Progressives in Louisiana’s Legislature break down their stances on criminal justice reform, minimum wage increase

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Rep. Matthew Willard, standing with a policeman in New Orleans, is one of the progressives in the Legislature (Photo courtesy of Willard).

BATON ROUGE–Of the 144 seats in the Louisiana Legislature, Democrats hold 47, and even fewer of those members espouse progressive ideas.

At the federal level, progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders advocate for higher minimum wages, universal health care and criminal justice reform and expect to make some headway toward their goals under the Biden administration. But in red Louisiana, the few progressives often find themselves having to moderate their stances as their ideas rarely make it through the Republican-run Legislature.

Most of the dozen or so progressive members belong to the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and represent lower-to-middle income parts of the state’s biggest cities.

“There’s a lot of lobbyists representing special interests, but the people of Louisiana don’t have anyone representing them at the table,” said Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans. “There’s no high-paid lobbyists representing the people.”

Rep. Matthew Willard, standing with a policeman in New Orleans, is one of the progressives in the Legislature (Photo courtesy of Willard).

Willard was elected in 2019, as was Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, another progressive.

“A lot of members in Baton Rouge — I think they just don’t understand me,” she said. “I’m like an alien to them.”

Rep. Mandie Landry, left, was on the campaign trail with Democratic State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (Photo courtesy of Landry).

In the legislative session that started Monday, Willard is pushing for easier access to midwives to help bring down the state’s high maternal and infant mortality rates. He also wants to establish a state income tax credit for parents with children under 18.

The progressives also support other proposals, like increasing the minimum wage, that would benefit the white working class, even though many of its members vote Republican. They also are seeking changes in the criminal justice system and hoping to bring more voters over to their side.

MINIMUM WAGE

The division between moderate Democrats and progressives recently appeared on the federal level when eight Senate Democrats voted against a proposal in Washington to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Louisiana is one of five states that does not have a minimum wage set at the state level, and the federal one has not risen since 2009.

“About half of Louisiana’s workforce would have seen a pay increase if the federal minimum wage would have increased to $15 an hour,” Willard said. Louisiana defaults to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a fact that Willard said is “totally unacceptable.”

Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said a low minimum wage creates negative societal impacts.

“To me it seems to make more sense that we would want to ensure that people have a living wage, so they can work one good job to take care of family, be at home in the evening and help with homework or help with Little League, so that kids aren’t out breaking into cars,” he said.

Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, met with Vice President Kamala Harris (Photo courtesy of Duplessis).

Gov. John Bel Edwards has tried several times to establish a state minimum wage as high as $10 an hour but has failed to get the votes given GOP opposition. He plans to try again this year, but Landry does not think he will succeed.

“I think it’s more likely going to happen on a federal level, especially with the Democrat majorities. I just don’t see it happening in our state,” she said.

Jan Moller, executive director of the nonprofit Louisiana Budget Project, said that polls since 2012 have shown broad support across party lines, age and race in Louisiana for raising the minimum wage. But the bill usually dies in the House Labor Committee, where lobbyists from the restaurant and other low-wage industries oppose it.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

Another focal point for progressives is to push for more changes in the state’s criminal justice system.

Stung that Louisiana had become the incarceration capital of the world and by the cost of housing for so many inmates, Democrats and Republicans agreed in 2017 to let thousands of non-violent offenders out of jail.

But, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Louisiana in 2019 still had the highest incarceration rate of any state, with 683 incarcerated per 100,000 residents. The following states are Oklahoma with a rate of 639 and Mississippi with 636.

“We warehouse more people in prison than anywhere else, and I think it’s one reason we stay impoverished here,” Landry said. “It’s a waste of resources, in the sense of we’re wasting money on jails, but we’re also wasting our actual people.”

“It’s not like people from Louisiana are any more dangerous than people anywhere else,” she added. “There is nothing in the water that makes people in Louisiana commit more crimes.”

Duplessis wants to change that Louisiana is one of six states that sentences criminals to life without parole. According to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., Louisiana held 4,377 prisoners on life sentences without parole in 2020. That equates to 14% of the prison population, tied for the highest in the country with Massachusetts.

“I don’t believe everybody should be released, but I do believe everybody should have the opportunity to come up for review, to assess whether or not they have rehabilitated themselves,” said Duplessis.

“We are a state that promotes Christian values in our faith,” he added. “And part of Christian values, the last time I checked, is believing in redemption. I want us to have a conversation around the issue of redemption.”

SELLING THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY

“The Democratic Party in Louisiana can do a better job at our messaging in letting the people of Louisiana know that we are working on their behalf,” Willard said.

In a conservative state, Democrats are often hurt by cultural and religious issues, like their party’s pro-choice stance on abortion. Willard sees Louisiana Democrats as more diverse.

Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, introduced a bill in 2019, for instance, that outlawed abortion after a heartbeat was detected. Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the U.S. who is pro-life, signed the bill into law.

“We have always been a big tent party,” Willard said. “We’re not the type of party where if you disagree or dissent, which is at the heart of American democracy, that you’re going to be censored or called out. I think that’s anti-democratic.”

Landry, one of the few white progressive Democrats in the Legislature, is fervently pro-choice. Landry also has authored a bill for the 2021 session that would decriminalize prostitution. Her bill would help individuals who are being trafficked or encounter violence during consensual sex go to the police without the threat of being arrested.

Landry thinks she seems alien to other lawmakers not just because of her ideas but because she is one of only 26 women in the Legislature.

“As much support as I get from my district, I get stuff thrown at me elsewhere,” she said. “It’s mostly from men, mostly from white men, but not entirely. I get a little bit from white women around the state. But it’s a lot.”

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