Christopher J. Tyson, a Baton Rouge native, is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University. He earned his bachelors degree at Howard University, his masters degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and his law degree at the Georgetown University Law Center. During the last few years, Chris has emerged as an outspoken progressive advocate for a number of important issues. He’s been particularly passionate about mass transit in Louisiana, previously serving as the President of the Board for Baton Rouge’s Capital Area Transit System. In that role, he led a management and financial overhaul of the organization, and while he no longer serves on the Board, he remains an ardent supporter of mass transit in Baton Rouge. He is also a mentoring advocate and, in addition to mentoring several young men, he sits on the Board of Baton Rouge Big Buddy and is Board President of the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition. The day after Hurricane Katrina, Chris began working in Senator Mary Landrieu’s Washington, DC office, helping coordinate Congressional legislation related to disaster recovery efforts.
He is a Senior Fellow with Louisiana Progress, a member of the 2009 Leadership Louisiana class, and is a 2010 Fellow of the New Leaders Council. He has been recognized as a member of the Baton Rouge Business Report’s 2010 Top 40 Under 40, the New Leaders Council’s 2011 Top 40 Under 40, and the National Bar Association’s 2011 Top 40 Lawyers Under 40. He was also awarded the Excellence in Activism Award by the National Bar Association and Impact. Before taking a job with Senator Landrieu, Chris had worked for two years as a volunteer teacher at a Boston-area prison.
Lamar: When I was a kid, my grandmother Joanne told me, “There’s no such thing as an overachiever.” She didn’t like the word “overachiever;” she thought it was a pejorative. You can achieve, but if you’re doing good work, you can never overachieve. What do you think about the word “overachiever”?
Chris: I’m not sure that I have strong feelings towards the word. In my experience when someone is branded an “overachiever” there’s usually an undertone of cynicism. That shouldn’t necessarily be the case. Those who are able to “achieve” in the eyes of society are often providing an example for others whether they are aware or not. While we should always strive to be humble and keep our achievements in context, we should also be ready and willing to mentor others to share how we actually achieved. Many of my mentees have never had direct acess to someone who has been to graduate school or traveled abroad, so it’s important that we tell our stories and help others make choices and access resources to achieve their goals. That being said, all of the young men and women I’ve been blessed to mentor are overachievers. Everyday, they overcome incredible odds to advance their education and personal goals. So there are overachievers all around us, and if we invoke that term, we should recognize that it applies to a range of people and experiences.
Lamar: So that was a softball. I know you’re particularly interested in the ways in which race influences and intersects with politics. Louisiana has the second-highest per-capita population of African-Americans in the country, the vast majority of whom are, historically, Democratic voters. Yet there is a persistent perception that it would be very difficult for an African-American Democrat to win a statewide election, at least in our current political climate. Considering registered Democratic voters outnumber registered Republican voters in Louisiana and that around 30% of Louisianans are African-American, do you think this “persistent perception” is fundamentally flawed?
Chris: No, I don’t think the perception is flawed, but understanding it requires understanding the way race and class have historically worked and how their impact on our politics continue to evolve. For over a generation now, registered Southern Democrats– particularly in the South– have been voting Republican – mostly in national elections. There are a number of explanations for this including substantive policy differences with national politics. But we can’t ignore the role our shared legacy of race and class struggles have played. This is a key political dynamic of the post-civil rights era. Given the hyper-partisanship in national politics, African-American Democratic statewide candidates will likely continue to face challenges in the short-term. I’m encouraged by younger voters, however, and I’m confident that in the near future African-American Democratic candidates will arise who can develop viable statewide campaigns.
