
It’s about messaging and about genuineness. Sure, we know what to say about middle-class jobs, education, healthcare, and opportunity. But who is it that’s conveying the message. We haven’t had genuine messengers that strongly appealed to heterogenous constituencies in a long time. Perhaps the last one was Governor Edwards. But there are others. I think Mayor Landrieu obviously has that type of talent, for example.
Lamar: This year, your boss, Senator Carter-Peterson attempted to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act. It was an issue you covered personally through Twitter, so I know you probably worked on this professionally as well. Much of the news coverage, including the coverage I published on my website, focused on our young friend Zack Kopplin. I know that sometimes, it takes a high school student like Zack to make the adults realize that they’re wrong. I also know this is a controversial issue, even though I think it shouldn’t be. What’s your take? The Times-Picayune said Zack “got nowhere.” Do you think that is accurate? Do you think this is an issue our legislators should lead on? And why do you think the Louisiana Family Forum has been so successful in promoting the LSEA?
Andrew: I don’t think it’s at all accurate or fair to say Zack “got nowhere.”
Zack is a high-school student from Baton Rouge who- through perseverance and dedication- got the attention and endorsement of just about every major scientific coalition in the country, not to mention the backing of 43 nobel laureates (now 44). For those of you scoring at home, Nobel Laureates are a really big deal. They’re the Drew Brees’ of science (and math, economics, etc.), except better. And don’t forget the thousands upon thousands of teachers, scientists, and regular folks that signed the petition supporting the teaching of science in science classrooms.
Now I’m familiar with the general dismissal of folks with letters “behind their names” and international recognition. Unfortunately, those who tend to dismiss empirical evidence tend to end up wrong. Many of the folks that have a problem with science aren’t being honest with themselves. The fact is, everyone can have an opinion, but they can’t have their own facts. And Zack’s going to win because he’s simply got the facts on his side. Big time.
It gets really fun when you start talking to the business and technology folks. They understand better than anyone the importance of science education for our future. The LSEA is just another law that helps keep Louisiana near the bottom of the pile. It tells others that we don’t want to win.
In emerging economies, like China and India, they’re not sitting around wasting time debating whether they should teach science in science classrooms. They’re moving full-speed ahead with innovation and research to create the next big thing. Why? Because that’s what’s going to make them money and get them jobs.
So, the moral is, we should be thanking Zack for fighting back against these regressive laws like the LSEA. Whether some politicians know it or not, he’s doing them a favor by fighting for our future and giving hope that we’ll be able to produce opportunities with cutting-edge, high-paying jobs. That’s better for everyone.
Legislators should be running to Zack, because despite how fundamentally correct Zack is on the issue, they have to weather the considerable political muscle of LSEA-supporters. It’s important to realize that regular folks in Louisiana probably don’t want consequences of the LSEA, but they haven’t had a champion to focus their energies on this type of dangerous legislation. Laws like the LSEA get passed because the only people that care about them are the extremists. In 2008, almost no one paid attention to the law in the legislature, because it was written to seem as ecumenical as possible. However, as we can plainly read, the bill’s obvious purpose is to open the door for creationism and other nonsense to be taught in science class. The quieter that the extremists can keep their work, the better their success rate. Now that Zack has rightfully raised awareness of the issue, I think we’ll eventually see the LSEA’s repeal.
The LSEA is bad for business, it’s bad for science and it’s bad for our children. And Zack’s going to beat it.
Lamar: Would you ever consider running for office?
Andrew: Not likely. I don’t think running for office should be something you pursue. You have to be called to serve by your neighbors, your friends and your community.
Lamar: I’m asking everyone this. What are the first three things you would immediately do if you were Governor?
Andrew: Now this is definitely just me, and not reflective of anyone else’s views, but:
– Call a constitutional convention where, among other things, I would call to eliminate the Governor’s patronage by eliminating 99% of all State Boards and Commission; reform the tax code and eliminate almost all tax credits while lowering the relative rates;
– Open the Governor’s Office with transparency via executive order. All applicable records would be publicly available for the current and previous administrations;
– Reverse nearly everything Jindal has done on Healthcare, cancel privatization contracts, revive a reformed charity system (perhaps even through something like making medicare available for all through the options available through ACA).
There’s so much more. Reform Higher Education, shifting more schools into Community and Technical System, investing heavily in the port of south Louisiana and New Orleans to create a world-scale modern containerized port, opening a film school at LSU, passing marriage equality, reforming DEQ and giving it some teeth, order the AG to drop the suit over ACA, etc.
Lamar: Can Barack Obama win Louisiana? I recently read he has a higher approval rating in Texas than Rick Perry. Why isn’t Louisiana on his map?
Andrew: No, Louisiana is likely out of the question. I think Obama has a better shot in several other Southern states, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. The way Republicans have successfully cast the President (and a way local Democrats have been helpless to counter), I think it’d be impossible for Obama to win a majority of Louisianians over. It’s not his actual policy-making, but rather a concocted perception full of innuendo and falsehoods that drives Obama’s unpopularity. And of course the oil industry’s incredibly successful political attack over the BP oil disaster’s after-effects, or the moratorium. Obama has been a rather historically moderate President, but because he is perceived to be different (racially, biographically, temperamentally), he cannot win Louisiana over. Whether it’s his name, or his unorthodox journey, his presidency will never be given a fair shake on the merits. I’m recognizing by saying it’s all spin and no substance that the right-wing will immediately, and breathlessly, point to several “horrible” and “socialist” policies that he supports. But I’ve watched it pretty closely, and if anything, Obama is very H.W. Bush-esqe. The political and economic climate is just incredibly toxic, and I won’t begin to retread the various influences leading to these circumstances. He’s made a mistake by being a little less populist than he had room to be. But I think the reality is that he needs some cooperation from corporate America to make anything work. And so, he’s tread a middle path.
Needless to say, Texas ain’t Louisiana. Obama won around 39% of the vote in 2008. His approval rating is probably around 37-41% in Louisiana. So he’s basically been stationary. When you think about it, that isn’t half bad. Texas is going to be a purple state by 2020. Demographics make that a guarantee.
Lamar: Jazzfest or Voodoofest?
Andrew: Jazzfest. Although City Park is a much better venue for a fest.
Lamar: Who is the greatest living Louisianan?
Dr. John, without a doubt. A close second is Wynton Marsalis.
Andrew: Lamar: Am I making a huge mistake going to law school?
Absolutely, but I already told you that.
Lamar: Finally, what’s the last book you read?
Andrew: I’m going to mention one that I find important, and highly recommend: Winner-Take-All Politics. Great book on modern political circumstances and how it all fits together.