Lamar: Is the Louisiana Democratic Party guilty itself of supporting institutional barriers for qualified African-American candidates? For what it’s worth, it’s an accusation I’ve heard more than once. Why do you think Representative Michael Jackson defected from the Democratic Party in order to challenge Don Cazayoux’s re-election to Congress? Jackson’s campaign was supported by at least one well-known Republican donor, and to many, his campaign seemed to be based on a cynical, almost insidious attempt to exploit race, that his real intent was to help Republicans reclaim that seat. After all, the day after the election, Jackson was photographed meeting with Bill Cassidy. Was Representative Jackson being exploited, exploitative, or do you think his campaign was earnest and honest? To me, at the very least, Jackson’s campaign is a fascinating case study, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Chris: I’ve had the opportunity to work with Rep. Jackson and appreciate his leadership on a number of key issues, especially transit and redistricting. I have not spoken with him about his 2008 campaign and wouldn’t speculate on his motives. There has long been a discussion about whether the Democratic Party writ large takes the African-American vote for granted, however, and I suspect we’ll continue to have this conversation, especially in Louisiana where we have not elected an African-American statewide. If we want African-American Democratic candidates who can run successful statewide campaigns, we have to make sure that we are cultivating a diverse class of progressive leaders. Creating meaningful opportunities for true intergenerational, cross-racial political mentoring is not only wise succession planning, but it allows for organic and authentic messaging around issues of race, class and identity. Without a commitment to this type of mentoring and engagement then all we have to talk about are get-out-the-vote strategies. If this is the only time race, class and identity are discussed or acknowledged then sub-groups within the coalition will rightly feel as if they’re being taken for granted.
Lamar: You’re a champion of mass transit. After Hurricane Katrina, there was a small but vocal effort to create a commuter rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and based on the reports I’ve read, it would have been relatively inexpensive to create and maintain this line. But before the project could even get off of the ground, Governor Bobby Jindal made it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t support commuter rail. If Governor Jindal decided to give you the chance to make the case for commuter rail and mass transit, what would you tell him?
Chris: Thanks for asking this question! I think this is such an under-appreciated issue for Louisiana’s economic development future. Just to be clear, it is far from an inexpensive proposition. But transit is an investment in infrastructure – a necessary pre-condition for economic development. Federal funds have been made available for states willing to make serious investments in mass transit, which, as I understand the issue, Jindal has refused to apply for. I teach local government law and focus on these urban development issues. For the state to be globally competitive going forward, we have to adopt metropolitan strategies to connect entire regions to attract investment and grow our local economies. The state’s two largest metropolitan regions – Baton Rouge and New Orleans – together contain less than half the populations of the Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio or Austin metropolitan regions. If we’re serious about economic development statewide then we have to be serious about regional planning, which requires being serious about developing real regional infrastructure. Transit is infrastructure. Great cities are usually transportation hubs and are connected to sophisticated transit networks. We can make real progress on poverty, higher education and reversing the brain drain by investing in infrastructure for a Baton Rouge-New Orleans metropolitan region. This is why the rail is so important and why there’s bi-partisan support throughout south Louisiana for high-speed rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Lamar: If you were elected Governor tomorrow, what are the first three things you would do immediately after taking the Oath of Office?
Chris: First I would lead the development of a participatory, collaborative and transparent strategy for creating a 21st century higher education delivery model. Second, I would establish an entity devoted to implementing innovative and effective poverty reduction best practices here in Louisiana. My third focus would involve establishing statewide land use planning that would incorporate transit, disaster mitigation and inter-regional cooperation. All goals would be directed to transform Louisiana into an innovation laboratory for higher education, poverty reduction, and regional land use planning.
Lamar: Do you have hope for the future of Louisiana? If so, what gives you hope? What makes you optimistic?
Chris: I have tremendous hope and excitement for the future of our great state! This is an amazing time to be in Louisiana – we’re really building something great. I’m encouraged simply by the people who are here. Its a choice to stay here – for young people its very easy to escape to one of the major regional hubs where there are more and higher paying jobs, diverse populations and tons of lifestyle options. While I think Louisiana has a lot to offer in these regards, we have to do more to attract new talent. But those who are here are bright, visionary, dedicated and persistent. We’re building a great state. The future is incredibly bright!
Lamar: You’re a college professor. If you had to write a syllabus of required reading for every single Louisiana citizen, what would you include?
Chris: This is a hard question because there’s so much to include. A short list would include A People’s History of the United States, Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics, Edwin Edward: An Authorized Biography, and The Great Reset. There’s so much to recommend that its hard to answer this question without feeling woefully inadequate. But this is a start….